TEMPE, Ariz. — President Joe Biden will look to pay homage to democracy and bipartisanship on Thursday — twin traditions that he will argue Donald Trump’s MAGA movement is threatening to wipe from American political life.
Biden’s speech in Arizona will be the fourth in a series centered on fortifying democratic values and institutions against attacks from what he describes as Republican extremists bent on eviscerating self-government.
A heavy favorite to win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Trump faces federal and state indictment for using various levers of power to try to overturn his loss in the 2020 election.
Biden has avoided mentioning Trump’s legal woes directly lest he be seen as trying to influence the criminal prosecution of a political rival. But his warning cry about democracy’s fragile state is an unmistakable reference to Trump. It comes amid concerns about whether the “MAGA” supporters — those who have turned Trump’s campaign slogan into a political identity — would peacefully accept another defeat in the next election.
“The question at this point is whether or not this two-party system is going to survive this round of elections,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D.-S.C., a Biden supporter. “We’ve had a very successful country for a long time.”
Biden will also use the speech to celebrate a political figure whom Trump once ridiculed for having been taken prisoner during the Vietnam War: the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. Biden is to announce federal funding for a library honoring McCain that will also offer education, work and health programs to needy communities in Arizona, according to a White House official.
In an excerpt from the speech released by the White House, Biden will say “there is something dangerous happening in America. There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs of our democracy. The MAGA movement.”
With its focus on Trump’s loyal political following, Biden’s speech underscores how the 2024 presidential race has entered a new, post-primary phase even before the first primary votes have been cast. Trump has cemented an outsize lead in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, and the Biden campaign is shifting its focus to him earlier than it had anticipated.
In a cheeky post on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, Biden showed a snippet from the Republican presidential debate Wednesday night in which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized Trump for not showing up at the forum.
“Donald Trump is missing in action,” DeSantis says in the clip.
“That’s right,” Biden wrote.
The location of the speech was a moving target. The White House had originally considered Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, a nod to the Continental Army’s fight against British rule in the harsh winter of 1777-78, a senior White House official said.
At a time when some voters seem willing to cast aside constitutional freedoms, Biden will try to remind them of the painful sacrifices made to build an enduring democracy.
“People can be frustrated at the pace of progress,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the thinking behind the speech. “But our institutions also hold us together. The Constitution is a check on the abuse of power. And if you attack the free press, you subvert the will of the voters, you risk unraveling it all.”
Biden’s warning about Trump is somewhat unique in the modern history of presidential campaigns. Although Biden has plenty of quarrels with Trump on policy, he is casting Trumpism as a mortal threat to the very constitutional order that gives Americans the right to hire and fire their leaders.
“We have to stand up for our Constitution and the institutions of democracy because MAGA extremists have made clear they won’t,” according to another excerpt from Biden’s speech. “History is watching. The world is watching.”
Polling suggests Biden’s message is failing to break through. If anything, Democrats are losing ground on this front. Biden gave a similar speech in Philadelphia a year ago using much the same language. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” he said at the time.
When he delivered that speech in prime time at Independence Hall, Democrats held a 7-point lead over Republicans on the issue of protecting democracy, according to NBC polling. Since then, Republicans erased that advantage and now hold a 1-point edge.
Eyeing these trends, Biden’s allies worry that Americans are failing to grasp the stakes in the ’24 election should there be a rematch with Trump. The former president has been indicted both in Georgia and Washington, D.C., for his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat. He has pleaded not guilty.
“Too many people are not thinking clearly,” said Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden in the South Carolina Democratic primary in 2020 helped rescue Biden’s faltering presidential bid. “The country is in a bad place. And we need to be thinking about the country and not about the personalities. This is not a contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, or Joe Biden and any other person who may be interested in being the president. This is a contest between democracy and autocracy. That’s what this contest is about.”
Could Trump return to power? “Sure, it’s possible,” Clyburn added. “All things are possible. I think it’s highly improbable, but it’s possible.”
Joining Biden in a state that he narrowly won in 2020 will be McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, and the state’s Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs.
Biden sees the late senator as a model of a faded bipartisan spirit that he would like to revive. McCain was willing to break with his party on matters of principle, angering then-President Trump in 2017 when he gave a memorable thumbs-down gesture on a Senate vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act that had been passed in the Obama-Biden administration.
After losing the 2008 presidential race to Obama, McCain conceded defeat, something that Trump has yet to do after losing in 2020. A new 60-second Biden campaign ad includes photos of Biden together with McCain and other prominent Republicans to showcase Biden’s willingness to work cooperatively with the other party.
With a government shutdown looming, though, some Republicans want to see Biden meet with House GOP leaders and strike a deal that would keep services up and running. Biden and House Republicans struck a deal to set spending levels earlier this year, but since then, the GOP has abandoned that agreement. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said he wants to talk to Biden, but the White House posture has been that it’s up to House Republican leaders to resolve an internal dispute with a far-right faction of Congress.
Rep. Mike Lawler, a New York Republican who represents a district that Biden won in 2020, said in reference to Biden’s speech today: “There’s a clear hypocrisy here. If you’re going to have that speech and talk about the need to work together in a bipartisan way, then why aren’t you having your staff on Capitol Hill right now?”
“If they’re talking about democracy and bipartisanship, then there’s no better way to show that than by showing up on Capitol Hill to meet with the speaker and negotiate over a potential shutdown.”
Gabe Gutierrez reported from Tempe, and Peter Nicholas from Washington. Peter Alexander and Mike Memoli contributed reporting from Washington.