President Joe Biden’s speech warning of an assault on American democracy — by Donald Trump and his core supporters — was a campaign call to arms unlike anything in modern American history.
It was also months in the making.
Aides said Biden had been planning to give a version of the Thursday night speech since last June, conveying that he wanted to talk about what he saw as increasingly serious threats to the nation’s democracy. But events continued to hinder his delivery. Pressure has mounted in recent weeks, they said, amid a series of developments.
GOP primary victories by some candidates denied 2020 election in state and federal contests, combined with consolidation of support around Trump, have rattled the White House. Biden told aides he barely recognized the Republican Party he once worked with, seeing a cult of personality.
Threats against federal agents following the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home also angered the president. Biden saw the aftermath of what happened 18 months ago, when officers died defending the US Capitol. The actual writing of the speech began about three weeks ago, with Jon Meacham, the historian who has sat in on a number of Biden’s most sweeping speeches, helping shape it.
When several Republican lawmakers warned of violence if Trump were to be indicted, it only added to the urgency. There was, as one senior administration official said, “a growing degree of concern that this movement, rather than disintegrating, is growing stronger.”
Biden’s speech was tough. In a relatively quick 25 minutes, he declared that “equality and democracy are under attack,” that he “didn’t do the country any favors to pretend otherwise,” and that “so much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal.” His defenders praised him for telling raw truths. His critics accused him of fomenting the very divisions he denounced.
Jim Dornan, a longtime Republican operative and member of the party’s anti-Trump wing, said that while the former president and his allies are giving Biden plenty of evidence to back up the arguments made Thursday night, Biden used the wrong tactic. The speech felt like a “24-minute Republican slap in the face,” he said.
“I was offended by certain parts of it. I think it would be better if he didn’t do it. He’s not going to win votes from people like me,” he added.
But the belief inside the White House is that the address was simply inevitable. Many aides and allies said it would be a “dereliction of duty” if Biden had not spoken, as major developments threatened the country’s foundation.
They do not deny that the speech had a political benefit. The former president has become so toxic, White House aides believe, that any day he dominates the conversation is a good day. They’ve grown up enjoying watching Republican congressional candidates face questions about Trump’s legal and political gaffes.
But Biden’s team rolled their eyes at media coverage of his speech, which focused on the dramatic red backdrop and the pair of US Marines positioned behind the president. They also found the substantive criticisms unconvincing.
“The defense of democracy has only recently become an issue of opposition and it is very unfortunate that the comment can be seen that way,” said a senior government official. “The premise of the speech was that every American can unite around the principle of living in a democracy and that it is worth defending. … This is not a divisive issue 10 years ago.”
The president’s allies say he is privately stressing the importance of not only highlighting the danger to democracy, but linking it to the need to vote in November. Celinda Lake, a longtime party pollster who has worked on the Biden campaign, said voters, particularly women and “rising Democrats” — those who vote but not in midterms — have found the case Biden has made exciting.
“You’ve got two patterns emerging that are important,” he explained. “One is that Republicans and Trump believe they are above the rule of law, and the Mar-a-Lago quest is a pin on that. … The second is that the will of the people is overturned. Two-thirds of Americans or more believe Joe Biden won the election. January 6 and Roe v. Wade are dramatic reversals of the will of the people.”
Lake said the combination creates “a very strong narrative and feeds the argument that if you want to come together to make sure the will of the people is not overturned, you have to vote in 2022.”
For Biden, however, Thursday’s speech was also a return to the script. Allies say the issue of a faltering democracy was one he became concerned about during the divisive run-up to the 2016 election. And he plunged into the 2020 campaign warning that democracy was at risk and with an overarching theme of the need restoration of “the soul of the nation”.
But his priority on the matter has also been questioned. Last winter, voting rights advocates were outraged by what they saw as a tepid response from the White House to Republican states voting nationwide on voter-restriction laws. Biden responded with a speech in Georgia in which he called on the Senate to change its rules to pass election reform. But the votes weren’t there, and the issue was soon overtaken by others.
Recently, however, there is was moving back a more moderate reform of the election counting law; And some who criticized Biden for dropping the ball say they were excited to see him speak again in Thursday’s speech.
“There was a strategy that if we talk about these people, we give them oxygen. If we give them attention, if we name them, we give them oxygen,” said Eddie Glaud, an African-American history professor at Princeton who met with Biden along with other historians earlier this year. “Well, they have their own oxygen supply to use. And so you have to deal with it because it’s not smoldering anymore. The flames are burning.”
White House aides say Biden’s interest never waned. They point to his speeches in Tulsa, Okla., last year commemorating the 100th anniversary of a mass racial attack and the anniversary of the Jan. 6 riots. In early August, Biden convened a meeting of historians, scholars and journalists to discuss threats to the nation’s democracy. And after Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) lost her primary bid last month, Biden called her the next day to express his gratitude for her commitment to investigate the Jan. 6 attacks and her warnings about democratic regression.
But there are competing demands. Throughout the Biden presidency, Democrats have insisted that, unlike in the Obama years, they will be inclined to sell the legislation they passed. As the midterms approach, and more legislation has cleared his desk, that sales job becomes more pressing.
However, there is a sense from Democrats that these issues are beginning to merge under the umbrella of rights being expanded and taken away. that the January 6th hearings were broken. and this, since the reversal of the decision of the Supreme Court Roe v. Wadethe president had the ear of the country in a way that eluded him for much of his presidency.
“I tend to focus almost exclusively on bread and butter issues. I co-founded the Blue Collar Caucus six years ago to improve what I saw as real mistakes in the way we were messaging on these issues,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.). “Biden understands that, and it’s a big improvement on where the party was eight years ago. That said, I am amazed at how often my constituents unabashedly cite threats to democracy as one of their top issues.”