Biden banks on Democratic outrage, risking deeper US divisions
US President Joe Biden is seeking to stoke voters’ outrage over the extremism of Donald Trump and his supporters ahead of November’s midterm elections, even if the strategy risks exacerbating political tensions in the country.
In a prime-time address to the nation on Thursday from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Biden sharpened the criticism he’s recently used to describe his predecessor and Trump supporters.
Declaring that “equality and democracy are under assault” from “extremist” Republicans, he implied that the only way to stop them was to vote against Republicans who support Trump.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundation of our republic,” Biden said, referring to Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again”.
Thursday’s speech was Biden at his most combative. He strode to a lectern from the front door of the hall where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were both written, bathed in alarm-bell red lighting and braced by two Marines standing at parade rest.
For some time after taking office, Biden avoided mentioning Trump by name and declined to respond to his attacks. But circumstances have changed in the last year: Biden’s approval ratings nosedived as inflation soared, jeopardising his party’s control of Congress, while Trump’s conduct has been thrust back into the spotlight after an FBI search of his Florida estate last month.
All the while, Biden has faced pressure from his left flank to more aggressively confront Trump and his adherents.
‘Darkness and despair’
Biden went to some lengths to distinguish “the majority of Republicans” from Trump and his supporters. But he portrayed them as dangerous to the country, citing their efforts to overturn the 2020 election and accusing them of encouraging violence against their opponents.
“MAGA Republicans look at America and see carnage and darkness and despair. They spread fear and lies, lies told for profit and power,” Biden said.
“They promote authoritarian leaders and they fan the flames of political violence; they are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country,” he added.
The setting for the speech echoed the nation’s political divide. Outside, protesters could be heard shouting “f— Joe Biden” and “let’s go Brandon”, an insult adopted by Trump supporters.
“Good manners is nothing they’ve ever suffered from,” Biden remarked.
The speech reflected his view that the threat posed by anti-democratic elements in the GOP has become more dire, aides said, as well as his political advisers’ belief that stoking anger over Trump and his supporters gives Democrats a better shot at holding onto narrow majorities in the House and Senate.
In midterm elections, when turnout is lower than presidential contests, anger can be a more powerful motivator for voters than inspiration. Trump has held rallies around the country aimed at keeping his base at a high froth.
Biden has escalated his criticism of Republicans in recent weeks, condemning the ideology espoused by Trump’s followers as “semi-fascism”.
Despite his image as a politician with a history of bipartisanship, Biden hasn’t shied from assailing the GOP during election season. As vice president during the 2012 campaign, he told a crowd that included many black people that Republicans were “going to put you all back in chains”.
Before the Thursday speech, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy delivered a rebuttal in which he accused the president, not Trump, of inflaming divisions.
“When the president speaks tonight at Independence Hall, the first lines out of his mouth should be to apologise for slandering tens of millions of Americans as fascists,” he said.
The “semi-fascists” line had discomfited some of Biden’s allies as well.
“I have concerns that some people seem to think that violence is an appropriate way of resolving disputes in our democracy, but I think President Biden’s comments just painted with way too broad a brush,” Senator Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat who faces a competitive re-election race, said this week in a local television interview.
Yet the message has appeared to resonate with the voters Biden’s party needs to show up in November. Democrats unexpectedly prevailed in recent special House elections in New York and Alaska after campaigning on the issue of abortion access, which the president said is the first of many rights Republicans could target if they take control of Congress.
And Democrats have taken a 47-44% lead over Republicans when voters are asked which party they want to control Congress, according to a new Wall Street Journal poll.
Voters surveyed in the poll cited the Supreme Court’s ruling this year striking down the Roe v Wade decision as the issue most likely to make them cast a ballot this fall.
Trump’s return to the spotlight following the FBI’s search for classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago home has helped Biden and Democrats underscore the contrast with Republicans, as they argue it shows his disregard for the rule of law. Biden has called Trump’s attacks on the FBI “sickening”.
Revelations from the House hearings on the January 6 insurrection combined with the nomination of Republican candidates who echo Trump’s false claim the 2020 election was stolen show the party is still beholden to Biden’s predecessor, Democrats say.
“They’ve laid out the stakes for the next few months as the campaign starts to heat up over Labour Day,” said Eric Schultz, who served as a spokesman in Barack Obama’s White House. “Not only does it make strategic sense to do, it’s incumbent upon the president to do so.”
Biden and Democrats still have work to do to salvage their congressional majorities. Kitchen-table issues that have traditionally decided elections weigh heavily on voters, particularly inflation, which remains at a four-decade high despite levelling off in July.
Yet a new NBC News poll showed a 21% plurality of voters naming “threats to democracy” as their top concern. Just 16% cited the cost of living. BM