WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said "MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards" in a prime-time address to the nation Thursday, urging Americans to "stand up" to defend democracy and "choose a better path forward."
Biden warned that "equality and democracy are under assault," singling out former President Donald Trump by name and his supporters who have denied the results of the 2020 presidential election. He called it his "duty to level with you to tell the truth" as he accused Trump's followers of stoking political violence.
"Too much in our country is not normal," Biden said in a 24-minute speech from outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia. "Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic."
Although the White House claimed the speech wasn't about the midterm elections less than 70 days away, the president was speaking in a crucial battleground state that could decide control of the Senate. Protesters with bullhorns interrupted the president during part of his remarks, which had clear political overtones.
"For a long time, we've reassured ourselves that American democracy is guaranteed, but it is not," Biden said. "We have to defend it, protect it, stand up for it. Each and every one of us." He said Trump and his supporters see their failure to overturn the 2020 election as "preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections."
Trump has signaled he plans to run for president in 2024.
Biden has embraced a more aggressive tone as the campaign kicks into high gear, accusing Republicans aligned with Trump of "semi-fascism." He's singled out "MAGA Republicans," referring to the Make America Great Again movement spawned by his predecessor, to argue the party has become increasingly "extreme." He sought Thursday to differentiate the far right from "mainstream Republicans," who he said he respects.
"MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards – 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," Biden said.
He said they "embrace anger, they thrive on chaos, they live not in light of truth, but in the shadow of lies," but added "together we can choose a different path."
Philadelphia, known as the birthplace of American democracy, was a calculated site for the speech. It's also where Biden launched his 2020 presidential campaign. The president Thursday reintroduced the central argument of his 2020 run by framing the stakes as "the continued battle for the soul of the nation."
Biden condemned rising threats against election workers and FBI agents amid the bureau's investigation into classified documents Trump stored at his Mar-a-Lago home. He also called out Republicans who have warned about riots on the streets, an apparent swipe at Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who predicted such a scenario if Trump is prosecuted.
"This is inflammatory. It's dangerous. It's against the rule of law," Biden said.
Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., pushed back at the premise of Biden's speech, arguing Biden "does not understand the soul of America." He said the "tens of millions of hard-working, law-abiding citizens that he vilifies" simply want a say in their child's education, gas they can afford, inflation to halt and feel safe to go on their streets.
"They want a stronger, safer, more prosperous America," McCarthy said in an interview Thursday on Fox News. "And all he does is vilify them to distract from the disasters and no plan he has to save America from where we are today."
Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, called Biden "the divider-in-chief" who "epitomizes the current state of the Democrat Party: one of divisiveness, disgust, and hostility towards half the country."
A few hundred spectators watched Biden speak from seats outside Independence Hall. Although the speech had a prime-time slot, network television stations didn't air it over previously scheduled programing.
At one point, Biden responded to the protesters who kept interrupting him: "They're entitled to be outrageous. This is a democracy. Good manners is nothing they've ever suffered from."
A poll from NBC News last week found that 21% of voters said "threats to democracy" were the top issue facing the country, above the economy, immigration and climate change.
Democrats, who once seemed on track for a potentially disastrous midterm election, have found new reason for optimism following special-election congressional victories in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Biden has seen approval ratings that floundered the past year finally start to improve after a series of legislative wins and lowering gas prices.
Biden said "our task is to make our nation free and fair, justice, strong, noble and whole" as he concluded his remarks on an optimistic note.
"I have no doubt – none – that this is who we will be and that we'll come together as a nation that will secure our democracy."
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @Joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden speech confronts MAGA agenda for 'taking country backwards'