Grim Campaign Strategies: Biden, Macron, and Sunak's Fight for Survival

Global leaders like President Joe Biden and counterparts across Europe are sounding increasingly dire warnings about the potential return of polarizing figures and ideologies

by Sededin Dedovic
Grim Campaign Strategies: Biden, Macron, and Sunak's Fight for Survival
© WPA Pool / Getty Images

Even at a dazzling Hollywood fundraiser, President Joe Biden's message was grim. Speaking from the stage last weekend, Biden addressed the possibility of former President Donald Trump making additional Supreme Court appointments as "one of the scariest parts" of a potential Republican return to power.

First Lady Jill Biden went further, warning that Trump seeks "absolute power" and aims to "destroy democratic safeguards that stand in his way," as Politico's analysis recalls. These comments reflect the increasingly ominous tone of Biden's latest campaign ads, which invoke the January 6th riots, warn "Trump is ready to burn it all down," and label him a "convicted criminal." Biden's team is on the offensive.

And they are not alone. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are resorting to sharp attacks on their opponents, telling voters in dystopian terms how bad things could get if their adversaries win. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has warned that far-right and far-left candidates would bring "the impoverishment of the country." Across the Channel in Britain, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has launched a nearly negative campaign against the surging Labour Party.

The three leaders represent different ideologies, cultures, and generations. But they have one thing in common: all three are unpopular.
Their acerbic campaigns match a political atmosphere defined by frustration and fear.

"When voters are grumpy and angry, they don't want to hear about sunshine and rainbows," said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster who worked on Bernie Sanders' presidential campaigns. "When voters become defiant, they don't want to hear a positive story, you have to switch gears, burn the ground." In the hope of clarifying the stakes in the elections for voters, these leaders are also telegraphing increasing desperation.

They have struggled to convince voters with an affirmative argument for their own ideas; now they are scrambling to break through before it's too late. In the United States and France, voters are disgusted enough with the political status quo that they are more willing to support parties and politicians once considered far outside the mainstream.

In both countries, far-right candidates are campaigning on nearly apocalyptic rhetoric about immigration, security, and national sovereignty, often with draconian policies to match. Since Macron called for snap parliamentary elections on June 30 following the far-right's dominant performance in the EU elections, his allies have been sounding the alarm about Marine Le Pen's National Rally party.

Macron and other centrists are largely attacking hardline alternative parties rather than campaigning for their own unpopular platform. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal earlier this week predicted an "economic disaster" in the event of a far-right or far-left victory.

And Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire — a pillar of Macron's liberal party — was even more blunt, lamenting that "the country is going to hell" and accusing Le Pen of devising a "purely and simply Marxist" program that would wreck the economy.

Le Pen, like Trump, regularly espouses anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views, praises Russian President Vladimir Putin, and questions France's involvement in NATO and its longstanding alliances with other democratic nations, especially the United States.

A victory in the snap election would be a seismic event in French politics. Matt Bennett, a leader of the centrist American think tank Third Way, said in an interview that Biden and Macron were right to speak sharply to voters about the implications of a potential far-right election.

"This is not Mitt Romney. This is not the right-center we've seen in Europe," Bennett said. "They fundamentally want to change what it means to live in a democratic state and that gets people's blood up." In the United Kingdom, where polls show the Tories are headed for defeat in the snap elections on July 4, Sunak is trying to scare the public away from returning the center-left Labour Party to power.

The Conservatives have made wild accusations, including the false suggestion that Labour wants to abolish the British royal family. Unlike Macron and Biden, however, Sunak does not have an ideologically extreme foil against which to campaign: Labour leader Keir Starmer may be most controversial for his purge of ultra-leftist forces from the front of the party.

French President Emmanuel Macron greets Britains Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Elysee Palace© Pool / Getty Images

This may be why Sunak appears the most desperate of the three struggling leaders — and why every political indicator in Britain points to a big loss.

When Sunak last month announced the shock snap election, he promised to offer voters a bold vision of the future based on his party's 14-year legacy in government. Within hours, the attacks on his opponents began. Initially, he portrayed Starmer as a "flip-flopper" ready to say anything to secure power.

The Conservatives' opening salvo included a slick video ad depicting Starmer as several versions of a Ken doll, joking that he "comes in any color." Next came a series of largely fabricated warnings about Labour's alleged plans to raise taxes by £2,000 per household.

Finally, the Tories claimed a vote for their rival Reform UK — a right-wing party led by Nigel Farage — would hand Labour a generational victory. The Tories even accused Starmer of planning to rig future elections once in power by giving votes to "immigrants and everyone else." Midway through the campaign, Politico's analysis showed that nearly 95 percent of the Conservatives' £500,000 (approximately $635,000) spent on Meta platforms — which includes Facebook and Instagram — was used on attack ads.

In the U.S., Biden and his allies seem less certainly doomed than Sunak, largely because their opponents are so politically divided. And in France, turnout could be higher in the upcoming national elections than it was in the EU elections on June 9.

Le Pen's party triumphed in that vote after framing it as a way for voters to send a message to Macron. Macron and his allies hope voters will think twice about voting for Le Pen's coalition when the stakes hit closer to home.

However, polls suggest this looks like wishful thinking; there is a real danger that France's liberal centrists could be wiped out next month. Source: Politico

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