PHOENIX — On the anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, President Joe Biden stood in early 2022 at the literal epicenter of the insurrection and accused Donald Trump of continuing to hold a “dagger” at democracy’s throat. Biden closed out the summer that year in the shadow of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, decrying Trumpism as a menace to democratic institutions.
And that November, as voters were casting ballots in the midterm elections, Biden again sounded a clarion call to protect democratic institutions, warning that their underpinnings remained under threat.
Biden on Thursday will make his fourth in a series of presidential addresses about the state of democracy, a cause that is a key motivator and a touchstone for him as he tries to remain in office even in the face of low approval ratings and widespread concern from voters about his age, 80.
“There is something dangerous happening in America,” Biden plans to say, according to excerpts released by the White House. “There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs of our democracy. The MAGA Movement.”
The location for this speech, as was the case for the others, was deliberately chosen: It will be near Arizona State University, which houses the McCain Institute, named after the late Arizona Sen. John McCain — a friend of Biden and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who spent his public life denouncing autocrats around the globe.
“I have come to honor the McCain Institute and Library because they are home to a proud Republican who put country first,” Biden will say. “Our commitment should be no less because democracy should unite all Americans – regardless of political affiliation.”
Now, as Biden slowly ramps up his Democratic reelection campaign, his core focus on democracy is increasingly intertwined with the political dynamics that are confronting him. His likeliest 2024 opponent, Trump, continues to spread falsehoods about the results from the 2020 election he lost to Biden and is battling unprecedented criminal charges stemming in part from those lies.
Those competing with the Republican former president for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination have largely avoided challenging his election falsehoods and his allies on Capitol Hill are only becoming more emboldened as he eggs them on, including toward a looming government shutdown that appears all but inevitable.
In closed-door fundraisers, Biden has opined at length about his case for reelection, imploring supporters to join his effort to “literally save American democracy,” as he described it to a gaggle of wealthy donors earlier this month in New York.
Biden: Democracy ‘Still at Risk’
“I’m running because we made progress — that’s good — but because our democracy, I think, is still at risk. And I mean it,” Biden said. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that. Because our most important freedoms — the freedom to choose, the freedom to vote, the freedom to be, the right to be who you are, to love who you love — is being attacked and shredded today, right now.”
Advisers see Biden’s continued focus on democracy as not only good policy but also good politics. Campaign officials have pored over the election results from last November, when candidates who denied the 2020 election results did not fare well in competitive races, and point to polling that showed democracy was a highly motivating issue for voters in 2022.
Candidates who backed Trump’s election lies and were running for statewide offices with some influence over elections — governor, secretary of state, attorney general — lost their races in every presidential battleground state.
A senior White House official, who insisted on anonymity to preview Biden’s Thursday remarks, said his Arizona address will highlight the “importance of America’s institutions in preserving our democracy and the need for constant loyalty to the U.S. Constitution.” Biden’s appearance at the center that honors McCain will also tie into the theme, with the president set to urge Americans to “never walk away from the sacrifices generations of Americans have made to defend our democracy.”
In few states does Biden’s message of democracy resonate more than in Arizona, which became politically competitive during Trump’s presidency after seven decades of GOP dominance and later became a hotbed of efforts to overturn or cast doubt on Biden’s victory there.
Republican state lawmakers used their subpoena power to get ahold of all the 2020 ballots and vote-counting machines from Maricopa County, then hired Trump supporters to conduct an unprecedented partisan review of the election. The widely mocked spectacleconfirmed Biden’s victory but fueled unfounded conspiracy theories about the election.
Later, the GOP-controlled board of supervisors in one rural county refused to certify the midterm election results, forcing a judge to intervene. The state has seen an exodus of election workers.
And last November, voters up and down the ballot rejected Republican candidates who repeatedly denied the results of the 2020 election. Kari Lake, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, has never conceded her loss to now-Gov. Katie Hobbs and is preparing a bid for the U.S. Senate next year. Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters and Mark Finchem, who ran for secretary of state, also repeated fraudulent election claims in their respective campaigns.
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who defeated Masters, appeared at a campaign rally in November alongside former President Barack Obama, who in his remarks framed the race in Arizona as a battle to protect democracy. That message, Kelly now says, not only resonated with members of his own party but independents and moderate GOP voters.
“I met so many Republicans that were sick and tired of the lies about an election that was 2 years old,” Kelly said. “They were just done with it, and they did not appreciate folks who were running for high offices just lying about it.”
Indeed, Republicans privately concede that the election denialism rhetoric that dominated their candidates’ message — as well as the looming specter of Trump — damaged their efforts to retain the governor’s mansion and flip a hotly contested Senate seat, according to three Republican officials who worked in statewide races last cycle.
The issue of democracy resonated more in Arizona than in other competitive states, and to have candidates deny basic facts on elections helped reinforce claims from Democrats about GOP extremism on other, completely separate issues, said the Republican officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe the party’s shortcomings last year. Though Trump-animated forces in the party dominated public attention, many Republican voters were concerned about other issues such as the economy and the border and did not want to focus on a past election result.
Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in next year’s Senate race, said a democracy-focused message also is particularly important to two critical blocs of voters in the state: Latinos and veterans, both of whom Gallego said are uniquely affected by election denialism and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
“You know, we come from countries and experiences where democracy is very corrupt, and many of us are only one generation removed from that, but we’re close enough to see how bad it can be,” Gallego said. “And so Jan. 6 actually was particularly jarring, I think, to Latinos.”
On Thursday, Biden is set to speak at a performing arts center on the shore of Tempe Town Lake, a once-dry riverbed that has become an oasis for outdoor recreation in the desert. The lake is the centerpiece of the Rio Salado Project, a riverbed revitalization plan that McCain advocated for until his death.
As he pays tribute to McCain on Thursday, Biden will also announce new federal funds being directed to build the McCain Library, which the White House described as a “new multi-purpose facility to provide education, work, and health monitoring programs to underserved communities in the state.”
The money comes from a massive $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed in the early months of Biden’s presidency, and the project is in partnership with the with the McCain Institute and Arizona State University. The late senator’s wife, Cindy McCain, other members of their family, Hobbs, and the state’s representatives on Capitol Hill will be at the event commemorating McCain, “whose intolerance for the abuse of power and faith in America sets a powerful example to live by,” the White House said.