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Why Biden is reviving his 'soul of the nation' argument for the midterm elections

President Biden will give a prime-time speech on Thursday about "the battle for the soul of the nation," a rally cry he and Democrats will use leading up to November midterm elections.
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden will give a prime-time speech on Thursday about "the battle for the soul of the nation," a rally cry he and Democrats will use leading up to November midterm elections.

President Biden has been speaking in increasingly dire terms about threats to American democracy, going so far as to describe some Republicans as "semi-fascist." On Thursday, he is set to deliver a prime-time address from Independence Park in Philadelphia about the "battle for the soul of the nation," kicking off a two-month fight Democrats are making to try to retain control of the House and Senate in midterm elections.

His speech comes at a time when a majority of Americans believe U.S. democracy is in crisis and one recent poll found more than 40% think a civil war in the next decade is at least somewhat likely.

The White House says Biden plans to argue the core values of the nation are at stake, outlining rights and freedoms that are under attack — such as access to abortion and reproductive health services, which have been limited in many states since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year.

Talking about the battle for the soul of the nation isn't new for Biden. It was a dominant theme of his race against former President Donald Trump starting with the video that launched his campaign.

"We are in the battle for the soul of this nation," Biden said after the video showed images of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. "I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time."

After he won and officially became president-elect, Biden confidently declared that "in this battle for the soul of America, democracy prevailed."

Supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 as Congress tallied the electoral college votes.
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Supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as Congress tallied electoral votes.

But then Jan. 6 happened. On the day the Electoral College votes were to be tallied by Congress, violent pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol, temporarily halting the proceedings.

Since then, the threat of political violence hasn't waned. In an interview with Fox News earlier this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., predicted "there'll be riots in the streets" if the former president is prosecuted for mishandling classified documents.

Biden is now returning to the "soul of the nation" theme again as Democrats are solidifying their message ahead of the midterm elections.

"It's not hyperbole, now you need to vote to literally save democracy again," Biden implored at a campaign rally for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Maryland last week. "Will we be a nation of unity, of hope, of optimism — not a nation of anger, violence, hatred and division."

Former President Donald Trump at a rally on Aug. 5.
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Former President Donald Trump at a rally on Aug. 5.

Republicans want to focus on inflation, but Trump makes that difficult

Every election, the candidates say the stakes have never been higher. In midterms, where control of Congress hangs in the balance, presidents typically try to avoid making the race a referendum on their performance in office, and instead try to argue the race is a choice between competing candidates and visions.

But Republican pollster Whit Ayers said this midterm election is unusual. "We've never had a former president who has continued to deny that the current president was legitimately elected," said Ayers, the president of North Star Opinion Research. "That's never occurred in American history before. And that makes the midterms a different environment than has ever happened before."

Even as recently as this week, the former president was demanding on social media that he immediately be reinstated or to have Americans decide the 2020 election again in a revote, which is not how the American election system works. Candidates endorsing Trump's election lies have won primaries and will be on the ballot in November.

But Ayers said for most voters, as a motivating issue, democratic erosion isn't as tangible as things like the price of gas.

"Most voters are moved by things that affect them personally and directly," he said. Republicans want to keep the campaign focused on things like inflation, immigration and crime. But that's a struggle because Trump is constantly in the headlines.

"One way you succeed with elections is by telling the nation what to be afraid of," said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor in the school of communications and journalism at Texas A&M University.

Signs left by abortion-rights supporters line the security fence surrounding the Supreme Court on June 28, after the court overturned Roe v Wade, ending the federal right to an abortion.
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Signs left by abortion-rights supporters line the security fence surrounding the Supreme Court on June 28, after the court overturned Roe v Wade, ending the federal right to an abortion.

Fear can be a powerful motivator for election campaigns

With this speech, Biden is trying to define the election as being about something larger than inflation, said Mercieca, who specializes in presidential rhetoric.

"He's providing this ultra-heroic frame," said Mercieca, explaining that Biden is making the case that "this is an existential crisis, this is a threat to the nation, this is about our most important value," she said.

And finding a frame, a theme that ties together seemingly disparate ideas and events, can be helpful when running a campaign. Take Democrat Pat Ryan. He just won a special election for a congressional seat in upstate New York in a race that was anything but a sure thing.

He didn't shy away from talking about abortion rights, or as he put it, "not pull our punches, not triangulate, not poll-test." He framed the Supreme Court's recent abortion decision as being part of a larger threat of extreme ideology.

"We stood up and pro-actively said this campaign is about freedom, this campaign is about choice," Ryan said. "These are unifying American values that I think transcend even the very partisan corners that everybody's in right now."

Ryan said campaigning on threats to democracy motivated Democratic voters and also resonated with independents.

"I mean it's very sad and dark that that's where we're at as a country, but that does represent, I think, that cumulative set of rights being ripped away and anxiety and division," Ryan said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.