(The Hill) — Democrats have been waiting for a year for President Joe Biden to call out former President Donald Trump for his claims about the 2020 presidential election and pinpoint the role Trump played in instigating his followers to “fight like hell” to contest the result. Standing in the Capitol on Thursday, Biden finally did just that.
Biden on Thursday accused the former president, who he never addressed by name, of putting his own interests above those of the country, spreading a “web of lies” that laid the groundwork for the attack on the Capitol, and presenting a clear threat to democracy.
“Hey, White House, more of that please,” said one Democratic strategist of Biden’s Jan. 6 speech. “Way f—ing more of that.”
A widespread sentiment among Democrats has been that Biden hasn’t been hard enough on Trump as the former president relentlessly accuses Democrats of rigging the election and making repeated claims about widespread voter fraud in which a variety of legal maneuvers and state certifications have failed to prove.
Democrats say they have been waiting for Biden to respond in kind, as the stakes grow even higher during a midterm election year in which his poll numbers are sinking and Democrats risk losing both chambers of Congress.
“It was one of the strongest speeches Biden has given and struck the perfect balance between remembering the tragedies of the day while clearly and directly outlining who was responsible for the attack and that they’re continuing their efforts to this day,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale.
Other Democrats said the address in which Biden sought to dismantle Trump’s election falsehoods and also pay tribute to those impacted by the riot, was one for the history books.
“President Biden’s speech was one of the best speeches I’ve heard from a sitting president,” said Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod, who served as an aide on Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020. “He rose to the occasion and delivered the passionate and substantive speech our country needed to hear on this day, while forcefully calling out President Trump for his role toward instigating and applauding the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol.
Since Biden took office, he has rarely made reference to his predecessor and usually does not reference Trump by name. There have been some exceptions. Biden rebuked Trump’s election lies during a major voting rights speech last summer and later criticized then-Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin as an “acolyte of Donald Trump” during a rally for Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat who went on to lose to Youngkin.
The White House on Thursday disputed the notion that Biden has shied away from calling out Trump and suggested he would continue to point to the Jan. 6 insurrection as a reason for action on voting rights.
“The president launched his campaign on the idea that the former president posed a unique threat to the soul of our country and he made that point throughout the campaign and over the last year in office,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing following the president’s speech.
“We would argue the point that he’s ever shied away from making clear that his predecessor, former President Trump, was a threat to democracy, posed a threat to democracy, throughout the course of his presidency, and that was a root reason why President Biden ran for office,” Psaki said.
John Anzalone, who polled for Biden’s 2020 campaign, said that Biden’s remarks would resonate with Americans who want to see those responsible for the riot held accountable. Anzalone pointed to a recent survey from the Democratic polling firm Navigator showing that 78 percent of Americans believe it is important for federal law enforcement to “find and prosecute” rioters who breached the Capitol. The same poll also found that 72 percent oppose the actions of Trump supporters who broke into the Capitol one year ago.
“I thought he showed real leadership and had a very strong message for the American people who are disturbed by the actions taken on Jan 6th,” Anzalone said.
But while Democrats welcomed Biden’s rhetoric, some Republicans and conservative commentators suggested his words were divisive. Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, and former Republican National Committee spokesman, argued that Biden’s remarks would resonate with Democrats but not with independents and Republican voters who recognize his election.
“The less political it is, the better it is for Biden, and this was political,” Heye said. “By going after Trump today and doing so as forcefully as he did, it is not clear what Biden was hoping to accomplish or what the strategy was. It certainly doesn’t take down the temperature.”
Speaking to reporters following his remarks, Biden said he declined to address Trump by name because he “did not want to turn it into a contemporary political battle between” himself and his predecessor. At the same time, he spoke of a need for the nation to “face the truth” in order to heal.
“This is about looking at this moment as an inflection point, not just about a former president, but about who we are as a country, whether Republicans in Congress are going to step up, what the American people can be assured of in terms of his efforts to fight for the protection of their fundamental rights,” Psaki said. “It’s bigger than a former president.”
Biden is slated to deliver another speech on voting rights in Atlanta on Tuesday, which would offer him another opportunity to mention the former president and his effort to overturn the 2020 election results. But it’s too early to tell whether Thursday’s speech foretells a broader messaging shift.
Democratic strategist Christy Setzer said she would also like to see much more of the fiery rhetoric delivered by Biden on Thursday but she remained skeptical about whether he would continue on that path.
“There’s no reason to think, based on President Biden’s strong-on-rhetoric, light-on-action speech, that he won’t be able to keep doing just that,” Setzer said. “Biden’s words against Trump were clear and effective, but where’s the accountability, and why is this speech only happening a year later?”
Setzer said Biden and his administration have fallen short when it comes to addressing the severity of the nation’s political divide.
“Combined with [Attorney General] Merrick Garland’s mousy words yesterday, the administration and its Department of Justice are a day late, a dollar short, and we’re out of time on saving democracy,” she said.