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Biden's speech walks a fine line in its attack on MAGA Republicans

President Joe Biden delivers a primetime speech at Independence National Historical Park September 1, 2022 in Philadelphia.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
President Joe Biden delivers a primetime speech at Independence National Historical Park September 1, 2022 in Philadelphia.

Democrats have picked up some momentum this election cycle with wins in multiple special elections, following the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade.

And the FBI search of former President Trump's Florida home has thrust Trump back into the spotlight, front and center. Lots of his candidates have won contentious primaries; he's consolidated his base; and his renewed presence has threatened to make the November elections a choice rather than a referendum on President Biden.

Biden and the White House leaned into that Thursday night with an unusual prime-time address that broke no news or made any big announcements. Instead, Biden took the opportunity to elevate Trump and make it a choice between what Biden and Democrats stand for and MAGA Republican extremism, as he sees it, and its rising influence in positions of power throughout the country.

"I believe America is at an inflection point," the president said in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the same city where he launched his 2020 presidential campaign, "one of those moments that determine the shape of everything that's to come after. And now America must choose to move forward or to move backwards."

On the eve of Labor Day weekend, the traditional pivot to the final sprint of general elections across the country, here are three takeaways from Biden's speech:

1. Biden tried to reinforce the idea that this election is a choice, not a referendum... on him

Elections, especially midterm elections, are traditionally a check on the president. Inflation is high, Biden is unpopular and people are pessimistic about the direction of the country. That usually would mean a wipeout in a president's first midterm.

So this gave Biden an opportunity to deflect from that — and lay out a choice.

"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."

He highlighted threats to democracy as being urgent and instigated by Trump. Biden doesn't often use Trump's name, but he name-checked him three times in this speech. And when you do that, it's going to look and sound political. And that was obviously intentional.

With Trump back in the news, it offered Biden a way to elevate him, hold him up as the standard-bearer of the GOP, what it stands for, and draw a line in the sand.

"It's pretty clear they want to amplify the MAGA message," said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. "Almost feels like a pre-argument against what a Republican House might be pushing for the next two years, setting up a broader narrative about how he is fighting to stop Republicans from anti-democratic moves."

2. This may have been a political speech, but that doesn't mean there aren't real threats

You'd be forgiven if you confused Biden's address for a convention speech, because that's where you draw contrasts with your opponent and lay out a vision for the country.

But that's not to say there aren't real or urgent threats. Election deniers are closer to controlling elections in key places, and as we've said many times watching the Jan. 6 hearings, the institutions of democracy may have held in 2020, but only because of the people who were running them.

Now many of those structures are run by people who support Trump and his election lies all the way.

We've seen political violence, the FBI is facing threats, as are poll workers and local election officials. There is no doubt that conspiratorial elements of Trumpism are more potentially operational now than they were before the 2020 presidential election.

"Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election — either they win or they were cheated," Biden said.

And with the election two months away, the White House would argue highlighting that threat is key.

3. There is a degree of risk in Biden's strategy

Democrats' recent momentum in multiple special elections has largely been due to abortion rights, not necessarily about threats to democracy.

Yes,a recent NBC poll showed threats to democracy rising to the No. 1 issue, and that is significant, as it overtook cost of living, which was second. But it was only with 21% of respondents. Economic-related items when combined — cost of living and jobs and the economy — were 30%, higher than threats to democracy.

What's more, when you break down those who said threats to democracy were their top issue, 53% were Democrats, while 32% of Republicans and 11% of independents did. And Democrats and Republicans certainly view the "threats to democracy" very differently. Democrats obviously see Trump and "MAGA extremism" as the threat, while many Republicans, who have believed Trump's election lies, believe Democrats and (not) rigged elections are the problems.

So the White House might be overreading polls here.

Republicans, many of whom are now aligned with Trump, are incensed.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy gave a speech before Biden spoke and said the president needed to apologize for what he saw as insulting the millions of Americans who voted for Trump.

It certainly shows the 180-degree shift McCarthy has made since after Jan. 6 in his quest to become House speaker. But it also highlights the high bar Biden has in trying to make clear he is talking about Republican elected officials and not voters.

"Not even a majority of Republicans are MAGA Republicans," Biden said. "Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know because I've been able to work with these mainstream Republicans. But there's no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. And that is a threat to this country."

That is a very fine line for a president, who isn't always artful with his words, to walk and stick to. The GOP will obviously use this to fire up their base against Democrats and Biden in these midterms, but the White House is gambling that conservatives who dislike him are already fired up — and Democrats need to keep their base engaged.

"There is a risk of overreaching on this," Payne said, "especially at a point when Republicans are on their heels trying to protect some anticipated gains in the '22 midterms."

But, he added, "I think it also helps juice the base [with] moral clarity on saving the democracy."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.