President Joe Biden warned Thursday night that "equality and democracy are under assault" in the U.S. as he sounded an alarm about his predecessor, Donald Trump, and "MAGA Republican" adherents, labeling them an extremist threat to the nation and its future.
Aiming to reframe the November elections as part of a battle for the nation's soul — "the work of my presidency," President Biden used his prime-time speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to argue that Trump and "Make America Great Again" allies are a challenge to nation's system of government, its standing abroad and its citizens' way of life.
"Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic," President Biden declared. He said they "are determined to take this country backward' they "promote authoritarian leaders and they fan the flames of political violence."
The explicit effort by President Biden to marginalize Trump and his adherents marks a sharp turn for the president, who preached his desire to bring about national unity in his Inaugural address. White House officials said it reflects his mounting concern about Trump allies' ideological proposals and relentless denial of the nation's 2020 election results.
"MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards," President Biden is saying, according to prepared remarks released by the White House. "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."
"For a long time, we've reassured ourselves that American democracy is guaranteed. But it is not," President Biden says. "We have to defend it. Protect it. Stand up for it. Each and every one of us."
President Biden, who largely avoided even referring to "the former guy" by name during his first year in office, has grown increasingly vocal in calling out Trump personally. Now, emboldened by his party's recent legislative wins and wary of Trump's return to the headlines, President Biden is sharpening his attacks.
Trump plans a rally this weekend in Scranton, Pennsylvania, President Biden's birthplace.
At a Democratic fundraiser last week, President Biden likened the "MAGA philosophy" to "semi-fascism."
In Philadelphia, White House officials said, President Biden intended to hark back to the 2017 White supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, which he says brought him out of political retirement to challenge Trump. President Biden argues that the country faces a similar crossroads in the coming months.
Biden allies stress that he is not rejecting the entirety of the GOP and is calling on traditional Republicans to join him in condemning Trump and his followers. It's a balancing act, given that more than 74 million people voted for Trump in 2020.
"I respect conservative Republicans," President Biden said last week. "I don't respect these MAGA Republicans."
Delivering a preemptive rebuttal from Scranton Thursday evening, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy accused President Biden of trying to divide Americans, and blasted the Democrats' record in Washington, pointing to rising inflation, crime and government spending.
"In the past two years, Joe Biden has launched an assault on the soul of America, on its people, on its laws, on its most sacred values," he said. "He has launched an assault on our democracy. His policies have severely wounded America's soul, diminished America's spirit and betrayed America's trust."
Asked about McCarthy's criticism, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said "we understand we hit a nerve" with the GOP leader, and quoted the Republican's prior statements saying Trump bore responsibility for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Larry Diamond, an expert on democracy and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said calling Trump out for attacks on democracy "can be manipulated or framed as being partisan. And if you don't call it out, you are shrinking from an important challenge in the defense of democracy."
Even this week, Trump was posting on his beleaguered social media platform about overturning the 2020 election results and holding a new presidential election, which would violate the Constitution.
Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, said it's not unusual for there to be tension between a president and his successor, but it's "unprecedented for a former president to be actively trying to undermine the U.S. Constitution."
"The challenge that President Biden faces is to get on with his agenda while still doing what he needs to uphold the Constitution," Naftali said. "That's not easy."
The White House has tried to keep President Biden removed from the legal and political maelstrom surrounding the Department of Justice's discovery of classified documents in Trump's Florida home. Still, President Biden has taken advantage of some Republicans' quick condemnation of federal law enforcement.
"You can't be pro-law enforcement and pro-insurrection," President Biden said Tuesday in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
President Biden's appearance Thursday night was promoted as an official, taxpayer-funded event, a mark of how the president views defeating the Trump agenda as much as a policy aim as a political one. The major broadcast television networks were not expected to carry the address live.
President Biden's trip to Philadelphia is just one of his three to the state within a week, a sign of Pennsylvania's importance in the midterms, with competitive Senate and governor's races. However, neither Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democrats' Senate nominee, nor Attorney General Josh Shapiro, their pick for governor, was expected to attend Thursday night.
The White House intended the speech to unite familiar themes: holding out bipartisan legislative wins on guns and infrastructure as evidence that democracies "can deliver," pushing back on GOP policies on guns and abortion that President Biden says are out of step with most people's views, and rejecting efforts to undermine confidence in the nation's election or diminish its standing abroad.
The challenges have only increased since the tumult surrounding the 2020 election and the Capitol attack.
Lies surrounding that presidential race have triggered harassment and death threats against state and local election officials and new restrictions on mail voting in Republican-dominated states. County election officials have faced pressure to ban the use of voting equipment, efforts generated by conspiracy theories that voting machines were somehow manipulated to steal the election.
Candidates who dispute Trump's loss have been inspired to run for state and local election posts, promising to restore integrity to a system that has been undermined by false claims.
There is no evidence of any widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines. Judges, including ones appointed by Trump, dismissed dozens of lawsuits filed after the election, and Trump's own attorney general called the claims bogus. Yet Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research polling has shown about two-thirds of Republicans say they do not think President Biden was legitimately elected president.
This year, election officials face not only the continuing threat of foreign interference but also ransomware, politically motivated hackers and insider threats. Over the past year, security breaches have been reported at a small number of local election offices in which authorities are investigating whether office staff improperly accessed or provided improper access to sensitive voting technology.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.