When a reporter asked President Biden last week if there should be any restrictions on abortion, the president got saucy.
“In Roe v. Wade. Read it man. You’ll get educated,” Biden said before hastily walking off to board Marine One on the White House South Lawn.
It was a moment that reflected Biden’s punchiness with the midterms quickly approaching and with the prospects of Democrats losing at least one chamber of Congress. Increasingly, Biden has shown off his more unscripted and candid side, something he has held back throughout his presidency.
The president has largely stuck to the script since taking office nearly two years ago, rarely veering off message during larger, more publicized events. But with his approval ratings hovering around 41 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight, he is resorting to the looser verbal tactics he employed as senator and vice president.
In some ways, it’s similar to the approach taken by his political rival, former President Trump, who frequently feeds his crowds and online supporters exactly what they want: unvarnished attacks on his foes.
And Biden’s allies applaud the president’s plucky tone.
“The thing is, it works for him,” said one longtime Biden ally. “I like the punchier side of Joe Biden, and it runs against that bullshit narrative of him being ‘sleepy Joe Biden.’ ”
On Friday, Biden responded abruptly to a question about Trump’s longtime adviser, Stephen Bannon, being sentenced to prison for contempt to Congress.
“I’ve never had a reaction to Steve Bannon,” Biden retorted.
A day earlier, he bashed Republican Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz before donors at a Philadelphia fundraiser, saying that his home state of Delaware was “smart enough to send him to New Jersey,” a reference to carpetbagging allegations that have plagued the Pennsylvania hopeful.
Biden, who rarely mentions Trump by name, also called him out in remarks to the Democratic National Committee on Monday, telling volunteers, “because you exercised your vote, Donald Trump was the defeated former president of the United States.”
He’s also been using the phrase “MAGA Republicans” throughout the midterm cycle to paint some conservatives as extreme, and this week he’s added “Mega MAGA trickle-down” to describe GOP economic policies.
And Biden of late hasn’t just been feistier. He’s also gone back to his tendencies of being more candid, particularly in smaller venues with a captive audience.
During those receptions, the room is usually full of big donors, longtime Democrats and hardcore supporters of the president, while reporters are allowed into the room to take notes on the president’s remarks.
In a recent string of fundraisers — without the presence of teleprompters and television cameras — Biden has provided glimpses of his “Uncle Joe” persona, offering the crowd his views on everything from the state of the Republican Party to the risks of nuclear “Armageddon” springing from the Ukraine war.
“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” he said earlier this month, while speaking at the home of James and Kathryn Murdoch.
“We’ve got a guy I know fairly well,” Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He’s not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons because his military is, you might say, significantly underperforming.”
At another fundraising event in Los Angeles this month, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the crowd, Biden also swiped at the press.
“There are no editors anymore,” he said. “The ability of newspapers to have much impact is de minimis.”
A noticeable uptick in the asides began in late August when Biden went after Republicans.
“What we’re seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy,” he said, before completely unleashing. “It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to stay something — it’s like semi-fascism.”
Steve Schale, a longtime Biden ally who ran the super PAC Unite the Country that supported him, said the moments of candor work for Biden and play to his strengths.
“I think he gets the media better than he gets credit for, and there are moments that he wants to get out there that are better to do than from behind the podium,” Schale said. “I believe he absolutely knows what he’s doing.”
Speaking candidly and off-the-cuff, however, hasn’t always been a good strategy for Biden, who is known to make gaffes. But that’s the Biden that Democrats want to see, they say.
“As the president in public settings, Biden tends to want to appear statesman-like. As a campaigner in a more political setting, Biden is not afraid to be more ‘direct’ in expressing his views about the opposition,” said former Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.), a Biden ally.
“Biden is a consummate politician, and understands that in purely political settings, his audiences sometimes want an unscripted, unfiltered message,” Carney said.
Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau, who served as an aide to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said Biden is at his best when he’s not in front of a lectern and he’s “just Joe.”
“It’s one of the reasons people elected him in the first place,” Mollineau said. “I understand the need to script politicians and the need for message discipline.”
“But sometimes you’ve just got to let politicians go with their instincts,” he added.