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Biden gives 'soul of the nation' prime-time address ahead of midterm elections

These are biggest takeaways and highlights from President Joe Biden speech ripping "MAGA Republicans" and calling on Americans to protect democracy.

President Joe Biden delivered a prime-time presidential address about the "soul of the nation" at 8 p.m. ET Thursday in Philadelphia. He touched on some of his administration's biggest successes so far, ongoing threats to American democracy and what's at stake in the November midterm elections.

Our contributors for this live blog were The ReidOut Blog writer Ja'han Jones and MSNBC Daily columnists Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Natasha Noman, Nayyera Haq and Noah Rothman.

453d ago / 1:46 AM UTC

Hecklers targeted Biden — and his reaction spoke volumes

Biden's speech offered a stark contrast in many ways to the "American carnage"-themed public addresses Trump delivered during his presidency. But one key difference was highlighted not in Biden's speech, but in his reaction to hecklers.

"They’re entitled to be outrageous," Biden said during his speech, as shouting could be heard in the distance. "This is a democracy."

After the speech, The Nation's Elie Mystal suggested Trump would have called for those hecklers to be "beaten" if it had been during one his speeches.

"When Biden says that heckler is entitled to be outrageous, how can you hear that ... and not understand the critical difference between both parties?" Mystal said.

453d ago / 1:22 AM UTC

The stakes are simply too high for Biden to be coy on this issue

While Biden spent much of his speech railing against MAGA Republicans and positioning them as a major existential threat to America’s political project, he stopped himself from going a step further and, with equal force, calling out the social forces this movement feeds off — chiefly, white supremacy.

“No matter what the white supremacists and extremists say, I made a bet on you, the American people, and that bet is paying off,” Biden said towards the end of his speech, in a coy and singular reference to what ideologically underpins the MAGA movement. 

Biden may not have wanted to alienate purple and red Americans who, one would imagine, do not enjoy being identified as racists. But in the absence of identifying the threat of white supremacy, he reinforces fears amongst civil rights activists and progressives that the ideology’s pernicious and pervasive effects will prevail. And the stakes are simply too high. 

“Political violence has always been the answer for white supremacists,” as Elie Mystal, justice correspondent at The Nation, noted after the speech.

453d ago / 1:16 AM UTC

Biden rhetorically reclaims Constitution, but what’s the reality?

In a rousing speech, in the city where the Constitution was debated and developed — a backdrop he referenced early on — President Biden spoke to the idea of what it means to be American. He spoke to the threat facing our democracy from political violence and extremist ideology. He drew a contrast with the past, a place where medical birth control didn’t exist and marriages were limited by the government. And he pointed to a future of hope.

The soaring rhetoric was needed for the soul of the country, for people to hear the language of freedom and democracy be used to advance civil rights, not restrict them. But how does Biden plan to protect any of that progress with a Supreme Court packed with originalists and a slate of federal judges poised to assert states’ rights over everything?

It was good for Democrats’ electoral prospects for Biden to recite the litany of recent legislative accomplishments, ranging from infrastructure to climate change. But legislative action to codify Roe v. Wade failed, with some Democratic senators helping the bill’s demise. Congress has yet to pass a voting rights bill that restores access to the ballot that was commonplace for decades.

White House executive action has simply not been enough to deliver abortion access in states, and Biden’s speech can’t defend against a Supreme Court that refuses to recognize the racist actions of local election boards. In a moment of diminishing rights, in a pivotal election year, the rhetoric needs to be matched with realistic plans that go beyond “vote harder.”

453d ago / 1:04 AM UTC

'We are not powerless': Biden positions himself as antidote to MAGA extremism

Biden began his speech connecting this political moment to some of the biggest threats in American history, making reference to other defining moments, such as the Civil War, the Great Depression and the civil rights movement. In doing so, Biden paints MAGA ideology and those who espouse it — both focal points for the speech — as amongst the nation’s greatest existential threats. 

“We are not powerless in the face of these threats,” Biden said, offering a counter to Trumpian politics and positioning himself as the antidote to one of the nation’s greatest existential threats. 

453d ago / 12:58 AM UTC

In focus on violence, Biden alludes to growing fears of civil war

“This is a nation that rejects violence as a political tool,” Biden declared early in his speech. He soon added, “There is no place for political violence in America.”

He underscored the point a week after the Economist and YouGov published a poll saying 43% of Americans believe the country is likely to see civil war in the next decade.

Security analysts and experts warn of an increasing risk of violence at the same time as Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham make thinly veiled threats of violence, related to the potential prosecution of Donald Trump.

“This [violence] is brewing just below the surface,” former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes after the speech. Biden clearly sought to tap into growing fears of civil unrest and offer Americans an alternative option.

453d ago / 12:53 AM UTC

Biden keeps it short and to-the-point

Wow, that speech was pretty short! Nice!

You mean … Biden doesn’t want to stick around and talk about his favorite Fox News segment from the night before? Or which C-list actor tweeted a nice thing about him? Or toilets? Or about which big, strong man burst into tears over merely being in his presence? 

The differences between Biden and Trump truly are countless. In all seriousness, though: I’m grateful this speech was short and direct. Best not to bury the lede when the point you’re making is that there’s an imminent threat endangering American democracy.

453d ago / 12:49 AM UTC

Biden and Trump's competing messages on who can 'fix' America

Biden went strong on optimism, which Americans sorely need right now. Authoritarianism stokes negative emotions — anger, fear, pessimism — so that people will feel hopeless. That is the terrain of the demagogue, who says “I alone can fix it.” 

Biden spoke as a democrat, not an autocrat. He spoke about kindness, understanding and empathy, and said, “We can fix this together.” These are welcome words from an American president.

453d ago / 12:43 AM UTC

Biden teaches MAGA extremists lessons they should have learned in kindergarten

Remarkable that a sitting president, in a prime-time address about what it means to be American, had to deliver a set of lessons designed for kindergarten. Effectively, “don’t be a sore loser, you won’t win them all.” And “control your anger, stop lashing out.” 

Biden directly connected individual negative feelings and listening to conspiracy theories with a mob launching an insurrection. Biden wrapped this message in facts about rising political violence, election denialism and references to Trump’s inauguration speech about American carnage. But ultimately, his message is one of basic self-control, the lessons we expect our children to learn in elementary school, but somehow get abandoned by adults along the way.  

Now just waiting for Biden to tell MAGA supporters to take a deep breath and count to four. 

453d ago / 12:40 AM UTC

Biden reminds us Trumpism is extremely unpopular

Really liked this passage from Biden, reminding people that Trump’s ideology is widely unpopular.

“While the threat to American democracy is real, I want to say as clearly as we can: We are not powerless in the face of these threats. We are not bystanders in this ongoing attack on democracy. There are far more Americans — far more Americans — from every background and belief who reject the extreme ideology.”

President joe biden

I think the MAGA movement often portrays itself as being larger than it is, as a tactic to deter opposition. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s claim that prosecuting Trump would lead to “riots in the streets” is a prime example. We know fear can have an immobilizing effect, and I think reminding Americans that we’re actively determining our destiny — not just bystanders watching it unfold — is important.

453d ago / 12:34 AM UTC

Joe Biden’s new normalcy

Biden began his speech tonight on the threat to the “soul of the nation” represented by pro-Trump Republicans by promising to be frank.

The Republican Party, the president insisted, is “dominated by MAGA Republicans” and “that is a threat to our country.” While careful to note that not all or even most Republicans fit this description, those who do “do not respect the Constitution” or the “rule of law.” They “do not recognize the will of the people,” and they are working “to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies.”

Some of this accurately describes a faction of American voters on both ends of the spectrum, though Biden chose not to quantify the number because it is unquantifiable. That admission alone lowers the temperature on what the White House clearly hoped would be a white-hot call to action. The idea that giving “power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies,” like, say, secretaries of state, has been a bipartisan project for years. Dressing up a boilerplate campaign trail speech as though it was an epochal address about the fate of the nation — in a midterm election year, no less — strikes an apoplectic tone that isn’t matched by America’s empirical circumstances.

Biden was, however, admirably honest when he confessed to failing the American public. “Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal,” Biden declared. When he declared his intention to run for president in Philadelphia over three years ago, Biden essentially promised the public that he would restore the sense of normalcy America lost in the Trump years.

“The country is sick of the division. They’re sick of the fighting. They’re sick of the childish behavior,” the president said at the time. And the restoration of the status quo ante, in Biden’s view, required ditching the antagonism Donald Trump and his movement embraced.

“Some of these people are saying. ‘Biden just doesn’t get it,’” the candidate had said. “You can’t work with Republicans anymore. That’s not the way it works anymore… I’ve worked across the aisle to reach consensus. To help make government work in the past. I can do that again with your help.”

If that vision of what constitutes normal is defunct, then Biden’s critics were right. 

453d ago / 12:27 AM UTC

Biden rebukes originalists, defends constitutional rights

The president is rebuking the ideology of originalism, the Federalist Society and the Supreme Court when he talks about people who “want to go back to an America where … you can’t access contraception … can’t marry who you love.” 

Yes, these are freedoms the country’s founders could not have imagined, and Biden is giving a full-throated defense of ongoing constitutional interpretation. Biden says don’t be “obsessed about the past” but “look forward to the future, a future of possibility” — which just so happens to be a future that will be majority-minority in just two decades.

453d ago / 12:26 AM UTC

It's easy to be pessimistic right now. Biden says: Not today.

Biden takes a page from the history of successful resistance to autocracy in emphasizing the power we have to choose to reject extremism and the momentum that can be gained when people come together with a common purpose to preserve their rights.

It is easy to be fatalistic or pessimistic in the face of the grave assault on democracy we face. Biden refutes this mentality, reminding us of the importance of hope.

453d ago / 12:19 AM UTC

Striking backdrop of Biden speech is no accident

As MSNBC contributor Sam Stein notes, Biden is standing in front of an ominous, glowing red background as he delivers a speech warning of the ongoing threats to American democracy. Message received.

453d ago / 12:10 AM UTC

Biden tries to motivate Americans to act before it's too late

Biden is right to focus on the freedoms we stand to lose and to conjure an America “where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.”

We often hear about nations that painfully gain back their liberty after autocrats have robbed it from them. But it can be harder to motivate people to mobilize to keep what they already have — especially if they think “it can’t happen here.”

453d ago / 12:08 AM UTC

Biden begins his own election season

Biden and the White House have been dropping some fighting words.

Last week, the president referred to MAGA Republicans’ philosophy as “semi-fascism.” On Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre doubled down, framing MAGA Republicans as an “extreme threat to our democracy.” Biden sounds ready to rumble.

By framing his remarks tonight as a battle for “the soul of the nation,” Biden is doing what he did best in the 2020 election — elevating issues outside of partisan context and speaking to values. He’s likely to get folksy, but that works when he’s building a narrative about what it means to be American. But this time, he’s doing it by cutting some people out of the mix. This is not an inclusive “kumbaya” moment, not when he’s pejoratively labeling Americans (which is the framing on the right) or calling a spade a spade (how it’s described on the left.)

He’s creating a new middle road for himself, one that frankly millions of Americans have been traveling for years. He’s pushing hard on the wedge between old-school Republicans and MAGA ones, banking on the idea that run-of-the-mill voters identify more with the idea of being conservative than they do with the GOP of today.

Will Biden also push harder on the issues that have Democrats winning in special elections and ballot initiatives? It’s been hard for Biden to speak in favor of abortion before, but 60% of Americans support some form of legal abortion and, by all accounts, abortion rights are polling high as a motivating factor to vote in November.

Hearing their president speak up for an expansive right to privacy will help Democrats continue their electoral momentum. But will Biden be fighting for Democrats this season, or this new theory of a middle-road voter?

453d ago / 12:03 AM UTC

Biden will ask Americans to redirect their faith in SCOTUS

“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,” Biden is set to say tonight, according to excerpts released by the White House. 

Biden makes a clear reference to the Supreme Court here, as he offers us a whistle-stop tour of some of the court’s most high-profile decisions and what we can expect to come. (With the fall of Roe v. Wade in June, Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion, threatened to reconsider cases which protect same-sex marriage and sexual relations, for example.)

In making reference to the Supreme Court and attaching it to threats against America’s democratic principles, Biden suggests Americans can no longer put their faith in the judicial branch because it has been tainted by Trump, who appointed one-third of the court during his term. In order to preserve democracy and prevent this country from returning to the Dark Ages, Biden will make the case that Americans must instead place their trust in the executive and legislative branches, the last defenses against authoritarian and regressive forces.

453d ago / 11:52 PM UTC

Biden’s cynical timing cheapens the message

Ahead of Biden’s speech focusing on the fragility of American democracy and the existential threat it faces from the Trumpian right, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre previewed what reporters could expect.

She said Biden’s “soul of the nation” address would invoke themes the president touched on in his inaugural speech in the wake of the Capitol riot in January 2021 as well in remarks he made in August 2017, following the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. “You think about what we’re seeing today,” she said. “You think about the battle that continues.”

But the event that occasioned Biden’s tone during his inaugural speech was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American government. The violence that precipitated Biden’s 2017 speech involved a traumatic eruption of racial hatreds evocative of the Civil Rights era. Those speeches were designed to meet their respective historic moments.

What moment is this speech designed to meet? There has been no violence; no event that so focused American minds. Indeed, though he had addressed it for four consecutive years, Biden allowed the fifth anniversary of Charlottesville to pass this year unacknowledged. Trump, while menacing, isn’t on the ballot (yet). Indeed, he is the target of multiple investigations by the intact and functional institutions that mete out American justice.

A keen observer could be forgiven for concluding that the circumstances forcing Biden to deem his political opponents a threat to the very fabric of the country are the Democratic Party’s unenviable political prospects. Only the most committed partisans can draw the moral or legal equivalence between those two episodes of street violence and the banal conduct of American jurisprudence. That, apparently, is what Biden plans to do.

And if it is what he plans to do, it will be a profoundly cynical thing. It would not only cheapen this speech but retroactively tarnish those that met a genuine moment of national urgency. If Biden were to do such a thing, his party might come to regret it. Surely, cooler heads will prevail.

453d ago / 11:43 PM UTC

Instead of unity, Biden's new message for nation: Join my side

Biden has spent most of his presidency tiptoeing around the looming and chaotic presence of Donald Trump.

Shortly after winning the White House, Biden reportedly told advisers he would prefer to avoid investigations of the former president and instead focus on national unity. With the Mar-a-Lago investigation, Biden has again distanced himself, saying it falls under the purview of the Department of Justice, a matter over which he has no involvement.

But, as my colleague Ruth Ben-Ghiat noted below, he made a stark departure from this position last week when he pronounced that MAGA ideology was akin to “semi-fascism. Coupled with tonight’s speech — in which he intends to explicitly challenge MAGA Republicans, positioning them as a threat to America’s soul — this represents a shift in his rhetoric and political approach.

National unity, it would seem, feels both too improbable and, in a sense, threatening — if it comes at the expense of holding proto-fascists to account. Instead, Biden will likely make a plea to Americans: Join me and the Democrats, or lose the battle for “the soul of the nation.”

453d ago / 11:32 PM UTC

W.H. staffer previews Biden speech: 'We have to fight' for our rights

Biden's speech will be a call to action to protect our democracy, according to a preview offered by White House deputy chief of staff Jennifer O'Malley Dillon during an interview tonight with MSNBC's Nicole Wallace.

"We're truly in an inflection point right now," O‘Malley Dillon said. "And I think you'll hear from him tonight that he will be setting out the core values that he really feels in this country that are at stake right now. Things like our rights and equality, where we stand in the world, democracy itself. And I think he's going to say to the American people that we have to fight for that and we can."

453d ago / 11:07 PM UTC

Shorter Biden on MAGA rhetoric: 'I said what I said'

I’ve found it a bit odd, watching Republicans react with such shock over President Biden’s recent characterization of the MAGA movement. 

Biden’s remark that Trump and his supporters represent “semi-fascism” has been replayed ad nauseam on conservative media. But Biden’s always kept it a hundred when it comes to his thoughts about the danger the MAGA philosophy poses to American democracy. 

In this post, I explained how the focus of tonight’s speech — the fight over “the soul of the nation” — stems from a phrase Biden used in a dire warning about Trump-loving conservatives five years ago. When it comes to condemning the MAGA movement, Biden isn’t new to this, he’s true to this. Maybe Republicans just weren’t paying attention?

Regardless, tonight’s speech can be boiled down to a few words: “I said what I said.”

453d ago / 10:37 PM UTC

As summer winds down, White House has been bringing the heat

Normally, I’d say there’s no good time to have to deliver a speech about imminent threats to your country.

But Biden’s speech tonight, focused on the fight for the “the soul of the nation,” comes at as good a time as one could expect, given the circumstances. He has been on a rhetorical hot streak lately.

As I wrote last week, we’ve seen the president and his administration assertively defending its agenda — perhaps, most famously when the White House’s Twitter account called out hypocritical Republicans for opposing student loan forgiveness. And Biden hasn’t shied away from using pointed — and accurate — terms to condemn anti-democratic sentiment fueling the GOP, as was the case when he characterized the MAGA movement as “semi-fascism.”

Last week, I explained that all this has come at a time when Biden’s poll numbers are on the rise. Some of that is surely due to legislative accomplishments Dems have netted in the past month. But I’m willing to bet part of the uptick comes from people happy to see Biden battling on Democrats’ behalf more forcefully.

453d ago / 10:17 PM UTC

POTUS should highlight Dems giving Big Pharma a bitter pill

When Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act last month, they achieved a long-sought goal: giving Medicare the ability to negotiate the cost of some prescription drugs with the pharmaceutical industry. It’s one victory Biden should mention as he tries to woo midterm election voters to support Democrats.

As Steve Benen wrote recently for MaddowBlog:

“It doesn’t apply to all medications, and the benefits won’t begin right away, but nevertheless, Democrats have spent decades trying to get a breakthrough victory on this issue — and now, they’ve succeeded. … Not to put too fine a point on this, but there are few constituencies on Capitol Hill with more influence than the pharmaceutical industry. It’s not accustomed to losing.”

Read Steve’s full story below:

453d ago / 10:00 PM UTC

What Biden really needs to say tonight

During his first 18 months in office, Biden mostly concentrated on maintaining America’s profile as a defender of democracy in the global arena, treading lightly when speaking about domestic threats to freedom.

That phase is clearly over. Biden’s Aug. 25 comment that MAGA philosophy is “like semi-fascism” broke with previous White House pronouncements. I hope that Biden’s speech tonight will be similarly frank about the GOP’s authoritarian turn. It’s time to make the defense of democracy a front-line domestic policy issue.

453d ago / 9:37 PM UTC

Biden enjoying highest approval in months ahead of speech

After Biden suffered a record-low approval rating over the summer, his support has been on the up and up in recent weeks. A recent CBS News/YouGov poll shows his approval now at 45% among registered voters, up from 42% in July.

453d ago / 9:17 PM UTC

Biden keeps succeeding on issues where Trump failed

Biden is expected to take a victory lap tonight on some of his administration's major accomplishments, including the Inflation Reduction Act — a landmark climate and health care bill — as well as the $1 trillion infrastructure package.

As Steve Benen recently wrote for MaddowBlog:

"Trump tried and failed to deliver an infrastructure package, while Biden succeeded on the issue. ... Trump tried and failed to deliver record job growth, while Biden succeeded on the issue. Trump even endorsed penalties for stock buybacks, while Biden succeeded on the issue. For the former president, the problem is not just that Biden has succeeded while Trump failed, it’s also that Biden succeeded where Trump failed."

Read Steve's full story below:

453d ago / 9:08 PM UTC

Apparently people respond to ‘ultra-MAGA.’ I’m still not convinced.

Back in May, Biden unveiled his new label for the hardcore supporters who still look to Donald Trump for leadership: “ultra-MAGA Republicans.” It’s not exactly the most natural sounding of phrases, but that makes sense considering it was essentially grown in a lab.

The Washington Post reported at the time that Biden adviser Anita Dunn had spent six months on a research project with the Center for American Progress Action Fund to see what attacks on Republicans resonated with voters. And it turns out that in “battleground areas, more than twice as many voters said they would be less likely to vote for someone called a ‘MAGA Republican’ than would be more likely,” the Post reported. (Biden threw in the “ultra” himself to “give it a little extra pop,” according to then-press secretary Jen Psaki.)

Biden’s speech tonight represents his attempt to center that framing as midterm season kicks into high gear. It’s been tough to find polling that has measured how voters have responded to the “MAGA Republican” push so far. But it feels likely that in the next few days, we’ll see new data released that quantifies whether Americans think the term is a winner this fall or sounds like an awkward and/or try-hard catchphrase.

453d ago / 9:03 PM UTC

Republicans shouldn’t take Biden's bait

According to Bloomberg’s Nancy Cook, the Biden White House is doing whatever it can to ensure that voters aren’t spending much time thinking “about the complicated state of the economy.” Toward that end, an administration-wide effort to substitute voters’ economic anxiety with anxiety over the fragile state of American democracy is underway.

Biden’s prime-time address will contribute to this effort. The president is likely to echo themes he has touched on in recent speeches, in which he has exhorted voters to “literally save democracy again.” The campaign to exhume Donald Trump from his political tomb and put him on the ballot in November failed in 2021 — Terry McAuliffe did his level best — but Republicans were not inclined to play along last year. Today, it’s a different story.

If Biden uses his prime-time perch to again accuse the Republican Party of serving as a stalking horse for authoritarianism, Republicans will be tempted to accept his premise. The cathartic reply to Biden’s calumny will be to defend the honor of their party, their voters and their great leader in exile. A more adroit approach would be to pivot off Biden’s attempt to transform the 2022 midterms into a “choice election” and remind voters why they soured on unified Democratic governance in the first place.

The GOP wasted a precious month expending their political capital defending Trump from what may yet be a perfectly justified legal action, and now they’re on the ropes. The GOP can use Biden’s speech as an opportunity to go back on offense. Whether the former president will let his party get away with political best practices like that is, however, another story.