Here are four takeaways from his forceful address.
1. This speech did not shy away from partisanship
Biden isn’t trying to come across as partisan when he talks about democracy, a senior White House official told reporters earlier in the day — and he would not try to persuade the public to vote for his party.
And no matter what the president said tonight, it was probably inevitable that this speech would be received as partisan. Republican candidates far more frequently deny election results than Democrats. Biden has been out in front with his party in talking about this, with sharp language that made even some Democrats flinch. “It’s like semi-fascism,” he said on the campaign trail recently, of the ethos he says underlies the right wing of the Republican Party.
That has given Republicans an opening to attack him as overreaching with his warnings about the state of democracy. Right before the president’s address, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Biden should first apologize to Trump supporters “for slandering tens of millions of Americans as ‘fascists.’ ”
Instead of shying away from that kind of language, Biden mentioned his potential 2024 opponent by name.
Though the president did take care to say there are “mainstream Republicans” who do not subscribe to an “extreme ideology” — a line that drew applause — he also continued: “There’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.”
He went on to tie what he called “MAGA Republicans” to many GOP state legislatures’ unpopular abortion bans, as well as to the most conservative Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas, who suggested in his recent abortion opinion that the court could roll back same-sex marriage rights.
“MAGA Republicans want to take America 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.
Other aspects of the speech promoted a pro-Democrat (and not just generally pro-democracy) message: Toward the end of his address, Biden also championed his recent legislative wins.
Then there’s the timing: This speech comes just two months before consequential midterm elections for his party, and just days before he’ll kick off campaigning for Democrats in the midterms, including in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania over Labor Day. Biden also received some criticism for positioning Marines behind him as he gave this speech.
2. There isn’t much Democrats can do about the problems Biden outlined — for now
“It is within our power. It’s in our hands, yours and mine, to stop the assault on American democracy,” Biden told the nation Thursday.
But for a year, Democrats failed to pass national voting rights legislation that would have overridden voting restrictions in Republican-led states.
Biden — as he does with so many issues that Congress fails to find a compromise on — tried to act on his own with executive actions. But they were relatively minor, like ordering the heads of government agencies to find ways to promote voter registration and information on how to request ballots. The Justice Department also sued Georgia over its restrictive voting law, accusing the state of racial discrimination; primaries this summer took place with the new restrictions still in effect.
Democrats had the votes for setting federal voting standards, in that Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) never opposed making federal changes to voting laws (although the devil was in the details). But the two senators opposed breaking the filibuster and passing this over Republican objections.
That could change if Democrats have a magical midterm election: The Washington Post’s Paul Kane smartly notes that because of struggling Republican candidates, Senate Democrats could win races in November in as many as six states. It’s a tall order, since midterms usually go badly for the party that holds the White House, but it’s doable — and winning all six would mean they would add to their majority, holding up to 52 seats instead of the 50 they have now. That would mean they wouldn’t need Manchin or Sinema for every piece of legislation they want to pass that doesn’t have some Republican support.
Biden has talked about this on the campaign trail: “If we elect two more senators, [if] we keep the House … we’re going to get a lot of unfinished business done.”
3. Democracy has become a motivating factor on the left
A few months before the election, “threats to democracy” is now the top voter concern, above even “cost of living” and “jobs and the economy,” according to an August NBC poll.
It’s remarkable that this issue is getting so much attention, particularly on the left. (When it comes to democracy, issues like campaign finance and appointing judges have typically animated the right.) That political dynamic started to shift after the 2020 election and in 2021, when Democrats made their big, ultimately failed, push to pass national voting rights.
As Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, told me in an interview at the time: “Now the ‘big lie’ has become a mobilizing and motivating issue on the right in the way it never was before, and for the first time, the push for stronger democracy protections have become a central motivating issue for progressives and Democrats.”
4. Biden took aim at the many Republicans who think Jan. 6 was legitimate protest
Early on in his speech, he made an effort to differentiate “MAGA Republicans” from the rest of the Republican Party, saying not all Republicans have anti-democratic tendencies. He’s right: there are significant, serious fissures dividing Republicans along those lines. But there is plenty of evidence that this coalition dominates the party.
Take the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. On Thursday night, Biden called for all Americans to clearly renounce what happened as unacceptable political violence.
Yet in a poll conducted this summer by Monmouth University, more Republicans called Jan. 6 a “legitimate protest” rather than even a “riot,” as The Post’s Aaron Blake pointed out. According to that poll, just 13 percent of Republicans say Jan. 6 was an insurrection.
If Republicans win back control of the House in November’s midterm elections, they are likely to sideline or even disband the congressional Jan. 6 committee investigating the attack. And as Trump prepares to announce his presidential campaign, he said Thursday that if elected, he’ll issue pardons to Jan. 6 defendants charged with participating in the attack.
“We can’t be pro-insurrectionist and pro-American. They’re incompatible,” Biden said Thursday.
Yet a major poll indicates that a majority of a major party in America doesn’t see it that way.