‘They don’t live in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies,’ Biden said outside a red-lit Independence Hall, exploiting the historic setting to call for a reckoning of the movement led by former President Donald Trump. .
It was a strident and urgent appeal to Americans months before the midterm elections that will determine control of Congress. Biden’s remarks, though framed as a formal address, provided the outline of his election message as the fall approaches.
Even as he struggled to balance a dose of optimism about the country’s future — and his own string of recent accomplishments — Biden painted a grim picture of his political opponents, saying Trump and his supporters were threatening the whole American experience. He named his predecessor minutes after speaking and suggested Americans faced an existential choice in the upcoming election.
“As I stand here tonight, equality and democracy are under attack,” Biden said. “We are doing ourselves no favors to pretend otherwise.”
Biden has tried to separate Trump’s most loyal supporters from the Republican Party as a whole. And as he concluded, he sought to strike a more optimistic note, saying it was still in the power of the voters to subdue the nation’s darkest forces.
But the heart of Biden’s speech was a wake-up call about what he called “an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”
“MAGA forces are determined to take this country back. Back to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy. No right to contraception, no right to ‘marry who you love,’ he said, hitting Democrats on cultural issues. believe can help them win in November.
“They promote authoritarian leaders,” he continued. “They fanned the flames of political violence.”
After ripping Republicans for what he calls “MAGA extremism” and “semi-fascism” over the past week, administration officials say Biden has determined the time is right to provide a more serious and sober record of what he sees as growing anti-democratic forces. building across the country.
Officials insisted that Biden’s message was nonpartisan and instead aimed at an extreme wing of the GOP. Yet he called on his audience to go to the polls in November and lashed out at his predecessor, backed by traditionally apolitical symbols like the United States Marine Band and two Marines who were positioned at a location where they were filmed while throughout the speech.
“We have to be honest with each other and with ourselves: too much of what is happening in our country today is not normal,” Biden said. The Republican Party of 2022 is partly “dominated, pushed and intimidated” by Trump and his cronies, he said.
He has remained a constant through high-profile speeches at venues steeped in historical symbolism, including Warm Springs, Georgia, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The primetime remarks were no different, this time with the site of the nation’s revolutionary start as the backdrop.
A crowd of about 300 guests — a mix of elected officials and dignitaries, as well as Democratic supporters — watched Biden speak from behind bulletproof glass. It was a short distance from where Biden officially announced his 2019 presidential bid, striking similar themes about the “battle for the soul of the nation.”
White House officials have stressed in advance that when Biden warns of the threat to democracy, he is not talking about Republicans as a whole, but about those who are inspired by Trump: the “MAGA Republicans”. , as the administration called them.
Before the speech, Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said Biden was dividing the nation.
“Joe Biden is the chief divider and embodies the current state of the Democratic Party: one of division, loathing and hostility toward half the country,” she said in a statement.
Biden had been mulling a thematic speech on American democracy for several months, spurred in part by the revealing hearings convened by the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot, according to an official. He also watched with concern as election deniers running for office across the state were elevated by Trump and was outraged by the attempted attack on an FBI field office in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In his remarks, Biden said right-wing forces were fueling political violence, insisting it was “incendiary and dangerous.”
“We the people have to say this is not who we are,” he said.
Biden seeks to seize the moment
While Biden has underestimated when “fever will break” over the GOP’s ties to Trump, the past few weeks have highlighted the fact that many of the campaign promises that seemed equally unrealistic — deals major bipartisan agreements to substantial investments in manufacturing, climate and health care – have, in fact, been enacted.
The confluence of factors has created a real sense inside the West Wing that the political winds are changing just as Americans are starting to tune in ahead of the midterm elections. It has also had a dramatic effect on the White House itself, where months of war within the party, a resurgent and pervasive Covid-19 pandemic and a myriad of crises that many aides considered beyond their control seem have finally turned their way.
Even Biden, who revels in telling the story of the doctor who called him “a congenital optimist,” was not immune to a sense of occasional sadness and unhappiness that hung over the West Wing during months.
“It could get pretty dark,” said one person who spoke to Biden regularly about his outlook toward the end of his first year in office. “It’s not his path, but there was a period there” where Biden’s mood mirrored that of the exhausted country he led.
Yet the shifting winds of this summer have coincided with Trump’s major re-emergence into the national spotlight. Only more prevalent are Republican politicians and candidates who run entire campaigns based on false allegations of fraudulent elections.
As the midterm campaign season kicks into high gear, the convergence of factors has created an ideal time for Biden to lay out what he’s long been thinking, officials say.
“The president felt it was an opportune time before the start of the traditional election campaign next week to outline what he sees at stake, not for any particular political party, but for our democracy itself,” said a senior administration official.
Rare primetime speech shows Biden’s emphasis on democracy
Biden worked for several days with his speechwriters on 20- to 30-minute drafts of the address, poring over precise language and wording. The president usually rehearses his major speeches in advance and his schedule was free of public events on Wednesdays and Thursdays while he prepared.
Biden has given just a handful of prime-time speeches during his presidency, including his annual addresses to Congress and his remarks on gun violence earlier this summer. Aides said the president believed the matter was serious enough to address the nation in the evening – and ask TV stations to halt their regular programming (although broadcasters refused to air the remarks of the President).
White House officials have said they want to be selective about when and where to address issues related to the erosion of democracy, even though many party activists have called for more focused attention on the question. The issue itself is one that occupies much of Biden’s thinking, say those close to him — something can spill out into the public sphere during the rare moments he engages in any substantive way with reporters.
But picking the right time to address them on a broad national scale, Biden’s team says, will keep the issue from becoming routine and routine for voters. Biden, the officials note, had no qualms about this strategy.
‘Semi-fascism’ comment sparks anger, but White House won’t back down
Biden’s newly aggressive rhetoric has drawn howls of protest from Republicans. When he accused Trump supporters of “semi-fascism” at a fundraiser last week, the response was swift.
“Horribly insulting,” said Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, a Republican who has not aligned himself with Trump. “He’s trying to stir up controversy, he’s trying to stir up this anti-Republican sentiment right before the election, it’s just – it’s horribly inappropriate.”
At least one Democrat in a tight re-election race also distanced himself from Biden’s remark; Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire said Biden “painted with way too broad a brush” when he made the comment.
While officials describe Biden’s message as urgent, it remains to be seen whether voters facing high prices and an uncertain economy will respond to his warnings about the state of democracy.
Yet recent polls have shown that concerns about democracy are rising among voters. An NBC poll in August found that “threats to democracy” had become the No. 1 problem facing the country, surpassing the “cost of living”. And a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that 67% of respondents believe the nation’s democracy is in danger of collapsing, a 9-point increase from January.
Ongoing developments regarding Trump’s handling of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate, an issue the White House has officially kept at bay to avoid the onset of politicization, are unforeseen — but not entirely undesirable — for the White House. .
Still, reminding voters of the chaos that has surrounded Trump’s presidency has been privately gratifying to some Democrats, who think it stands in stark contrast to Biden’s way of doing business.
“It’s like the chaos is unsettled because of the 50 million other things that are going on,” said a Democratic official with close ties to the White House.
Biden “will never talk about Trump alone — he sees him as so much bigger than that and probably, to some extent, below him,” the official said. “But I think most of our party members appreciate the stark contrast now that he’s back in the headlines.”
This story was updated with additional developments on Thursday.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.