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Biden defended democracy — and pounced on a political opportunity

The goal was to make “MAGA Republicans” a label for everything that voters find politically toxic about the GOP right now.

President Biden stands at a podium with the presidential seal, with two Marines standing in partial light behind him. The backdrop is red-lit with a display of American flags behind the president. He is wearing a navy blue suit and has both fists raised as he speaks.
President Joe Biden delivers his “Soul of the Nation” speech in Philadelphia, on September 1.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

MOOSIC, Pennsylvania — President Joe Biden’s primetime speech Thursday night was an attempt to yoke two different but connected concepts together. The first was, as he said, that “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” The second was simply to urge Americans to vote for Democrats in the fall.

Speaking in front of a bright red background set against Philadelphia’s Independence Hall that seemed to owe as much to Dark Brandon memes as the traditional trappings of the presidency, Biden’s warnings were mixed in with political language aimed at voters who have recently seen reasons — like the overturning of Roe v. Wade and a new barrage of unsettling investigations and revelations related to former President Donald Trump — to consider voting for Democrats in an election that looked dismal for the party in power just a few months ago.

Biden focused the attack on “MAGA Republicans,” a constituency that he tried to make clear did not even constitute “a majority of Republicans.”

The goal seemed to be to make “MAGA Republicans” a label for everything that voters find politically toxic about the GOP right now, linking swing voters’ disdain for and exhaustion with Donald Trump to their opposition to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.

“American democracy only works if we choose to respect the rule of law,” he argued, pledging, “I will not stand by and watch the will of the American people be overturned by wild conspiracy theories and baseless, evidence-free claims of fraud.”

At times Biden’s rhetoric seemed almost indistinguishable from that of a Republican never-Trumper like Liz Cheney, who wants to rescue the GOP from Trumpism. He trained his ire on those who “promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country.”

At others, he sounded more like Ted Kennedy as he warned of the social conservatives who want an America “where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.” This made up only a small part of his speech, but it was one of the few excerpts released to the press before its delivery, a signal that it is a message the White House wants to stick.

The speech also came with a boast about Biden’s political accomplishments, hailing legislation passed by Congress including the infrastructure bill and the climate, health care, and tax law Democrats recently passed.

A detailed argument about the threat of illiberal democracy as practiced in Viktor Orban’s Hungary — which is increasingly being hailed as a model on the American right — would not have carried the same weight. High-minded rhetoric about creeping authoritarianism tends to be too obscure for voters.

Instead, the address was a fusion of Biden’s longstanding concerns about American democracy — he has often said that Trump’s response to the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, inspired him to run for president — and a more traditional argument ahead of the midterms.

Biden’s remarks came as Democrats are feeling new optimism about their prospects in 2022. Although inflation remains high, gas prices have fallen considerably in recent months and Democrats have racked up success after success in recent special elections, winning a seat in Alaska for the first time in 50 years earlier this week and pulling an upset in a swing district in New York’s Hudson Valley last week. The change in the political climate tracks to June, after the Dobbs decision in which the Supreme Court held that there is no constitutional right to an abortion.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, a White House official told Vox, “Like he’s said for months, the president is calling out ‘ultra-MAGA’ congressional Republicans for radical proposals that an overwhelming majority of the country — and an enormous percent of Republican voters — oppose; like putting Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block and a national abortion ban.”

Biden’s speech was prebutted hours before by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in a machine shop in northeastern Pennsylvania. The top House Republican argued that Biden was right that American democracy was under threat.

“Democracy is on the ballot in November,” said the California Republican. “And Joe Biden and the radical left are dismantling American democracy before our very eyes.” McCarthy argued that with Biden’s criticism of “MAGA Republicans,” the president has “chosen to divide, demean, and disparage his fellow Americans — why? simply because they disagree with his policies.”

In contrast to Biden, McCarthy mentioned Trump only once, when he condemned the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago as an “assault on democracy.” However, he left clear his views on Trump, casually referencing the former president’s “America First” slogan: “Our values should inspire us to defend America first, not blame America first.”

Biden wants Americans to link McCarthy’s caucus with all that comes with Trump far more closely than that.