Biden to give primetime address on the ‘battle for the soul of the nation’

Joe Biden will deliver a primetime address on Thursday about “the continued battle for the soul of the nation”, the White House has said.

Calling the speech a major address, the White House said Biden would discuss how America’s standing in the world and its own democracy are at stake.

The speech will take place in Philadelphia and comes two months before midterm elections in which Democrats will attempt to hold Congress, while Republican supporters of Donald Trump’s big lie attempt to win seats, governor’s mansions and key electoral posts in the states.

Biden will speak outside Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, where Abraham Lincoln delivered a key speech before the civil war in 1861, and where the 16th president’s body was displayed to the public after he was assassinated four years later.

Next door to Independence Hall is Congress Hall, where Congress sat between 1790 and 1800, while Philadelphia was the temporary US capital. This year, Democrats have growing hope of holding the House and the Senate.

The White House said Biden would “talk about the progress we have made as a nation to protect our democracy, but how our rights and freedoms are still under attack. And he will make clear who is fighting for those rights, fighting for those freedoms, and fighting for our democracy.”

The speech was announced on Monday as Republicans complained about Biden’s recent characterisation of Trump and his supporters as “semi-fascists”, in their refusal to accept the 2020 election result.

On Sunday, Chris Sununu, governor of New Hampshire and a relative moderate, told CNN: “The fact that the president would go out and just insult half of America [and] effectively call half of America semi-fascist, he’s trying to stir up controversy. He’s trying to stir up this anti-Republican sentiment right before the election. It’s horribly inappropriate.”

Biden has also warned Americans about “ultra-Maga Republicans”, a reference to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Biden’s liking for the phrase “the soul of the nation” is well established. Derived from the title of a book by the historian Jon Meacham – The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, published in 2018 – the phrase or variants have appeared in Biden’s speeches and remarks for some time.

In July 2021, Biden spoke at the National Constitution Center, about “protecting the sacred, constitutional right to vote”.

He said then: “We did it in 2020. The battle for the soul of America – in that battle, the people voted. Democracy prevailed. Our constitution held. We have to do it again.”

Meacham has advised Biden and has attended White House discussions with other historians.

In May, Meacham said such discussion “was not about, ‘How do I shape my legacy?’ It was, ‘How have previous presidents dealt with fundamental crises’ … it was, ‘How do you articulate a case for democracy with all its inherent messiness?’”

Nonetheless, Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, recently advertised the president’s interest in his place in history.

The Biden administration, Klain said, had “delivered the largest economic recovery plan since [Franklin D] Roosevelt, the largest infrastructure plan since [Dwight D] Eisenhower, the most judges confirmed since [John F] Kennedy, the second-largest healthcare bill since [Lyndon B] Johnson, and the largest climate change bill in history.”

Klain also pointed to “the first time we’ve done gun control since President [Bill] Clinton was here, the first time ever an African American woman [Ketanji Brown Jackson] has been put on the US supreme court.

“I think it’s a record to take to the American people,” he said.

It was not immediately clear if Biden would make reference in this week’s address to another historical use of Independence Hall with strong relevance in modern-day America: in the long aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the protests for racial justice it inspired.

As the historian Ted Widmer said in 2020, in the 1850s the hall was “used as a holding pen for African Americans who were being recaptured [after escaping from slavery].

“They would make it to Philadelphia and to freedom in the Underground Railroad, and then they would be recaptured, often even if they were legitimately free, they would be incarcerated in a jail inside the Independence Hall, and sent back into the south.

“So that building had become tainted in the eyes of a lot of Americans.”

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