Clip: Will Biden's shift to attacking Trump help Democrats in the midterms?

Sep. 02, 2022 AT 5:20 p.m. EDT

With just two months of campaigning left until the midterm election, President Biden sharpens his attacks on former President Trump and Republican election deniers as the GOP punches back.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Alcindor : With just two months to go until the midterms, President Biden is stepping up his attacks on the GOP. In a fiery speech Thursday, he blasted Republicans who are allied with former President Trump and embracing election lies. Outside Philadelphia’s historic Independence Hall where our nation was founded, Biden called those Republicans an extreme threat to the foundations of our nation and he vowed to fight back.

Biden : Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election. Either they win or they were cheated. And that's where the MAGA Republicans are today.

Alcindor : The speech marked his second visit to the state in this week and in the critical state of Pennsylvania, of course.

On Tuesday, in a speech in the northeast part of Pennsylvania, Biden said Democrats are committed to preventing police brutality.

Biden : You’re going to know and you’re going to be able to trust the police. The police have to be able to trust the community. We slipped away from that. We have a hell of a lot fewer cops today than I did when I wrote that initial crime bill. But now, we've got to get back to it.

Alcindor : Meanwhile, this weekend, former President Trump will also be heading to the keystone state to rally voters again. And just outside Biden's hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pointedly criticized the president.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) : Washington and the White House aren't listening. They just don't get it. His policies have severely wounded America's soul, diminished America's spirit, and betrayed America's trust.

Alcindor : There’s a lot going on in Pennsylvania this week.

Joining me to discuss this and more, Jonathan Martin, senior political correspondent for the "New York Times" and co-author of "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America's Future." Evan Perez, CNN senior justice correspondent, and joining me here in studio, Yasmeen Abutaleb, White House reporter for "The Washington Post", and Laura Barron-Lopez, White House correspondent for "The PBS NewsHour".

Thank you all for being here.

Yasmeen, first, congratulations on the new title and promotion to White House reporter, though, I will be calling you if there is a COVID surge, just so you know.

Yasmeen Abutaleb, White House Reporter, The Washington Post : Always here.

Alcindor : Always there.

So, of course, we saw this primetime speech from President Biden where he called out in a rare way President Trump by name and Republicans. What's behind the strategy there? And does the White House think this speech is really going to make a big difference?

Abutaleb : I think the White House viewed this speech as almost the kind of launch ahead of the traditional kind of campaign season than will start this weekend with Labor Day weekend and begin in earnest after that. And I think they do think this is an effective strategy that Biden is trying to draw the distinction between the MAGA Republicans, those who are loyal to President Trump and still say the 2020 election was rigged and have said that they might be willing to challenge future election results and those that he called mainstream Republicans who don't adhere to that political ideology.

But I think they feel, you know, democracy is at stake. Democrats have been clamoring for this for a while for the president to be much more forceful and direct and calling out the forces that they feel are a threat to the American way of governance. And so, I think actually Democrats are pretty energized by this much more forceful president Biden.

Alcindor : And, Laura, I mean, as Yasmeen just said, Democrats were really, really wanting to see sort of a more pointed attack from President Biden. He said in his speech there is no place for political violence in America. So, what’s your reporting reveal about sort of his impact at the White House thinks the speech may have and their thinking?

Laura Barron-Lopez, White House Correspondent, PBS NewsHour : Biden really -- this goes back for him to when he launched his campaign. You know, he responded to the violence that he saw in Charlottesville when the neo-Nazis were marching. And he said he was launching his campaign because he felt that he needed to respond to that.

And that's where his "Soul of the Nation" slogan came from. But since then, he has given a few speeches about the threats to democracy. But this was really a shift this week. We saw that he started using the term, at least once, calling the forces that he seen rise within the Republican Party, semi-fascist. He did that at a Maryland fundraiser and then again at the speech on gun violence. He talked about how you can't be pro-cop but also saying that the FBI should be defunded. And then again just later on this week talking about the fact that what the political violence that he sees some Republicans encouraging is something that he felt the need to draw a line in the sand on.

He very forcefully focused on former President Trump and a number of other Republicans trying to say that he doesn't think all Republicans are this way. But that they are dominating the party and ultimately he felt as though he needed to address it. And he's talked to historians about this in recent weeks as well.

Alcindor : And, Jonathan, you talk about a line in the sand and what Laura is talking about, something that struck out to me in the speech also was President Biden saying, quote, "Republicans spread fear and lies told for profit and power, basically saying there's a motivation why we're seeing this election lines. What are you hearing from your sources about the strategy here?

Jonathan Martin, Senior Political Correspondent , New York Times : Look, President Biden, Yamiche, had wanted to tee up the midterms with political speech like this for a while that they thought about doing it earlier in the summer. And then I think as we've gotten close to the fall, they realized that they had to go harder on this democracy angle in part because that's what really animates Biden and in part because the facts on the ground, the nature of the people who are getting the nomination and the Republican Party are, you know, pretty extreme. There are plenty of election deniers out there.

But they also made a choice here, which is to conflate, you know, a more traditional midterm political speech a more high-minded speech on the importance of protecting America's democracy institutions and doing so from Independence Hall with sort of marines standing behind him. And I think because he did both of those things in the same speech, it drew some criticism from obviously folks on the right. But also some less predictable folks like "The Washington Post" editorial page, for touting Biden for mixing high minded appeals to small D democracy in a more traditional campaign seasons attacks on the GOP.

I just add one more thing, Yamiche, and that is, I’m not totally sure why Biden had to insert himself into the conversation. There's an old saying, don't get in your opponent's way when he's losing. A lot of Democrats had liked the way things were going because the attention has been entirely on Trump rather than on Biden. When the focus is on Trump, that tends to be good for Democrats.

I think there's some uncertainty as to why Biden wanted to bring it back to himself here, instead of letting Trump keep doing his thing.

Barron-Lopez : If I can just add, I mean, in the meetings that Biden had recently with historians, he asked them if there was any similar moment in history that they could think of that -- and they said to him, 1940s, 1941 when President FDR then addressed fascism and potential rising force of fascism within the U.S.

So I think he's been thinking about that. They said that's been on his mind and they also agree, a lot of these historians posed to him without giving him direct advice on how to write the speech, that at a moment like this a number of presidents in the past have weighed in to decide that this moment calls for that because of the forces that work in the country.

Alcindor : And, Evan, I know your -- the Justice Department, obviously, you're reporting on the actual things that are going on in terms of keeping people safe in this country. Now, I want to point out that this week we saw the longest sentence handed out in a case stemming from the January 6 capitol attack. We saw a man named Thomas Webster sent to 10 years, the former NYPD officer.

I bring him up because I wonder what you make of that sentence and the idea that sort of the DOJ is at the heart of prosecuting people. How do these sort of these themes that we’re talking about square with the violence and the threats are real around this country?

Evan Perez, Senior Justice Correspondent, CNN : No, exactly. And, look, I think with the conversation you guys have been having, it is really fascinating especially within the context of what you see prosecutors and what the FBI are doing. And you know, they're try trying -- they're trying their best to stay out of the political sphere. But it's really -- its’ impossible, right, when you are talking about people who committed violence in the name of the former president and who he has in the last -- just in the last few days said that if he were to become president again, he's going to give pardons and that he is financially supporting some of them.

Although, that is not exactly quite clear because if you talk to some people involved the defendants they're quite angry because they believe they've been hung out to dry while the former president has been raising millions and millions of dollars and hasn't shared for the defense of some of these people. But from a Justice Department standpoint, you know, I think they wanted to make sure that they made examples of some of the worst violent offenders and that one gentleman is one of the people. I mean, he was attacking police with weapons, and you have it on video.

So they wanted to make an example of that. But there is some nervousness I will say about having others in the Democratic Party try to conflate some of the things that are happening. They want to see people who committed crimes go to jail and not conflate that with the broader picture, the political fight that is going on over democracy, small D or big D, because, you know, that is -- those are two things that can’t be mixed.

Alcindor : It's an interesting and an important point.

Yasmeen, when we think about sort of conflations and sort of the midterm strategy and the language being used, I also want to point out that President Biden talked about crime and policing. And part of that, he talked about the crime bill wanting to make sure that there are more police officers and hiring more police officers. On the flip side there are civil rights leaders that he met with today who are worried about being tough on crime.

What are you hearing both from the White House but people worried about what that could mean for people and mass incarceration?

Abutaleb : I think this is a really difficult area for Biden and for Democrats more broadly, especially those who are in these difficult swing states. He did deliver that speech on crime in Pennsylvania where, of course, the Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman this is a top issue with his record on crime and whether he's going to be tough on crime or not.

And so, I thought that speech was interesting because you saw the president taking this pretty markedly pro-law enforcement stance, almost wanting to draw a very sharp distinction between him and Democrat who is were talk about defunding the police and some of the problems with police force in the U.S. But I think, you know, there is the risk that he alienates some of the people in his party particularly those on the left and those who have expressed concerns about criminal justice and the inequities and who's incarcerated.

If he swings too far in either direction -- so I think this is a very difficult balancing act for him and for many Democrats in these tough races.

Alcindor : And, J-Mart, we call him Jonathan Martin. Everyone who knows you calls you J-Mart. So, J-Mart, Yasmeen is talking about Pennsylvania, let’s go there. President Biden has been there three times just this week. Of course, former President Trump is also heading there.

Why are they heading to Pennsylvania? Make this make sense to us? Why is this so significant to them?

Martin : Well, I don’t think it’s because they’re all -- you know, looking to get a taste of Yuengling for a labor day weekend, although a few of those could be consumed as well.

Look, it’s probably the most important battleground state this year because you've got these marquee races for the Senate and for governor. And the Senate race there, Yamiche, it’s really the best opportunity the Democrats have to flip a Republican held seat.

Pat Toomey is retiring. That seat is open. It's a state obviously that has gone to the Democrats, you know, with the exemption in 2016 when Trump carried it for the last few cycles for Democrats.

And so, I think it's an opportunity to get a rare pickup in the Senate. If Dems hold their majority in the Senate, it will be in part because they flip that seat.

I think as important, Yamiche, it's because this governor's race is so central not just in 2022 but 2024. And the reason for that is because Pennsylvania invests extraordinary power in their governor when it comes to administration of election. The governor essentially in Pennsylvania is the chief elections officer that is so important because in 2024, the governor in there will have enormous authority when it comes to certifying the results of the election. I don't have to tell the viewers of this show why certification of that election is so important.

Alcindor : Yeah. And, when you think, when we’re talking about the election and sort of what’s at stake, Laura, our friends at "The Cook Political Report", they shifted their forecast from five competitive races in favor of Democrats, meaning Democrats are in a better place. What are you hearing about how Democrats and Republicans are feeling about their chances? Given the fact that the house when I talk to Republicans, they still feel good but not as good as they did two months ago.

Barron-Lopez : Yeah. I mean, look, a few months ago, Republicans thought they would have a big wave in the House. And now, it’s really -- they may pick up a few seats. I think they still are favored. But Democrats are feeling bullish especially about keeping the Senate.

And they're feeling bullish because of the fact that all of this -- whether they’re special election races, or primary races. The way that they've gone, Democrats see it as favorable to them because of the fact that abortion is starting to play big in a lot of these races, abortion rights. What we saw in Alaska this week, yes, they that had to do with rank choice voting with the Democrat winning there, Mary Peltola, in beating out Sarah Palin, the Republican.

But a lot of Democratic data firm has been saying actually that registration changed. After the Roe decision, after Roe was overturned, a number of women started registering at greater numbers. It went up about seven points. And that's happened in other states across the country including Wisconsin and Michigan where you’ve seen women register in greater numbers since the decision, as well as younger women.

Alcindor : Yeah, it's going to be a big, big topic.

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