As Marine One lifted off from the South Lawn of the White House, President Joe Biden had a last-minute question for his aides seated nearby.
Riding the momentum of a strong State of the Union address and the elevation of a political battle he and his top advisers relish, he needed assurance on one detail for his scheduled remarks in Florida a few hours later.
“We have copies of the Scott plan at this event, right?” Biden asked.
Yes, he was told.
The two-page, front-and-back pamphlets quoting Sen. Rick Scott’s proposal to sunset all federal legislation, including Social Security and Medicare, every five years, would be there.
By the time Biden arrived inside the University of Tampa ballroom where he was scheduled to speak, the White House-produced pamphlets had been placed on each chair in the audience.
It was a minor detail, particularly for a president, to focus on. Given those seats would be filled by partisans and Biden supporters, the pamphlets themselves would seem inconsequential in a broader political sense.
The event itself would take place in a state few Democrats see as a true battleground in 2024 and would put Biden on the ground for less than four hours.
But the placement of the pamphlets and Biden’s message during his speech opened a window into the president’s intense focus on the political salience of elevating one senator’s proposal that long pre-dated Tuesday’s primetime address.
Biden’s off-script back and forth with Republicans over Medicare and Social Security may have become a signature primetime moment, but it had roots in months of pressing advisers – and other Democrats – to make the issue central in the midterm elections and beyond.
He would first bring it up in public for the first time fewer than three weeks after Scott released his “12 Point Plan to Rescue America.”
Biden was clear that it wasn’t just a focus on Social Security and Medicare, two programs subject to a long-running fierce political and ideological debate between Republicans and Democrats.
He pressed advisers to print the actual words from Scott’s proposal. At midterm campaign events, screens were put up that flashed the same, along with other quotes from Republicans.
“He zeroed in immediately on the idea that their own words were what would hang them here,” a person familiar with the deliberations said.
‘They just walked into it’
When Biden boarded Air Force One for the flight to Florida, he walked straight back to where two Florida House Democrats were seated as invited guests back to their home state.
Biden, eschewing his own cabin, sat down next to Reps. Kathy Castor and Darren Soto and buckled his seat belt. The group talked about a range of policy and political issues for the first half-hour of the flight.
Castor had a packet to give Biden about an infrastructure project she was advocating for to secure a badly needed new air traffic control tower at Tampa Airport. (Before Biden left Air Force One, he came back to tell Castor that he’d spoken to his team, and they were on it.)
But the conversation also covered the State of the Union address and “how crazy it is” to target Medicare, Castor said in an interview.
After the flight, Castor would say BIden was “on fire” during the address, specifically referencing the Social Security and Medicare moment.
“Because he has so much experience, because he has been in the trenches on Capitol Hill, I think he felt very comfortable hearing the heckling and being able to answer back,” she said.
As for her colleagues across the aisle? “They just walked into it.”
Biden has no intention of letting it go.
He joked with the crowd in Tampa that they “may have seen we had a little bit of a spirited debate in the State of the Union.”
He ramped up his rhetorical defense of the programs.
“I know that a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare,” Biden told the crowd in Tampa. “Well, let me say this: if that’s your dream, I’m your nightmare.”
For the second straight day he name-checked Republicans and their specific proposals or quotes about cutting, ending or restructuring the programs.
For a second straight day he held up and referenced the pamphlet he wanted to ensure was in the room as he left the White House.
For a second straight day he ramped up his attacks on Scott specifically.
“The very idea a senator from Florida wants to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every five years, I find to be somewhat outrageous, so outrageous that you might not even believe it,” Biden said. “But that’s what he said.”
A perplexing destination
Biden’s decision to make Florida one of his first post-State of the Union trips flummoxed some Democrats.
Donald Trump won the state twice. When President Barack Obama won the state in 2008, with Biden by his side, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by almost 700,000. Registered Republicans now outnumber Democrats by nearly 400,000.
GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, who narrowly won his first statewide race, blew out his Democratic challenger in 2022 by 19 points, accelerating the running Democratic conversation about whether Florida has moved out of reach.
Yet there it was in the first four states Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris planned to visit after the State of the Union. The other three – Wisconsin, Georgia and Minnesota – are battlegrounds critical to Biden’s 2020 election win and to his path to reelection in 2024.
Florida is, decidedly, not.
What it is, aides note, is a state where one in five residents are over the age of 65 – a prime venue to elevate a message focused on Social Security and Medicare.
It’s home to DeSantis, who has rocketed to the top tier of likely 2024 GOP presidential candidates with Biden advisers watching closely throughout with a view that he isn’t nearly as strong of an opponent as his smashing reelection – and the conservative buzz behind him – has led the media to believe.
But it’s also home to Scott, a former governor himself who has carved out a role in the Senate as someone unafraid to cross Republican leadership or shy away from touching political third rails as he’s pushed for dramatic change in Washington.
True to form he hasn’t backed down from a fight with Biden.
He has fired back in interviews, on social media, and in a five-figure television ad buy set to run the same day Biden arrived in the state.
He’s called Biden a liar. He’s pointed out that Biden sponsored his own sunset proposal in 1975. He’s challenged him to a debate. He’s called for him to resign.
“Nobody believes that I want to cut Medicare or Social Security. I’ve never said it,” Scott said in an interview with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins.
But Democrats have taken to pointing out how other Republicans have reacted to Scott’s plan – “sheer terror, sprint the other way, I don’t know this man,” was how one House Democrat described it – as clear evidence that the attacks are both landing and are accurate.
“Even Mitch McConnell says he can be a foil sometimes,” Castor said with a laugh when asked if Democrats viewed Scott as a good political foil. There is no love lost between McConnell and Scott, with Scott’s proposal and McConnell’s vehement opposition to its emergence playing no small part in that reality.
“It’s clearly the Rick Scott plan, it is not the Republican plan,” McConnell said in an interview with talk show host Terry Meiners from his home state of Kentucky.
After calling Scott’s proposal a “bad idea,” he added something that the long-time Senate GOP leader who assiduously protects members of his conference rarely, if ever, does.
“I think it will be a challenge for him to deal with this in his own reelection in Florida, a state with more elderly people than any other state in America,” McConnell, who was challenged by Scott for leader at the start of this Congress, said in an implicit echo of Biden’s rationale for traveling to the state this week.
“Some DC Republicans can keep parroting Democrat lies, but that won’t stop Rick Scott from fighting for conservative principles instead of caving to Biden every day,” Chris Hartline, Scott’s senior adviser and longtime aide, said in a Twitter post on McConnell’s remarks.
White House officials watch and listen to all of it – and are quick to respond to point out holes in Scott’s comments or to level new attacks.
The engagement isn’t subtle, nor is it without intent. “We want this fight,” a White House official said. “We relish this fight.”
For Biden, the State of the Union didn’t start that fight.
He and his advisers had been keen to have it for nearly a year, despite private questions about the broader salience of a single Republican proposal, without broader GOP support and no pathway to becoming law, from some Democrats in the lead up to the midterm elections.
The State of the Union thrust that fight – and the running battle with a single senator – to center stage, just weeks before Biden is expected to launch his final campaign.
“Who knows who’s going to be the Republican nominee, but President Biden demonstrated today he’s going to keep coming back to the Sunshine State,” Castor said after Biden finished his remarks.
After all, as Castor made a point of mentioning, Scott is up for reelection in Florida in 2024.