Four Takeaways from President Biden’s Speech in Philadelphia

From a New York Times story by Jonathan Weisman headlined “Four takeaways from Biden’s speech in Philadelphia”:

Just before the traditional Labor Day launch of the political season, President Biden inserted himself into the midterm elections on Thursday with a fierce speech castigating former President Donald J. Trump and his followers but ending with optimism for the nation’s democratic future.

Here are four takeaways from the prime-time address from Independence Hall in Philadelphia:

Sure, Mr. Biden rattled off the accomplishments of his first year and a half in office — infrastructure, gun safety, prescription drug price controls and “the most important climate initiative ever.” But in his address to the nation, Mr. Biden tacitly acknowledged that his predecessor still looms over the politics of the moment, like it or not. And he took it to Mr. Trump directly, calling him out by name and seeking to differentiate between “the MAGA Republicans” loyal to Mr. Trump and what he deemed reasonable Republicans who still stand by the American democratic experiment.

“There’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans,” he said. “And that is a threat to this country.”

Midterm elections are usually a referendum on the party of the president in power, especially when that party also controls Congress. But Mr. Biden and the Democrats are betting that if they can make this November a choice between Democratic and Republican control, they can win, or at least keep their losses to a minimum. Mr. Biden’s speech was all about making the choice this Election Day between what he called “the light of truth” and “the shadow of lies.”

Mr. Biden’s approval ratings have risen of late, buoyed by legislative successes as well as falling gas prices. Still, with a composite disapproval rate of 53 percent, and job approval still in the low 40s, the president is no one’s idea of Mr. Popularity.

But on Thursday, the White House rolled the dice, apparently assuming that lying low would not help matters and hoping that a big, televised speech might remind voters why they chose Mr. Biden in 2020. Republicans have caricatured the president as a doddering old man, unable to assemble a string of coherent sentences. Rather than let such aspersions go unchallenged, the White House moved to dispel them with a forceful speech that would, if nothing else, rally the Democratic base, which was already energized by the Supreme Court’s decision to end the nearly 50-year-old right to an abortion.

The president’s emphasis on the historic nature of the largest climate change measure ever enacted was aimed at young Democratic voters who are among the most disenchanted with him personally. But above all, Mr. Biden appealed to the fears that have gripped some of the most reliable Democratic voting groups — L.G.B.T.Q. voters, young voters and women — when he suggested the overturning of Roe v. Wade was just the beginning: “MAGA forces are determined to take this country 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.”

During the Trump administration, much was made of the former president’s willingness to castigate his political enemies on the left, to the delight of his supporters. He tried to roll back transgender rights across the government, attacked the rights of lesbian and gay Americans, told the women of color in the House Democrats’ “Squad” to “go back” to where they came from, and gleefully attacked cities like Chicago, San Francisco and Baltimore.

In his speech, Mr. Biden took pains to say, “Not every Republican, not even a majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans; not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology.” But a Republican Party still dominated by Mr. Trump’s Make America Great Again ideology was not going to accept that distinction, not when the tribe of “Never Trump” Republicans has shriveled to a tiny cohort.

On Thursday, it was the Republicans’ turn to denounce the divisiveness of a president who was scorning them. The Republican National Committee cast Mr. Biden as “the divider-in-chief” who “epitomizes the current state of the Democrat Party: one of divisiveness, disgust, and hostility towards half the country.”

But at times, the Republican response felt like an extended taunt of “I know you are, but what am I?” Before Mr. Biden’s speech, the man who hopes to be House speaker next year, Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, also spoke in Pennsylvania, trying to pre-empt a presidential address previewed as an appeal for the soul of the nation by — with little factual basis — turning Mr. Biden’s themes against him.

“In the past two years, Joe Biden has launched an assault on the soul of America,” Mr. McCarthy, the House minority leader, said, “on its people, on its laws, on its most sacred values. He has launched an assault on our democracy.”

The entreaty from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid,” has become a truism in American politics, in good times and in bad. Today, a majority of Americans still rate the economy as their No. 1 concern, and large numbers believe the nation is in a recession.

Not Mr. Biden, who declared, “today, America’s economy is faster, stronger, than any other advanced nation in the world.” The word “inflation” did not pass his lips.

In the 2010 campaign season, after President Barack Obama and his vice president, Mr. Biden, labored to bring the nation out of the global financial crisis, Mr. Obama barnstormed the country, insisting that Democrats had lifted the nation’s economy out of the ditch that the Republicans had driven it into. Voters delivered what Mr. Obama called a “shellacking” — huge losses in Congress that Democrats would not overcome for eight years.

Mr. Biden, learning from that mistake, had been trying to show voters he understood their pain and anxiety over rising prices and lingering uncertainty. On Thursday night, he seemed to set that aside to make the election about an entirely different issue: the fate of democratic pluralism.

“America is still the beacon to the world, an ideal to be realized, a promise to be kept,” he concluded. “There’s nothing more important, nothing more sacred, nothing more American. That’s our soul.”

Jonathan Weisman is a congressional correspondent, veteran Washington journalist and author of the novel “No. 4 Imperial Lane” and the nonfiction book “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.” His career in journalism stretches back 30 years.

Speak Your Mind