Biden Talks Reproductive Rights : The NPR Politics Podcast For decades, President Biden has shied away from talking about reproductive rights, but in this election cycle it's a centerpiece of the Democratic Party. We discuss Biden's message and how Democrats across the country are rallying around women's reproductive healthcare.

This episode: political correspondents Danielle Kurtzleben & Susan Davis, and White House correspondent Deepa Shivaram.

Our producers are Casey Morell & Kelli Wessinger. Our editor is Erica Morrison. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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Biden Talks Reproductive Rights

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ANDREW: This is Andrew (ph) from San Diego, Calif. I'm currently hanging out with my new 6-week-old kitten, Lunu (ph), who was rescued from the side of the road. This podcast was recorded at...

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

11:08 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, January 24.

ANDREW: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I'm still going to be loving on this little fuzzball. OK, Lunu, can you say, enjoy the show?

(SOUNDBITE OF KITTEN PURRING)

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: (Laughter).

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Aww (ph).

ANDREW: That's close enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DAVIS: That is one purry (ph) kitty.

KURTZLEBEN: How warm and wholesome.

SHIVARAM: That was well-translated.

KURTZLEBEN: Hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover the presidential campaign.

SHIVARAM: I'm Deepa Shivaram. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

KURTZLEBEN: President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris made their first joint campaign appearance yesterday in Virginia for a reproductive rights rally. They were joined by Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, who told the crowd that abortion is not just a women's issue. It's everyone's issue. Meanwhile, First Lady Jill Biden recounted the story of a friend in high school who became pregnant, and Jill Biden warned the crowd of how the nation was returning to a time of shame, secrecy, silence, danger and even death. Deepa, abortion is clearly a really, really big topic. It has been in the last couple of national elections. So let's talk about this. Vice President Harris spoke before the president, and this was her second event this week where she spoke directly about reproductive rights. And then President Joe Biden also spoke on abortion, which is not a topic he talks on a whole lot. So what was their messaging like overall, and do the two differ in how they talk about it?

SHIVARAM: I mean, this was a big show-of-force event. You had not only the president and the vice president there but the first lady, Jill Biden, the second gentleman, Doug Emhoff. All four principals being at one campaign rally - not something that really happens every day. So this was definitely a big show of force and, of course, a little bit of counterprogramming to the New Hampshire primary going on - right? - and all the coverage of Trump and Nikki Haley and things like that. And what they really wanted to do was rile this crowd up and make sure that voters - Democratic voters really know that, you know, yes, this reversal of Roe happened in 2022, and they are not taking their foot off the gas, right? And what you heard in common, I will say, that was a major point that both Vice President Harris and President Biden said yesterday was they named Donald Trump, and they laid the blame for the reversal of Roe on Trump.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And let there be no mistake. The person most responsible for taking away this freedom in America is Donald Trump.

(APPLAUSE)

SHIVARAM: And you're right, Danielle, to point out that, you know, this is not a topic that we hear Joe Biden talk about all that often. You know, he has an interesting history with his own personal beliefs on abortion. He is, of course, a practicing Catholic and has kind of said in the past that, you know, he's not really big on abortion, but he is really supportive of Roe. So what you heard a little bit differently yesterday is Biden kind of emphasizing that, you know, this is something that he strongly believes is cruel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: The cruelty is astounding.

(APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: And it's a direct affront to women's dignity to be told by extreme politicians and judges to wait, to get sicker and sicker before anything can happen, even to the point where, as you heard, your life had been determined to be in danger.

SHIVARAM: So, you know, just kind of honing in on that message of, like, this is about health care. Something that Kamala Harris said was that this is a health care crisis. And so you're hearing both of them in lockstep talking about Donald Trump on this issue and also talking about how this is a decision that the government should not be making.

DAVIS: I mean, it's also very clear Democrats are not being subtle about how much they intend to focus on abortion in campaigns up and down the ballot this November. I also thought it was notable that the Biden campaign put out an abortion-related ad, but it focuses on this clip of Donald Trump bragging about the fact that he played a central role in overturning Roe v. Wade by appointing conservative justices and says, quote, "and I'm proud to have done it." And when you hear that clip, you're like, oh, we are going to hear that clip thousands of times...

SHIVARAM: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

DAVIS: ...Before Election Day. If anything, that might be sort of the singular case that the Biden campaign is going to make here - that Trump is the one that played a critical role in rolling back Roe v. Wade and reelecting Joe Biden will push the country closer to potentially codifying...

SHIVARAM: Yes.

DAVIS: ...Roe v. Wade if Democrats continue to control the White House and Congress.

SHIVARAM: Yes, and that was something Biden kind of ended his speech with yesterday. He was saying, you know, they're not done yet. Like, yes, Donald Trump is proud to, you know, have made the Roe reversal possible and also, like, that a national abortion ban is on the table - very much that momentum of, like, yes, this happened, as in in the past. And, like, it is still actively happening.

KURTZLEBEN: And it is relatively rare for Joe Biden to do a whole event, a whole speech like this focusing on abortion and reproductive rights. And I know that some reproductive rights supporters, for example, aren't super-enthusiastic about him on the topic. Therefore, they might not even trust him. It strikes me that his past on this, his Catholic faith, which he cites in his stances on this - that this all could cut two ways. One is, yeah, it might not enthuse some of the more enthusiastic abortion rights supporters, but on the other hand, is it possible that his history of, I guess you could say, moderation could appeal to people who are more in the middle?

SHIVARAM: You know, I was kind of wondering the same thing, is that, like, what is the role for Joe Biden here to speak out on this issue because look at his counterpart, right? Like, Kamala Harris is the most effective messenger on this from the White House. I mean, we have a woman vice president. She's someone who not only, you know, is a woman and can speak from her own personal identity - right? - but also, like, was a prosecutor and has specifically gone into the law. And she tells this story a little bit more often now, which I think is also interesting, about how she decided to become a lawyer because of her own history of having a friend in high school - you mentioned that Jill Biden was talking about her friend in high school and that experience. Kamala Harris had a friend in high school who was being molested, and that kind of was one of the reasons that she wanted to become a lawyer, to focus on crimes against women and children. And she's been sharing that a lot more on the trail as well.

You know, there - you have that in the White House, and she's there, and she's up front, and she's traveling and carrying on that message. So I think there is kind of this backseat role for Biden in a way where he, you know, has to kind of come and talk about this. But that question of who is he reaching, I think, is really interesting. I will say, I think, you know, a lot of folks will point out that his record has never been to restrict the right...

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

SHIVARAM: ...To have choice. So, you know, while people are, like, maybe not super enthusiastic on his history in terms of the issue writ large, like, he is someone who supports the right to choose, obviously. And so I think they're just happy to see him out and talking about it.

DAVIS: There's also no more gray area in politics on the issue of abortion.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

DAVIS: When Joe Biden first got into office many, many years ago, it was a much more complex debate, especially for Democrats. There was a lot of Democrats at the time when he was coming up through politics that were abortion opponents, and this has been one of those dividing issues where I don't believe there is a single what you would call pro-life Democrat left in Congress, with the exception of maybe Henry Cuellar in Texas.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

DAVIS: But even he has support for abortion rights to some extent. And there's very few - or almost no Republicans left who support abortion rights, with the exception in the Senate of senators like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins. So even if a voter who's passionate about this issue doesn't believe that Joe Biden shares their passion for the issue, there should be no doubt among voters of which party would vote to expand abortion rights and which party would not because there's no middle anymore on that area in elected office.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, very true. We do have to bring another topic in here, by the way, because at this event yesterday in Virginia, the Biden campaign was, of course, trying to make abortion the central issue, the only issue, of this event. But protesters at the event reminded Biden that they have another topic, specifically the Middle East, on their minds.

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BIDEN: Jill and I had a chance to sit down.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Genocide Joe, how many kids...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Four more years, four more years, four more years.

KURTZLEBEN: So we heard a protester there and then the crowd immediately drowning them out with chants of four more years.

SHIVARAM: Oh, my gosh. I mean, that was one instance of, like, at least 10 times that that happened, guys.

KURTZLEBEN: Man.

SHIVARAM: It was like, I was looking at my phone, and it was, like, 5:01 a protester, 5:02 a protester, 5:04 a protester. Like, it kept going and going and going. So if you look at that, then, yeah, for sure, it's threatening to overshadow this a little bit. I will say I think it's a little bit of a both-and thing from voters that I've talked to. Like, there are folks who are, of course, very fired up about abortion rights and reproductive care, and they are also looking at Gaza, and they are looking at Biden's embrace of Israel and Bibi Netanyahu. So I don't think it's necessarily a one or the other thing, but I do think that this is a White House and this is a president who has not really addressed this issue of Gaza and particularly, like, younger generations' support for Gaza right now directly. Nor has Vice President Kamala Harris tackled directly, and they're sort of...

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

SHIVARAM: ...Dancing around the issue. But I think that there's definitely an argument to be made that unless there's a little bit more headway on this, you know, this is probably going to keep happening. And even if it's not happening inside the room, every single time I've traveled with the president or vice president, like, if you are on the motorcade route, there's someone or multiple people, sometimes very large groups, with Palestinian flags, and people are very, very fired up about this still.

KURTZLEBEN: Sue, very quickly, we know that there isn't a lot of excitement around Biden's reelection, especially among young voters. I mean, how much of a motivating factor do you see reproductive rights being among them, as opposed to other topics they might care about?

DAVIS: I mean, this is going to be at the heart of a Biden-Trump race, is enthusiasm. But the thing I think the Democrats fall back on is not that they're excited about Joe Biden, but they're angry about Donald Trump.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

DAVIS: And they're angry about the threat that Donald Trump would present to potentially abortion rights if he were to win. And if Donald Trump wins, there's a good chance he's taking control of Congress along with him. So I think that that's the thing that can't be undercounted here. Democrats weren't excited about Joe Biden in 2020, either. Remember that. And he still...

SHIVARAM: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...Was able to beat Donald Trump. And as - I know his campaign's line is, you know, compare me to the alternative, not the Almighty. But my line is always an unenthusiastic vote counts just as much as an enthusiastic one.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

DAVIS: And what we have seen is that when abortion is put to voters in these referendums, that, yes, it is absolutely a turnout motivator. So maybe you're angry about who's on the ballot. But if questions of abortion rights are also on the ballot and you care about that, it's hard for me to picture that - motivated abortion voters staying home because they're unenthusiastic about Joe Biden's Middle East politics.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. OK, we're going to take a quick break - more in a moment.

And we're back. And, Sue Davis, you have been reporting on reproductive rights as well. Since Roe was overturned almost two years ago, that gave states permission to pass their own laws related to abortion. And so since then, we've seen Democrats really make this a centerpiece of their campaign. So what are you seeing out in the states this election cycle?

DAVIS: Sure. And obviously, abortion rights played a big factor in the midterm elections. And one of the things we've been looking at going into 2024 is how much is this issue still resonating with voters. And there's a lot to suggest that this country is still litigating the post-Dobbs world and what they want those rights to look like. And it's no secret, obviously, that Democrats have been making this a central focus of their campaigns. We talked recently about how it's playing in Senate races, but now that we're getting into the election year and primaries are starting to take shape, it's becoming more clear the races and places where Democrats believe that they have an advantage.

And specifically, I looked at, this time around, in the battle for control of the House because keep in mind, you know, it's a Republican-held house, but it's an incredibly narrow majority. So Democrats would need to net gain four to five seats depending on how a special election or two shakes out before the election, which is pretty small. And I think that they see both redistricting and changes to districts and abortion as two significant advantages they have in some of these potentially competitive races.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, I'm curious about - as Democrats are ramping up this message about reproductive rights, do we have a sense yet of how Republicans might tailor their messages to counter that? Or are they just going to avoid the topic of abortion altogether?

DAVIS: You know, what I think is really interesting is I have talked to Republican campaign strategists about this, and it is an area where I don't think any clear-eyed Republican will tell you they don't have a disadvantage. If anything, it might be the only issue right now where Republicans feel a clear disadvantage because they feel strong on the economy, because the country is feeling pretty soured towards Joe Biden, both in terms of his favorability and in terms of the economy. So those are two natural strengths for Republicans. The problem is the party doesn't have one unifying response. And particularly for Republicans in more swingy places, it is harder to take a really hardline stance on opposing abortion rights because they might not be reflective of the districts you're representing.

I do think that Republicans tend to avoid the issue. There isn't a lot of good case examples of campaigns where Republicans are running clearly on abortion rights. What the - in talking about House races, I spoke to the House Republican campaign operation. And one - he pointed to comments that Richard Hudson made recently - Richard Hudson is a North Carolina Republican who's overseeing the campaign operation - in which he was basically sort of nudging at Republican candidates, saying, you have to run on clear messages; you have to run on empathetic messages, because if you don't respond to the attacks - and these are his words - voters will think that the Republican Party's position is, quote, "we'll put you in jail if you get an abortion." So not responding to the attack is a losing strategy. But I don't think Republicans broadly have figured out what the positive, proactive message is on abortion yet. And I think Democrats in the early stages of the campaign are trying to seize on that and define their opponents before they can define themselves.

SHIVARAM: That's for sure true. There was actually a clip - I don't know if you guys caught this on on Fox last week. Vice President Harris went on "The View." She talked about abortion. She talked about this, you know, tour and many stops that she's going on. And Kayleigh McEnany, the former press secretary for Donald Trump, was on a panel on Fox News and spent several minutes complimenting the vice president's message on abortion. And she was kind of saying, like, they've got it right. Like, if Republicans want to counter this, they need to be talking about supporting families. They need to be investing in programs that support, you know, mothers and things like that. And there is definitely this sense of, like, where's the gap? Like, there is a gap here, and how are we going to fill it? And that's definitely something to your point, Sue, that, you know, even the VP was already talking about, you know, maternal mortality and things like that. So they are trying to fill all of the gaps before Republicans can even figure out their messaging.

DAVIS: And let me just give you an example of where this, I think, is playing out.

KURTZLEBEN: Yep.

DAVIS: There's an Arizona seat that represents sort of the broader Tucson area, and this is likely to be a rematch. The current incumbent is a Republican, Juan Ciscomani, and he's likely to face a rematch against Democrat Kirsten Engel. She ran and lost to him by a couple thousand votes in 2022. And she's coming back. And she's - I talked to her, and it's pretty clear she's going to focus on abortion. Now what makes it different this time around is does not only Ciscomani now have a voting record in Congress in which he has voted for some measures that would restrict abortion access, but also, it's possible that Arizona is going to be one of the states that has a ballot initiative on it on November's ballot to essentially codify abortion rights into the state's constitution, similar to the effort that played out in Ohio late last year.

Now, if that's on the ballot and it is motivating to voters, that could play well for Democrats' advantage. And Ciscomani, in the past, his position has been, look, the states should decide, and he supports exceptions, the typical exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. But now if it's on the ballot, it has - it is being put to the state, right?

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

DAVIS: So then the question is, well, do you support the ballot initiative or not? And he hasn't really articulated a clear answer on that. And that's the kind of thing where in a state like that, I think a Republican running is going to have to find a better message that resonates in districts that has a lot of swing, suburbanite and independent voters who polling would suggest, you know, broadly support some measure of abortion access versus full abortion ban.

KURTZLEBEN: So Sue, there's that district in Arizona. Where else are you watching?

DAVIS: Another place that Democrats are targeting is Florida, another state that could have a similar ballot initiative that could juice turnout and potentially in Democrats' favor. Democrats are targeting incumbent Anna Paulina Luna. She is someone who I think would be fairly described as a MAGA Republican. She has described herself as a pro-life extremist and generally does not support any exemptions for abortion access. She has publicly campaigned on the fact that her husband was conceived by rape and put up for adoption, and that has been sort of central to her story. She's going to be likely running against a Democrat named Whitney Fox, who's also a mother of young children. So that's going to be an interesting dynamic in that race.

And then also Texas - Texas is a state where their new restrictive abortion laws have made national news headlines. And there is a district that reaches from the San Antonio outskirts down to the U.S.-Mexico border, currently represented by a Republican named Monica De La Cruz, who will also be likely running against a woman named Michelle Vallejo, who is similar focused on abortion rights because now, Texas women have to travel out of state in most cases to receive abortion care. And she says that this is going to be central to her campaign. And I think the Texas race is going to be a really interesting test case of how much the post-Dobb world is really roiling electorates around the country, and especially in places we might not normally think it was.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Deepa, are there more reproductive rights events that the Biden camp has planned in the coming weeks?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, definitely. And, again, Vice President Harris definitely taking the lead on this still. You're going to see her go on a series of additional stops over the next two months, about five different states here that she's going to try to hit. And from what I've heard from the VP's team, you know, she's not only going to states like Wisconsin, which is obviously a battleground state. They're trying to drum up voters there. But she's also going to states that have really restricted abortion rights already to highlight kind of the range of what is going on all around the country. So you'll definitely see her traveling a lot in the next couple weeks and two months, like I said, talking about this issue specifically. And I think one thing to note is I think she might be going somewhere in the South, which will be interesting because, again, like I mentioned, she's not just talking about abortion and reproductive rights, but also maternal mortality, which is something particularly among Black women that Kamala Harris has been focusing on as well.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. We are going to have to leave it there today. I am Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover the presidential campaign.

SHIVARAM: I'm Deepa Shivaram. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

KURTZLEBEN: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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