The seeds of Biden’s Democratic discourse germinated long before the Mar-a-Lago search
The GOP primary victories of a number of candidates refusing the 2020 election in state and federal contests, combined with the consolidation of support around Trump, have rocked the White House. Biden told associates he barely recognizes the Republican Party he could once work with, seeing a cult of personality instead.
Threats made against federal agents following the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home also outraged the president. Biden has seen echoes of what happened 18 months ago, when officers lost their lives defending the US Capitol. The actual writing of the speech began about three weeks ago, with Jon Meacham, the historian who has been involved in a number of Biden’s most sweeping speeches, helping with the framing.
When a number of Republican lawmakers warned of violence if Trump was indicted, it only added to the urgency. There was, as one senior administration official put it, “a growing degree of concern that this movement, rather than dissipating, was gaining strength.”
Biden’s speech landed hard. In the space of a relatively quick 25 minutes, he said that “equality and democracy are under attack”, that the country “has no favor in pretending otherwise” and that “too much of what is happening in our country today is not normal”. His defenders praised him for speaking harsh truths. His critics accused him of stoking the very divisions he decried.
Jim Dornan, a longtime Republican operative and member of the party’s anti-Trump wing, said while the former president and his allies gave Biden plenty of evidence to back up the arguments Thursday night, Biden used the wrong tactic. The speech sounded like a “24-minute bitch slap from the Republicans,” he said.
“I was offended by parts of it. I think he would have done better not to. He will not win the votes of people like me,” he added.
But the belief inside the White House is that the address was simply unavoidable. Several aides and allies said it would have been “a dereliction of duty” if Biden had not spoken as major developments threatened the country’s bedrock.
They do not deny that there was a political advantage to the speech. The former president has become so toxic, according to White House aides, that any day he dominates the discourse is a good day. They became elated to see Republican candidates for Congress facing questions about Trump’s legal and political entanglements.
But Biden’s team also rolled their eyes at the 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 reviews unconvincing.
“Defending democracy has only recently become a matter of contrast and it’s a very sad commentary that it can be seen that way,” a senior administration official said. “The premise of the speech was that every American can unite around the principle of living in a democracy and that it is worth fighting for… It was not a divisive issue 10 years ago.”
The president’s allies say he privately stresses the importance of not only calling out the danger to democracy, but also linking it to the need to vote in November. Celinda Lake, a longtime party pollster who worked for the Biden campaign, said voters, especially swing women and “cutting edge Democrats” — those who vote but not midterm — found the case that Biden has made compelling.
“You had two patterns that emerged that are important,” she explained. “The first is that the Republicans and Trump think they are above the rule of law and the search for Mar-a-Lago is a pinch of that. … The second is that the will of the people is overthrown. Two-thirds or more of Americans think Joe Biden won the election. January 6 and Roe vs. Wade are dramatic reversals of the will of the people.
Lake said the combination creates “a very strong narrative, and it fuels the argument that if you want to come together to make sure the will of the people isn’t overthrown, you have to vote in 2022.”
For Biden, however, Thursday’s speech was also a return to the script. Allies say the theme of a failing democracy was one he began to have real concerns about during the divisive period ahead of the 2016 election. And he delved into the 2020 campaign warning that democracy was in danger and with a general theme of the need to restore “the soul of the nation”.
But his prioritization of the issue has also been called into question. Last winter, suffrage advocates grew furious over what they saw as a lukewarm White House response to Republican states across the country passing restrictive election laws. Biden responded with a speech in Georgia in which he called on the Senate to change its filibuster rules to enact electoral reforms. But the votes were not there, and the question was quickly overtaken by others.
Recently, however, there is movement behind a more modest reform of the law on the electoral count. And some who criticized Biden for dropping the ball say they are heartened to see him speak out 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 Glaude, an African-American history professor at Princeton who met Biden with other historians earlier this year. “Well, they have their own supply of oxygen to use. And so you have to fix it because it’s not just brooding anymore. The flames are burning.
White House aides say Biden’s interest never really waned. They point to his speeches in Tulsa, Okla., last year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a massive racial attack and on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 uprising. In early August, Biden convened a meeting with historians, scholars and journalists to discuss threats to the country’s democracy. And after Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) lost her lead candidacy last month, Biden called her the next day to express his gratitude for her commitment to investigating the Jan. 6 attacks and her warnings about backsliding. democratic.
But there are competing demands. Throughout Biden’s presidency, Democrats insisted that, unlike the Obama years, they would bend over backwards to sell the legislation they passed. As the midterms approach and more laws have emptied his office, that sales job becomes more pressing.
Yet Democrats feel that these issues have begun to coalesce under expanded and suppressed rights; that the January 6 hearings broke out; and that, since the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe vs. Wadethe president had the country’s ear in a way that eluded him for much of his presidency.
“I tend to focus almost singularly on bread and butter issues. I co-founded the Blue Collar Caucus six years ago to improve what I saw as real flaws in the way we sent these issues,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.). “Biden understands that and is a big improvement from where the party was eight years ago. That said, I’m surprised how often my constituents spontaneously cite threats to democracy as one of their top issues.