Biden’s emphasis on “personal freedom” in early campaign takes aim at GOP

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Washington — When President Biden announced his reelection bid in a video this week, the first words out of his mouth were “freedom” and “personal freedom,” adding that “there’s nothing more important.” He cast the 2024 election as a choice between “more freedom and less freedom.”

Mr. Biden’s emphasis on upholding “freedom” was a direct challenge to President Donald Trump and other potential Republicans who have stressed the importance of upholding personal liberty to resist government overreach. And experts say it is a tried-and-true way to evoke patriotic emotions among a broad swath of Americans by casting policy positions in a more favorable light.

In his announcement, the president said “MAGA extremists” are trying to take away “bedrock freedoms,” including “cutting Social Security that you paid for your entire life while cutting taxes for the very wealthy, dictating what health care decisions women can make, banning books and telling people who they can love, all while making it more difficult for you to be able to vote.” 

On the right, Trump’s campaign emails warn that “The Left” wants to “take away your guns,” “persecute Christians” and push the “transgender cult onto your children.” Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis blasted the “COVID authoritarianism” of other states during the pandemic, and insisted Florida will continue to protect educational freedom.

John Aldrich, a professor of political science at Duke University, noted that both Mr. Biden and Republicans generally emphasize “freedom from” something, rather than “freedom for.” And what they need “freedom from” is different for both sides.

Jon Krosnick, a social psychologist and professor at Stanford University, said Republicans have been relying on the word “freedom” — and the emotions and associations it invokes — for a long time. 

“Republicans have been doing it for a while, and Democrats are kind of catching up now,” Krosnick said. 

Invoking the word “freedom” can have more subtle effects, as well. Krosnick was one of the authors of a 2021 paper that examined cultural values and words. The researchers found that the word “freedom” becomes “an important trigger signal in the culture” in countries like the U.S. that frequently invoke it — playing the National Anthem at baseball games or saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school, for instance.

These “freedom phrases” are useful for those on the right and the left, Krosnick noted.

“Any use of the term ‘freedom’ is likely to be helpful if you portray a policy as designed to enhance people’s freedom,” Krosnick said.

Given how powerful of an emotion freedom elicits in Americans, Krosnick said politicians on both sides invoke such phrases because “they kind of have to.”

“If politicians on the right and left want to invoke freedom to support the policies that they want to advocate, they’re forced into articulating that differently on different policies,” Krosnick said. “The more voices on both sides can invoke freedom as a justification for what they’re doing, the more successful they will be in persuading and activating people to be sympathetic to their agenda.”

Aldrich explained two reasons why Mr. Biden and Republicans could be focusing on policies that voters want “freedom from” rather than “freedom for.”

“One is to portray those among our side as those who currently suffer under the yoke of one kind of overbearing power or another. Easier to say, ‘Feel for those who are currently suffering’ than to imagine some future timer,” Aldrich said. “The second is that it portrays a specific opposition, making it easier to rally the troops to defeat them.”

“A different world is one where one can rally folks around a plan to make things better in a rosier future,” Aldrich added. “But the nature of appealing for people to do things they do not want to do makes it much easier to have an enemy in our midst.”

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