WASHINGTON — By this point in his term, President Biden figured things would be different. His predecessor would have faded from the scene and the country would have restored at least some semblance of normalcy. But as he said on Thursday night, “too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal.”
And so the president who declared when he took office that “democracy has prevailed” declared in a prime-time televised speech that in fact democracy 19 months later remained “under assault.” Former President Donald J. Trump “and the MAGA Republicans,” as Mr. Biden termed his predecessor’s allies, still represent a clear and present danger to America.
If it sounded like a repeat of the 2020 campaign cycle, in some ways it is, although the incumbent and likely challenger have changed places. A country torn apart by ideology, culture, economics, race, religion, party and grievance remains as polarized as ever. Mr. Biden has scored some bipartisan legislative successes, but he has been singularly unable to heal the broader societal rift that he inherited. It may be that no president could have.
With an opposition party that has largely embraced the lie that the last election was stolen and remains in thrall to a twice-impeached and defeated former president who encouraged a mob that attacked the Capitol to stop the transfer of power, Mr. Biden’s appeals to national unity have found little traction. Some Republicans have argued that his efforts to build consensus were fainthearted at best, while some Democrats complain they were excessive.
Either way, they have made little difference in the national conversation. And so with the midterm congressional campaign getting underway in earnest, Mr. Biden has dispensed with the unity message, at least for now, reaching into the 2020 file cabinet and bringing out the call to win “a battle for the soul of this nation” that was the cornerstone of his successful election.
The immediate strategy is self-evident. Rather than a referendum on his own presidency, which has been hurt by high inflation and low public morale, Mr. Biden wants to make the election a choice between “normal” and an “extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” as he put it on Thursday.
If he has his way, it would be a rerun of Biden vs. Trump without either man actually listed on the ballot. If Americans are asked whether they support Mr. Biden, they may say no. If they are asked whether they support him over Mr. Trump, they may say yes. At least, that is the theory in the White House.
It is a view borne out by recent opinion surveys. In the wake of a string of legislative and policy victories, Mr. Biden’s anemic approval ratings have ticked upward, though they remain in the 40s. But when pitted against Mr. Trump in a new Wall Street Journal poll, Mr. Biden came out on top in a theoretical 2024 rematch, 50 percent to 44 percent.
Mr. Trump has arguably helped Mr. Biden set the stage for such a political showdown with his highly visible efforts to maintain his grip on the Republican Party. But it means that Mr. Biden will take on a more confrontational posture for the next two months, undermining his desire to be a conciliator.
That left him in the odd position of being accused on Thursday night of being divisive by allies of the most divisive president in modern times. Trump Republicans argued that Mr. Biden was the one tearing the country apart and threatening democracy, not the other way around. He had insulted, in their contention, the 74 million Americans who voted for Mr. Trump.
“Joe Biden is the divider-in-chief and epitomizes the current state of the Democrat Party: one of divisiveness, disgust and hostility toward half the country,” said Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, who has resolutely stood by Mr. Trump despite his many divisive statements.
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader and would-be speaker, complained about the F.B.I. search of Mr. Trump’s home for classified documents that he was not entitled to keep and failed to turn over despite a subpoena. “That is an assault on democracy,” Mr. McCarthy said, meaning the search, not the former president’s possible violations of the law.
As it happens, both parties see democracy under threat — but from the other side. A Quinnipiac University poll found that 69 percent of Democrats said democracy was “in danger of collapse,” and 69 percent of Republicans said the same thing.
In a speech outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia, President Biden warned that America’s democratic values were under assault by “MAGA Republicans” loyal to former President Donald J. Trump.CreditCredit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
In his speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Mr. Biden stressed that in fact he was not speaking of all Republicans. “Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans,” he said. “Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know, because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans.”
Republicans were not really Mr. Biden’s target audience in any case. For all his expressed hopes of bringing the country together, the president and his team have come to accept that 40 percent of Americans are beyond his reach, unwilling to listen. And so Mr. Biden was speaking not to them but to the 81 million Americans who formed the coalition of Democrats, independents and disaffected Republicans he assembled two years ago, hoping to bring them out for his favored congressional candidates.
It will be an uphill struggle. Most Americans were not even listening on Thursday night. The three main broadcast networks declined to carry the speech, evidently deeming it more of a campaign event than a presidential address to the nation. Instead, they showed “Law & Order,” “Young Sheldon” and a game show called “Press Your Luck” with an episode titled “Zombie Apocalypse Ready.”
History has shown that the party of the incumbent president almost always loses the first midterm election. Republicans need only pick up a single seat in the Senate and a handful in the House to take control of one or both houses, which would effectively end Mr. Biden’s chances of major progressive legislation for the rest of his term.
But White House officials and other Democrats feel buoyed by the shift in political momentum in recent weeks, especially since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, a decision that angered liberals and moderates and may motivate them to turn out.
The victory of a Democrat in a special House election in traditionally Republican Alaska and the decisive defeat of an anti-abortion constitutional amendment in red-leaning Kansas have provided a possible road map for underdog Democrats. The Cook Political Report, which monitors every House campaign, moved five more races in the Democrats’ direction on Thursday, putting Mr. Biden’s party within striking distance of victory.
The question is whether focusing on the battle for democracy, as Mr. Biden framed it, will move his own voters more than inflation, crime, immigration and other issues will move the other side. The White House concluded long ago that it could not win simply by promoting Mr. Biden’s legislative record, even as his aides argue that he has accomplished a lot on infrastructure, climate change, health care and other issues.
The president’s team determined that Democrats would win only by making Americans see the other side as too dangerous to let back into power. In American politics in the Biden-Trump era, that debate is the new normal.