The United States is at a dangerous junction in its battle to maintain democracy, President Joe Biden believes — and in a rousing speech from Philadelphia on Thursday night, he laid the blame at the feet of one man.
“There's no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans,” Biden said, referring to Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, Make America Great Again. “And that is a threat to this country.”
Biden drew a dark picture of his opponents’ vision for America as he spoke in front of the hall where the nation’s founders wrote and debated both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, nearly 250 years ago.
He spoke for 25 minutes, and in that time, said one word no fewer than 25 times: democracy.
He used the word as a cudgel against Trump-aligned Republicans who echo Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen; who work to suppress voter turnout in key states; and who participated in the violent insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“History tells us that blind loyalty to a single leader and a willingness to engage in political violence is fatal to democracy,” he said “For a long time, we've told ourselves that American democracy is guaranteed. But it's not. We have to defend it. Protect it. Stand up for it.”
In a refutation delivered ahead of the speech, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy accused Biden of divisiveness and blamed Democrats for rising inflation, crime and government spending.
“In the past two years, Joe Biden has launched an assault on the soul of America, on its people, on its laws, on its most sacred values," he said. "He has launched an assault on our democracy. His policies have severely wounded America’s soul, diminished America’s spirit and betrayed America’s trust.”
Biden’s condemnation earned him hecklers, who shouted obscenities in his direction as he spoke. Going momentarily off-script, he responded.
“Those folks over there, they’re entitled to be outrageous,” he said. “This is a democracy.”
But he also used the word to reflect what he believes is a better future, led by his party, whose recent legislative gains he touted as proof. Since taking office, Biden has shepherded through major legislation that his administration says will bring about economic recovery, massive infrastructure improvements, gun safety, affordable health care, clean energy and climate change reduction.
“Together, together, we can choose a different path,” he said. “We can choose a better path forward to the future. A future of possibility, a future to build a dream and hope – and we're on that path moving ahead.”
This is Biden’s second visit to the Keystone State this week. Pennsylvania is a competitive state in what is shaping up as a battleground between Biden’s Democrats and Trump’s Republicans in midterm elections later this year.
Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed that this was not intended as a stump speech.
“This is so much broader, so much bigger than any one party, than any one person,” she said. “And it's an optimistic speech, again, about where we are as a nation and where we can go. And it's about the fundamental struggle around the globe between autocracy and democracy and how democracy is a critical foundation for this country to move forward.”
Analysts question that, as Biden’s recent legislative victories and priorities don’t overlap much with the themes of his speech.
“We're beginning to see what issues that Democrats see as being advantageous: guns are one, democracy is another,” said William Howell, a professor of American politics at the University of Chicago. ”And it’s interesting, too, that he didn't do much legislatively on either of those domains. And yet those are the ones he's talking about, but not with an eye towards passing policy now but with an eye towards reshaping the composition of Congress.”
Historians who study presidential rhetoric say Biden’s tone has shifted noticeably as the November polls have gotten closer.
“I believe the sharper rhetoric from the president and other Democrats is working,” said Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “There's evidence that many independent voters – not Trump voters, many independent voters – particularly women, even in conservative states, like Texas and Kansas, are fed up with Republican obstructionism. And quite frankly, they're fed up with the news of law-breaking by the former president. The more Trump is in the news, the better the Democrats look.”
After the speech, Suri noted that Biden’s words may now put his opponents on a back foot.
“Biden’s speech forces Republicans like [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell and McCarthy to either defend or renounce MAGA Republicans — no way to avoid the issue when commenting on this speech,” he said.
But on this night in Philadelphia — as the president urged Americans to “vote, vote, vote” — he closed with a picture of the country he sees.
“We are the United States of America, the United States of America,” he said, stressing the word “united.” “And may God protect our nation. And may God protect all those who stand watch over our democracy. God bless you all. Democracy. Thank you.”