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Biden to give a speech in Pennsylvania on the 'battle for the soul of the nation'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden will deliver a primetime address tonight from Independence Park in Philadelphia about what he calls the battle for the soul of the nation. He's returning to a theme from the earliest days of his presidential campaign. And as NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports, the speech comes as Biden and Democrats solidify their message ahead of November's midterms.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Recently, 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. Here he was last week at a rally in Maryland.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Would be a nation of unity, of hope, of optimism, not a nation of anger, violence, hatred and division.

KEITH: Tonight, the White House says President Biden plans to argue the core values of the nation are at stake, outlining freedoms that are under attack. But 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.

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BIDEN: We are in the battle for the soul of this nation. I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time.

KEITH: After he won and officially became president-elect, Biden confidently declared that...

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BIDEN: Democracy prevailed.

KEITH: Democracy prevailed. But then January 6 happened. Since then, the threat of political violence hasn't waned. In an interview with Fox News earlier this week, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham predicted what might happen if the former president is prosecuted for mishandling classified documents.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: There'll be riots in the streets.

KEITH: In every election, the candidates say the stakes have never been higher. But Republican pollster Whit Ayres says this election isn't like all other elections.

WHIT AYRES: Because we've never had a former president who's continued to deny that the current president was legitimately elected. That's never occurred in American history before. And that makes midterms a different environment than we've ever had before.

KEITH: Even as recently as this week, the former president was demanding on social media that he immediately be reinstated, which, to be clear, 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 Ayres says for most voters, as a motivating issue, Democratic erosion isn't as tangible as things like the price of gas.

AYRES: Most voters are moved by things that affect them personally and directly.

KEITH: With this speech, Jennifer Mercieca says Biden is trying to define the election as being about something larger than inflation.

JENNIFER MERCIECA: One way you succeed with elections is by telling the nation what to be afraid of.

KEITH: Mercieca is a professor at Texas A&M University who specializes in presidential rhetoric.

MERCIECA: He's providing this ultra heroic frame. Like, this is an existential crisis. This is a threat to the nation. This is about our most important value.

KEITH: And finding a frame, a theme that ties together seemingly disparate ideas and events, can be useful 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. And he didn't shy away from talking about abortion rights. He framed the Supreme Court's recent abortion decision as being part of a larger threat of extreme ideology.

PAT RYAN: We stood up and proactively said, this campaign is about freedom. This campaign is about choice. These are unifying American values that I think transcend even the very partisan corners that everybody's in right now.

KEITH: Ryan admits it's grim, but he found campaigning on threats to democracy, as Biden will do tonight, resonates with voters.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.