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Biden marks the anniversary of Jan. 6 with campaign speech near Valley Forge

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We turn to President Biden, who gave his first campaign speech of the year today. And it was not the kind of upbeat message you might expect to hear. Instead, he delivered a solemn warning about threats to democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today we're here to answer the most important of questions. Is democracy still America's sacred cause?

KELLY: Biden said this is the top question for the campaign ahead given the threat to democracy of three years ago on January 6, when supporters of his opponents stormed the Capitol. To talk about this, we have NPR White House correspondent Deepa Shivaram on the line. Hey there.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Before we get to what he said, let's recognize where he said it. Biden was speaking just outside Valley Forge, Pa. Explain the significance.

SHIVARAM: Yeah. I mean, this goes way back in American history, during the Revolutionary War. This area where Biden made these remarks was where General George Washington and his troops spent the winter of 1777. At the time, British troops occupied Philadelphia. And talking about George Washington is how Biden started his speech today, how Washington's mission fighting for America's independence was, in his words, a sacred cause. And Biden went on to talk about how democracy is still this country's sacred cause. So that's why he picked Valley Forge from a historical point of view. But I'll also note that the state, Pennsylvania, is really important for this election - right? - one of the few swing states. How it turns out will help determine the outcome in November.

KELLY: President Biden has made a point of speaking about democracy for more than a year now. What stood out to you, Deepa, about this speech?

SHIVARAM: Right. So this has been kind of a series of speeches Biden's been doing. Some of them have been campaign speeches like this one. Others have been in his more formal capacity as president. But this one was notable because he really laid out a contrast between preserving democracy and what Trump has done. He talked about Trump's actions on January 6 inciting violence and Trump's reelection campaign, where he wants to be a dictator on Day 1. In the past, Biden's speeches have been about American values and about the idea of protecting what America stands for. But now he's saying, look at the other side, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Donald Trump's campaign is about him, not America, not you. Donald Trump's campaign is obsessed with the past, not the future. He's willing to sacrifice our democracy to put himself in power.

SHIVARAM: But I will say, Mary Louise, that the line that probably got the most applause was Biden talking about how all of Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election failed and that the truth was that Biden won the election. And he said Trump was a loser. And that's a big hit against Trump because it's using the former president's own words against him.

KELLY: And now that we are officially in a presidential election year, I guess the big question is how much this messaging on democracy will resonate with American voters. What are you watching for there?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. You know, as of now, the outlook for Biden in this election still looks muddled, right? Voters have a lot of concerns right now - anything from the economy, where that stands, immigration, Biden's age and fitness for office. We've heard all of that. And Biden's approval ratings have still not really gotten any better. There's also a poll from The Washington Post out this week that shows a third of Americans believe that Biden's win in 2020 was illegitimate. A quarter of Americans believe the FBI instigated the insurrection. So there's also a mountain of misinformation that the Biden campaign has to battle here.

But I will say that when it comes to this issue of protecting democracy, I've met voters on the campaign trail who have said that their concerns about democracy, a peaceful transfer of power, is what made them vote blue in the midterms in 2022. And that was an election where Democrats did a lot better than expected. So this has been a successful roadmap for Biden once before, and it seems like one he's going to continue going down. On Monday, for example, he's headed to Charleston, S.C. He's going to Mother Emanuel Church, where a white supremacist killed nine people in 2015.

KELLY: Thank you, Deepa.

SHIVARAM: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR White House correspondent Deepa Shivaram. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.
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