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Biden campaign running 'like the fate of our democracy depends on it'

In campaign events, President Biden is expected to push back against extremism and political violence.
Win McNamee
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In campaign events, President Biden is expected to push back against extremism and political violence.

For months, President Biden has been running for president — quietly. But that's about to change in a significant way.

The Biden reelection campaign is kicking into a new, higher gear with two presidential campaign events on tap in the next week. The president's message will be unmistakable and stark, or as campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez put it, "We are running a campaign like the fate of our democracy depends on it. Because it does."

Biden and his team are building a campaign around an increasingly likely rematch with former President Donald Trump. In Valley Forge, Pa., on Saturday, campaign officials say, Biden will lay out the stakes for this election — for American democracy and freedom — in a location with Revolutionary War symbolism. But Saturday isn't just any day: It's the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, when Trump supporters violently tried to help him cling to power after he lost to Biden in 2020.

"The threat that Donald Trump posed in 2020 to American democracy has grown even more dangerous than it was when President Biden ran last time," said deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks on a call with reporters.

Then on Monday, Biden will visit the Mother Emanuel AME Churchin Charleston, S.C. That historically Black church was the site of a white supremacist mass shooting in 2015. There, Biden will talk about another motivating theme for his campaign — pushing back against extremism and political violence, drawing a line from the Mother Emanuel shooting to the unrest in Charlottesville, Va.,and Jan. 6.

In addition to messaging, these visits have electoral significance as well. Pennsylvania is one of the key swing states likely to decide the outcome of the presidential race in 2024, while South Carolina will hold the first Democratic Party-sanctioned primary next month. The state will almost certainly go Republican in November, but the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters there are African American. Black voters were a key part of Biden's coalition in 2020, but Biden allies say they have work to do to keep them in his column.

Abortion as an issue

Vice President Harris is set to visit another key swing state on Jan. 22, Wisconsin, to launch a multistate tour focused on reproductive rights. That's the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which was overturned by the Supreme Court last year.

"She'll highlight the chaos and cruelty created by Trump all across the country when it comes to women's health care," said Fulks.

Abortion has proven to be a motivating issue for voters, including last spring in a state Supreme Court race in Wisconsin. Trump appointed three Supreme Court justices who formed the conservative majority that overturned Roe, though on the campaign trail he has tried to avoid being pinned down on specific abortion policy. The Biden campaign doesn't intend to allow Trump to escape blame for restrictive abortion laws now in place in red states all over the country.

The start of a public campaign

With just a handful of exceptions, since announcing he planned to run for reelection last spring, Biden hasn't really campaigned publicly. But he has discussed many of these themes in private fundraisers.

Campaign communications director Michael Tyler said the Biden campaign and the president himself see this moment as uniquely dire. And their message might as well be cast in neon. It isn't subtle.

"The leading candidate of a major party in the United States is running for president so that he can systematically dismantle and destroy our democracy," Tyler said on the call before going through a litany of recent statement and campaign promises from Trump ("vermin," "poisoning the blood of the country," and his recent dictator talk).

But Biden isn't the only candidate saying Democracy is at stake. The Trump campaign put out a memo Tuesday, tied to his removal from the ballot in a couple of states, that read like a mirror image of the Biden campaign message.

"Joe Biden and his allies are a real and compelling threat to our Democracy," the Trump campaign memo said. "In fact, in a way never seen before in our history, they are waging a war against it."

Experts in democratic erosion are sounding alarms about Trump and not Biden. But Trump and his team are speaking to concerns regularly voiced by far-right Republican voters.

The Biden team often uses phrases like "Trump and his MAGA allies," but the real passion among Democratic voters is aimed at Trump. Biden has legislative and policy accomplishments he loves to talk about and which Democrats are proud of. But at this moment, when the first primary ballots will be cast in just a few weeks, voters are still quite skeptical of Biden's reelection bid and, as his campaign manager said, they want voters to see this campaign as about much more than a typical election-year choice between competing governing philosophies.

Copyright 2024 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.