President Joe Biden issued an impassioned condemnation of his predecessor and other Republicans on Wednesday night for encouraging political violence, voter intimidation and “the Big Lie,” framing next week’s elections as a pivotal test of American democracy.
While candidates and voters have focused on economic and other issues, Biden sought to use a nationally televised evening speech to put the future of the nation’s system of elections front and center for the final days of debate before midterm elections Tuesday that will determine control of Congress and numerous state offices.
“As I stand here today, there are candidates running for every level of office in America — for governor, Congress, attorney general, secretary of state — who won’t commit, they will not commit to accepting the results of the elections that they’re running in,” Biden said at Union Station, just blocks from where a mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to disrupt the transfer of power. “This is the path to chaos in America. It’s unprecedented. It’s unlawful. And it’s un-American.”
The president seemed particularly unnerved by the violent attack Friday on Paul Pelosi by a hammer-wielding assailant who the police say was seeking to kidnap his wife, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, using words reminiscent of those called out by rioters on Jan. 6. Biden traced the attack to former President Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen.
“It’s a lie that fueled a dangerous rise in political violence and voter intimidation over the past two years,” Biden said. Citing examples of election workers being harassed and menaced, the president singled out Trump’s own efforts days before the Jan. 6 attack to pressure Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find” him enough votes to reverse the outcome of the election in that state.
LIVE: Tune in as I deliver remarks on preserving and protecting our democracy.⁰https://t.co/P8jYSWp6ms
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) November 2, 2022
“This intimidation, this 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,” Biden said. “In this moment, we have to confront those lies with the truth. The very future of our nation depends on it.”
Refusing to identify Trump by name, Biden nonetheless argued that his predecessor had undercut the rule of law. “American democracy is under attack because the defeated former president of the United States refuses to accept the results of the 2020 election,” Biden said. “He refuses to accept the will of the people. He refuses to accept the fact that he lost. He has abused his power and put the loyalty to himself before loyalty to the Constitution and he’s made a Big Lie an article of faith for the MAGA Republicans, a minority of that party.”
He noted that Trump’s false claims have been rejected across the board by courts and other authorities. “The Big Lie has been proven to be just that, a big lie, every single time,” Biden said. “Yet now, extreme MAGA Republicans aim to question not only the legitimacy of past elections, but elections being held now and into the future.”
Political violence has become an increasing concern in recent years. Threats against members of Congress have risen more than tenfold since Trump was elected in 2016, according to the US Capitol Police, which registered more than 9,625 such threats last year alone.
Republican candidates in the Nov. 8 midterm elections are attacking Democrats for what they say is a dramatic spike in crime under Democratic President Joe Biden https://t.co/WFHoyGOQh6 pic.twitter.com/KM86DfPtYN
— Reuters (@Reuters) November 2, 2022
Biden also expressed concern about Republican tactics that might intimidate voters in the name of election monitoring. A federal judge in Arizona this week restricted a group that had been planning to operate near polling places from taking photos of voters, openly carrying firearms and posting information about voters online.
The president has talked about what he perceives as the threat to democracy posed by Trump’s lies about the 2020 election in previous campaign speeches, but he decided to devote a televised nighttime address to the subject just six days before Election Day to bring more attention to it.
This will be “the first election since the events of Jan. 6, when the armed, angry mob stormed the US Capitol,” he said. “I wish, I wish I could say the assault on our democracy ended that day. But I cannot.”
“This is no ordinary year,” he added. “So I ask you to think long and hard about the moment we are in. In a typical year, we’re often not faced with the question of whether the vote we cast will preserve democracy or put us at risk. But this year we are.”
Democracy is more than a form of government. It’s a way of being. A way of seeing the world.
A way that defines who we are, what we believe, and why we do what we do.
Democracy is simply that fundamental.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) November 2, 2022
More than 370 Republican candidates have questioned and, at times, outright denied the results of the 2020 election despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, according to a monthslong New York Times investigation. Trump has made fealty to his false claims a litmus test for his support for Republican candidates.
While Biden excoriated Republicans who deny the legitimacy of elections, he once suggested that he too might not accept the results of this year’s vote if policies he deemed restrictive of the right to vote were enacted by Republican states. “It all depends on whether or not we’re able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of the election,” he said at a news conference in January.
He has stayed away from such a formulation since then, recognising that it provided ammunition to Republicans looking to justify their continued adherence to Trump’s lies about 2020. Reminded of his comments before Wednesday night’s speech, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, was asked if the president expected next week’s elections to be legitimate. “That is a yes,” she said.
The issue of election denialism has challenged the system in unpredictable ways. In some cases earlier this year, Democrats even promoted some far-right election deniers in Republican primaries in a calculated effort to elevate what they presumed would be weaker opponents for the fall general election. Some Democrats complained that the strategy sent mixed messages and risked making it possible for election deniers to gain office.
While largely agreeing with the argument in Biden’s Wednesday night speech, not every Democrat thought it was helpful to make the address when candidates are trying to distance themselves from the president, whose approval ratings are in the mid-40s, and voters in polls are focused on issues like inflation as well as immigration, crime and abortion.
“Issues of democracy are hugely important at this moment and in next week’s election. Totally appropriate for @POTUS to address them,” David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, wrote on Twitter. “Still, as a matter of practical politics, I doubt many Ds in marginal races are eager for him to be on TV tonight.”
Republicans once again asserted that in criticising them for election denial, Biden was himself being divisive instead of the uniter he promised to be. “Desperate and dishonest,” the Republican National Committee said in a statement without waiting for the speech to be delivered. “Joe Biden promised unity but has instead demonised and smeared Americans, while making life more expensive for all.”
Biden has struggled with how frontally he should confront Trump’s followers and the election denialism he has fostered, reluctant on the one hand to allow his predecessor to dominate his own presidency while eager on the other hand to defend what he sees as a system under historic assault.
He has at times given forceful speeches lashing out at Trump and his allies, including last winter on the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack and again during a speech on Sept. 1 in Philadelphia when he denounced the former president and his “MAGA Republicans” for threatening “the very foundations of our Republic.”
Surveys show that voters across the ideological and political spectrum agree that American democracy is under threat but see it from radically different viewpoints: While liberals and many moderates view Trump as the danger, supporters of the former president see the true risk as Biden and policies that they say amount to socialism.
Either way, voters were far likelier to identify inflation and the economy as well as other issues as their top priorities over the future of democracy. In fact, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll, more than one-third of independent voters and even 12% of Democrats said they were open to supporting candidates who reject the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
Biden seemed almost to be arguing with those voters who were not, in his view, prioritising election legitimacy highly enough. Medicare, Social Security and the other issues were important, he said, “but there’s something else at stake: democracy itself.” He added: “We can’t pretend it’s just going to solve itself.”