Wed. Mar 29th, 2023

In the spring of 2019, Joe Biden officially launched his presidential bid in Philadelphia, telling supporters the first reason he was running was to “restore the soul of the nation.” 

Back in Philadelphia on Thursday night, just two and a half miles from where he stood in 2019, he is set to discuss what the White House calls “the continued battle for the soul of the nation” on the eve of the traditional fall midterm campaign season. The address comes as former President Donald Trump is facing a high-profile, protracted legal battle on several fronts and dozens of Trump-backed candidates who share his false belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen are seeking office in battleground states where they could one day control the levers of elections.

But aides, who privately admit that more news headlines about the former president help improve the current president’s political standing, publicly insist the address has nothing to do with Trump.

“This is not a speech about the former president. This is a speech about American democracy,” a senior administration official said Thursday morning in a preview of the speech for reporters. The address is set to begin at 8 p.m. ET.

The president is set to “speak directly” about what he sees as threats to democracy, but the senior official would not say whether Mr. Biden will mention Trump by name, only offering that the current president has “not shied away from naming his predecessor.” 

“It is not in response to any news of the day. It is a response to what he sees as a moment in this country … where he feels it is his responsibility to bring to the American people this fundamental question about what kind of a nation we are going to be, and what we need to do in order to address the threat to our democracy that he believes exists right now,” added the official, who was granted anonymity by news organizations to share details of the speech in advance. 

The president will deliver the speech outside Independence Hall in front of an invited audience of a few hundred people, according to the White House.

Republicans, eager to exploit the president’s low approval ratings and keep the focus on him, argue that Mr. Biden is reneging on campaign pledges to unite the country and not speak ill of opponents. In a speech Thursday afternoon, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is set to argue that the president wants to “disparage hard working Americans and offer no plan to turn our country around from the disaster Democrats have created.” 

Speaking Wednesday night on Fox News, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio faulted the president for reneging on an Inauguration Day pledge to unite the country by calling out comments Mr. Biden made at a closed-door Democratic Party fundraiser last week, when he said that “an extreme MAGA philosophy” is “like semi-fascism.”

“In essence, they have now established a shield where if you criticize them, they will claim that you are putting them in danger,” Rubio said. “They, on the other hand, do not criticize Republicans. They try to dehumanize, defame and smear Republicans by calling, not Republican officeholders, but Republican voters, everyday people, by calling them semi-fascists.” 

“You criticize the FBI, you get all these news stories about unprecedented threats to the FBI,” Rubio added. “You criticize the IRS, a couple days later the IRS is saying oh now we are being threatened.” 

In response, White House aides insisted that his Thursday evening remarks shouldn’t be seen as an overt political appeal to voters. The speech will detail what the president sees as threats “not from the Republican party,” but from “MAGA Republicans and the extremism that is a threat right now to our democratic values,” the senior official said. 

The official described the MAGA agenda as “a movement that does not recognize free and fair elections, a movement that is increasingly talking about violence in response to actions that they don’t like or don’t agree with, which is not the way democracies behave.”

The president speaks often about how, as a twice-unsuccessful presidential candidate and former vice president, he felt compelled to run again for the Oval Office and restore the nation’s soul after the violent 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, led by white supremacists, an event that led Trump to say there were good people “on both sides” of the violent aftermath. And he has repeatedly sought to place his presidency at the forefront of a battle that pits democracies against autocracies for global dominance. 

But in more recent weeks, the president’s conversations about democracy have become far more partisan and strident, including criticism of comments made last weekend by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, who argued that if Trump faces prosecution for alleged mishandling of classified documents, “there will be riots in the streets.” 

“Did any of you think if you’re as old as I am, you’ve ever been an election where we talk about, it’s appropriate to use force and political violence in America?” he said Tuesday during a speech in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “It’s never appropriate. Never.” 

Jack Turman and Kathryn Watson contributed to this report. 

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