President Joe Biden on Wednesday delivered a stark warning to Americans that the future of the nation’s democracy could rest on next week’s midterm elections, an urgent appeal coming six days before final ballots are cast in a contest the president framed in nearly existential terms.
“We can’t take democracy for granted any longer,” the president said from Union Station in Washington, blocks from the US Capitol where a mob attempted to interrupt the certification of the 2020 election.
It was a sharp message to Americans considering sitting out next week’s congressional elections that the very future of the country was at stake. Biden suggested the preponderance of candidates for office at every level of government who have denied the results of the last presidential contest was red-flashing warning signal for the country.
“As I stand here today, there are candidates running for every level of office in America – for governor, for Congress, for attorney general, for secretary of state who won’t commit to accepting the results of the elections they’re in,” Biden said. “That is the path to chaos in America. It’s unprecedented. It’s unlawful. And it is un-American.”
Biden’s speech placed blame for the dire national situation squarely at the feet of his predecessor, Donald Trump, accusing the former president of cultivating a lie that has metastasized into a web of conspiracies that has already resulted in targeted violence.
“This intimidation, this violence against Democrats, Republicans and non-partisan officials just doing their jobs, is 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,” Biden said. “In this moment, we have to confront those lies with the truth, the very future of our nation depends on it.”
“American democracy is under attack because the defeated former president … refuses to accept the will of the people,” Biden said.
The speech – a political event hosted by the Democratic National Committee, not the White House – underscored the points Biden has been making for weeks since a prime time speech in Philadelphia. Yet it diverged from the central focus of Democrats’ closing midterm message, which has been a brighter portrait of economic recovery.
Biden’s message Wednesday was anything but optimistic, even as he remained hopeful that Americans would reject the menacing forces he described. Aides said Biden was propelled to deliver the address after an attack last week on the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by an intruder who, according to his social media, wallowed in right-wing conspiracies, including about election fraud.
Biden made sure to note that most Americans, and even most Republicans, would not resort to violence. But he said those who would have outsized influence.
“I believe the voices excusing or calling for violence and intimidation are a distinct minority in America,” Biden said. “But they’re loud and they are determined.”
Biden and his team had been contemplating giving a speech on the topic of democracy for some time, but their decision-making in recent days had been shaped by what they’ve viewed as a surge in anti-democratic rhetoric and threats of violence. But the attack on Paul Pelosi deeply alarmed Biden and his top advisers; the shocking home intrusion and attack on Pelosi landed the 82-year-old in the hospital for surgery and he has since been recovering from a skull fracture, among other injuries.
Advisers said ahead of the speech that Biden felt that it would be important for him to directly condemn these kinds of threats and acts of violence.
The theme of protecting the soul of the nation – and the pillars of the country’s democratic system – were central to Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. The president has since spoken about these topics throughout his presidency, but Wednesday’s speech marked an effort to emphatically underscore what is at stake heading into the midterms.
Defense of democracy has been an animating feature of Biden’s thinking this political season and has emerged more abundantly in his off-camera conversations with Democrats. The day before his speech in Washington, Biden warned a group of Democratic donors in Florida that “democracy is on the ballot” this year – and offered something of a preview of his message for a day later.
“How can you say that you in fact care about democracy when you deny the existence of a win? The only way you could win is either you win or the other guy cheated,” he said at the event, held in an oceanfront backyard of a mansion in Golden Beach, Florida.
“This has not happened since the Civil War. It sounds like hyperbole, but it hadn’t happened since then, as bad as it is now,” he said.
Biden’s Civil War reference hardly appeared coincidental; he was seen this week carrying a copy of historian Jon Meacham’s new book, “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle,” which explores how America’s 16th president confronted secession and threats to democracy.
Meacham is an informal adviser to Biden and has helped write some of his most high-profile speeches.
Biden previously laid out the stakes two months ago, traveling to Philadelphia, where he delivered an urgent rebuke of Trump and those aligned with his attempts to undermine democracy.
“As I stand here tonight, equality and democracy are under assault,” Biden said at the time. “We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise.”
Biden starkly warned at the time about what he called “an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”