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Biden lays out the stakes for democracy. Can he sustain the case?


Democrats, activists and historians have urged the president for months to take the fight to Republicans who continue to spread lies about the 2020 election and to shield democracy from ongoing threats.

On Thursday, Joe Biden answered in his most direct and cogent speech on the matter to date. Biden not only addressed the violent acts of that day carried out by pro-Donald Trump rioters who sought to overturn the election, but detailed the sustained effort by Trump and his allies to subvert the nation’s electoral system in the future.

“The president demonstrated today that we are going to be more forceful going forward than we have been in the past,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, told POLITICO. “This speech today could very well be the turning point in what I think is going to be a big surprise for a lot of people come November.”

Rather than naming Trump, Biden referenced only “the former president” in explaining the dire stakes facing the country posed by his predecessor and members of the Republican Party. He said he “did not seek this fight brought to this Capitol one year ago.” But, speaking from the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, which insurrectionists marched through last Jan. 6, he added “I will not shrink from it either. I will stand in this breach. I will defend this nation. I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of democracy.”

For some Democrats and advocates, there is hope that Biden’s speech marks a turning point in the administration’s focus on what many consider to be the most important and existential threat confronting the country. Democratic lawmakers and civil rights advocates had hoped Biden would use his platform on Thursday to connect the dots between the insurrection, the continued campaign by Trump and state Republicans to restrict voting access, and attempts by those who continue to attack the validity of the 2020 elections to gain key positions of power ahead of the 2022 contests.

Along with centering and prioritizing voting rights legislation, many Democrats have also been urging the White House to take the fight to Republicans more directly for not standing up to Trump’s lies about the election. While Biden and his vice president are set to soon give high-profile remarks on voting rights in Atlanta, party leaders want to see a sustained campaign that turns up the pressure akin to Biden’s earlier pushes for Covid relief and social and climate spending.

“What they are doing is proper,” Clyburn said of Biden’s speech marking the Jan. 6, insurrection and upcoming voting rights remarks. “It remains to be seen as to whether or not it’s adequate.”

The South Carolina Democrat, who is a close ally of the president, said he’s told Biden, chief of staff Ron Klain, and White House adviser and director of Office of Public Engagement Cedric Richmond as recently as Thursday morning, that the issue for Democrats is not their message, but convincing their base that they are up to the task.

“The problem is the image, which I think that the president took a big step toward helping to change today. There are people who just generally feel that we are not being tough enough,” Clyburn added, noting conversations he has with voters.

“If they continue that into not just Georgia, but Florida, go to Texas, go to North Carolina, go to these places where people think they have free rein [to restrict access to the ballot],” Clyburn said. “And I think that we’ll see an excited base.”

When Biden launched his presidential bid in April 2019, he presented it as a battle for the nation’s soul. His advisers would later say there was a clear through-line between the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that catalyzed him to run and the riots of Jan. 6 that presented a last gasp effort by his opponents to deny his victory. The White House views the insurrection not as a bookend to Trump’s presidency but a dangerous crystallization of the continued threats posed by the former president’s attacks on the electoral system.

As Biden waited to speak, Vice President Kamala Harris detailed the administration’s answer to the threat. “We must pass the voting rights bills that are now before the Senate. And the American people must also do something more,” she said. “We cannot sit on the sidelines. We must unite in defense of our democracy.”

Historian Laurence Tribe, who has known Biden since the 1980s and has at times advised the president, spoke to Klain after Biden’s address, relaying his belief that the speech was Biden at his best.

“Equal to anything that JFK did or anything that Obama did,” Tribe recalled telling Klain.

“There were no rose-colored glasses, the president was not covering the difficulty of challenges that we face,” Tribe added. Tribe, like others, has long wanted Biden to make such explicit remarks. “I’ve certainly been waiting, and I’m so glad that he finally did this.”

Moving forward, Tribe hoped Biden’s address Thursday and a forthcoming speech in Georgia next week will “dislodge the resistance” by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and “open their minds a little to the importance of a carve-out” to the legislative filibuster. Though, to date, there is no indication either senator would support such a change to allow for the passage of voting rights legislation by a simple majority vote.

Beyond a rhetorical campaign to admonish Trump and his followers, some officials in the field are seeking more substantive actions from the administration.

“My question is, what follows?” said Rick Hasen, election law expert and professor at University of California Irvine.

“We had [Attorney General] Merrick Garland speak yesterday and talk about going after those who attacked our democracy at any level. And we have today the vice president and the president saying that action is necessary to protect our democracy and peaceful transitions of power,” Hasen continued. “The question is what the administration can and will do to actually fulfill those promises of protecting our democracy.”

White House aides have rejected any notion by civil rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers that Biden has not been aggressive in naming the threats posed by Trump and Republicans’ election fraud lies.

Beyond action in Congress, however, the most concrete accountability is likely to come from the Justice Department, not independent actions by Biden. Asked on Thursday what consequences Biden believes Trump should face for the insurrection, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president “is going to leave that to his Justice Department, which is independent.”

Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.

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