President Joe Biden warned in a speech on Wednesday that the country’s democracy was dangerously close to crumbling, painting the closing stretch of the midterm elections in stark terms.
“In our bones,” the president declared at one point, “we know democracy is at risk.”
“We’re often not faced with questions of whether the vote we cast will preserve democracy,” he said at another point. “But this year we are.”
Biden’s speech was a closing argument for Democrats, who face an uphill battle in the election next week: While the race for the Senate remains a toss-up, the House is forecast to flip in favor of Republicans.
The roughly 20-minute address, delivered at Union Station in Washington, represented the president’s clearest attempt of late to inject spiraling threats to democracy, lies of conspiracy and malice, and violent intimidation into the midterms. Biden spoke about the location being so close to the U.S. Capitol, which he referred to as the “citadel of democracy,” invoking the violent insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, that he has periodically returned to, including in a speech earlier this fall in Philadelphia and one marking the anniversary of the attack.
Like those, it was framed under an overarching banner that formed the basis of his own return to politics when he ran in 2020 — the battle for the very soul of America. Indeed, some of the lines he used on Wednesday about that fight have appeared in earlier remarks on the subject.
“Violence against Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisan officials just doing their jobs are the consequence of lies told for power and profit, lies of conspiracy and malice, lies repeated over and over to generate a cycle of anger, hate, vitriol and even violence,” he said.
Along with the broader themes, Biden suggested Americans should be closely watching for two possible upcoming developments: He issued a warning about possibly scores of Republican officials and activists trying to undermine the vote on Tuesday, and he set expectations that it would take time to count ballots legally.
“We know that many states don’t start counting those ballots till after the polls close on November 8th,” he said. “That means in some cases we won’t know the winner of an election until after a few days after the election. It takes time to count all legitimate ballots in a legal and orderly manner.”
It was a familiar tone from the president, who has warned about threats to democracy before. But with the midterms just days away, it took on a sharper note. Biden blamed his predecessor, Donald Trump, for stoking divisions in the country and breeding election denialism. And he warned that election-denying Trump acolytes were “running for every level of office in America.”
But he was also careful to add that much of the danger was being spurred by MAGA Republicans, specifically, whom he described as a clear danger despite being only a distinct minority of the country.
“That is the path to chaos in America,” Biden said. “It’s unprecedented, it’s unlawful and it’s un-American.”
GOP nominees for secretary of state in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada have questioned the results of the 2020 election, POLITICO has previously reported.
Prior to Biden’s speech, some Democratic advisers had stressed the importance of balancing economic issues — ranked by many voters as their top priority in the midterm elections — and threats to democracy, such as widespread election denial and conspiracy theories.
But in his remarks on Wednesday, the president mentioned the economy only in passing, choosing instead to focus fully on the democratic process. “We must vote knowing what’s at stake, not just in the policy of the moment,” he observed.
Biden said voters should ask themselves of each candidate on their ballot, “Will that person accept the legitimate will of the people?”
“The answer to that question is vital and, in my opinion, should be decisive,” he said. While issues including the economy are on the ballot, Biden said, “there’s something else at stake: Democracy itself.”
At another point, he sought to make clear that the timing and tenor of the speech were independent of his own presidency.
“This is not about me,” he said. “This is about the durability of our government. … We can’t take democracy for granted any longer.”
Biden opened the speech by addressing the attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on Friday at their San Francisco home.
David DePape, the man charged with beating Pelosi with a hammer, allegedly made astatement threatening to attack the United States’ top Democratic officials. Social media posts showed that DePape was immersed in conspiracy theories, including the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. But since the attack, some Republicans have engaged in their own conspiracy theories or downplayed the role of GOP rhetoric.
“We don’t settle our differences in America with a riot, a mob, or a bullet or a hammer,” Biden said at one point.
On Twitter, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) took issue with Biden’s saying the speech was not about himself.
“Incorrect @POTUS,” McCarthy tweeted Wednesday, “[I]t’s all ABOUT YOU… You refuse to address Americans top concerns. Why? Because your policies and inept administration have FAILED.”
Herschel Walker, the former football star who is now the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Georgia, earlier Wednesday dismissed the Democratic alarm bells for democracy as “nonsense.”
“Joe Biden in charge in Washington, in the White House — that’s a bigger threat to democracy, isn’t it?” Walker said, in a speech rife with references to sports and the Bible.
Walker also billed spending, inflation, immigration, crime, a “woke military” and his own opponent, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, as bigger “threats to democracy” than Republicans.
“They’re going to come after you,” Walker said of Democrats, to a crowd in Georgia. “They’re going to come after your family.”
The president has made threats to democracy a central part of his argument on electing Democrats: He delivered a speech in Philadelphia defending the “soul of the nation” against so-called MAGA Republicans at the beginning of the campaign season.
In his remarks on Wednesday, delivered a few blocks from the Capitol, Biden said that a vote shouldn’t be seen as “a partisan tool, to be counted when it helps your candidates and tossed aside when it doesn’t.”
“You can’t love your country only when you win,” he said.
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