For eighteen months, President Joe Biden has studiously avoided lengthy discussion of former President Donald Trump for fear of dignifying his disgraced predecessor.
But in remarks billed as the White House’s opening salvo in the midterm election campaign on Thursday night, Biden framed nearly the entire address around the Republican standard-bearer, whose continued influence on his party threatens “the very soul of this country.”
“For a long time, we’ve reassured ourselves that American democracy is guaranteed. But it is not. We have to defend it. Protect it. Stand up for it. Each and every one of us,” Biden said in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the American experiment and, to Biden, “sacred ground.”
“We are still, at our core, a democracy,” Biden said. “Yet history tells us that blind loyalty to a single leader and the willingness to engage in political violence is fatal in a democracy.”
Biden’s remarks, which painted the Republican Party as in the thrall of Trump’s politics of personal grievance and petty vengeance, were a return to 2020 form, right down to the terrible lighting. Almost every sentence was molded around a core formed by one of the president’s well-worn campaign lines: the weighty whisper that “America is an idea” imperiled by a “battle for the soul of this nation; that “this is not who we are,” and “we just need to remember who we are;” that “there is not a single thing America cannot do… if we do it together.”
But Biden’s most often-used phrases, rendered into pablum since he first culled them from historian John Meacham half a decade ago, were delivered with a renewed urgency. With Republicans nominating dozens of would-be elected officials who have espoused the baseless conspiracy theory that Biden stole the presidential election - including the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, Biden’s normally tired declaration that “too much of what is happening in our country today is not normal” had a sharpened edge rarely seen since the first days after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens our very republic,” Biden said. “MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution.”
Biden’s return to the same rhetorical well he has been plumbing since 2017 is an indication that he believes the message that won him the White House can help save his majorities in Congress—even more than the actual concrete achievements of his administration thus far, all of which were buried in his remarks almost to obscuration. The largest economic package since Roosevelt, the largest infrastructure package since Eisenhower, the most consequential gun safety laws since Clinton, and the largest climate initiative in history were given one-sentence shoutouts; the COVID-19 pandemic was barely a subordinate clause, and Biden’s erasure of hundreds of billions of dollars in student-loan debt was never even mentioned.
Trump’s presence, however, was felt throughout the remarks—and, in the case of a protester who repeatedly shouted either “FUCK JOE BIDEN” or “LET’S GO BRANDON,” occasionally heard throughout them, too.
“MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards,” Biden said. “Backwards 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.”
With Democrats actually on an upswing following a summer-long run of genuine policy victories, Biden’s strategy of framing the election around his deposed rival risks doing exactly what the president has tried not to do for his entire presidency: give a weakened Trump oxygen.
But to Biden, who made it clear on Thursday that he sees in Trump an incipient autocrat, “we do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise.”
“I know this nation—I know you, the American people. I know your courage, I know your hearts, and I know our history,” Biden said. “This is a nation that honors our Constitution.”