Biden Says Election Lies Undermine U.S. Democracy : The NPR Politics Podcast President Joe Biden delivered a speech warning that American democracy is endangered by Donald Trump and those of his supporters who push conspiracies about election fraud. The message appears designed to rally the administration's base ahead of midterm elections.

The episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, senior political editor and correspondent Ron Elving, and climate correspondent Nathan Rott.

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Biden Says Election Lies Undermine U.S. Democracy

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ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Hey there. It's Ashley Lopez from the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. You might have heard we're going back on the road. And Houston, we'll be heading your way very soon. Join me, Susan Davis, Asma Khalid, Tamara Keith and Domenico Montanaro at Zilkha Hall on Thursday, September 15. You can find more information about tickets, including student ones, at nprpresents.org. Thanks to our partners at Houston Public Media. We hope to see you there.

BREE: Hi. This is Bree (ph) in Santiago, Chile, where this weekend I will be voting in the historic plebiscite on a new constitution. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

1:50 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, September 2, 2022.

BREE: Things may have changed by the time you hear it - the Chilean Constitution, for example. OK. Here's the show.

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KHALID: I love that we have listeners from all over the world. Thank you.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: A nice, bright message.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Yeah - happy voting.

ELVING: Happy voting.

KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.

KHALID: And last night, President Biden delivered a prime-time speech from outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: History tells us that blind loyalty to a single leader and a willingness to engage in political violence is fatal to democracy. For a long time, we've told ourselves that American democracy is guaranteed. But it's not. We have to defend it, protect it, stand up for it - each and every one of us.

KHALID: The president spoke about the battle for the soul of the nation. And that is a theme that we have heard from him before, notably the last time there was an election to win. And I put that out not to deny that there are certainly tangible threats to democracy. We have talked about those threats very often on this very show. But, Tam, there was also a political message that the president was selling last night. So how would you sum up his argument?

KEITH: Well, he ended with vote, vote, vote. But he also was arguing that the country is in a really dangerous place, that democracy is threatened, that when you have people who are unwilling to accept that they've lost an election, for instance, when you have threats of political violence that are not idle threats - I mean, we've seen political violence quite a lot in the last two years and those threats continue - all of that - he is saying that the country is in a precarious place, at a turning point or an inflection point.

But also, one of his solutions - in fact, the only solution that he really offered - was to vote. And while he didn't say who to vote for, he also made clear that he sees former President Trump and what he called the MAGA Republicans as a threat, that MAGA Republicans, he also implied, were a threat to the Republican Party or the Republican Party that he knew, you know, back in the day.

KHALID: You know, Ron, the phrase that Tam just referenced there, MAGA Republicans, I was struck by that because the challenge, it seems, for President Biden is that he's trying to thread this very fine needle. He's calling out MAGA Republicans, as he refers to them. He's calling out Donald Trump by name for undermining democratic institutions. But then he was also saying that he's not a president of a red America or a blue America. He was trying to say that he's not attacking all Republicans. That is a nuanced argument. What did you make of it?

ELVING: That's exactly what it attempts to be - a nuanced argument, a threading of the needle, the idea that you can separate Donald Trump from the Republican Party. That's something people have been trying to do since Donald Trump emerged to take over the Republican Party. Many Republicans would like to find a way to do that as well.

But in Joe Biden's case, his biggest challenge right now - and it's no secret - is energizing Democrats. They did not show up in 2010. And so the promise of the Obama presidency, that was largely frustrated when the Republicans took over the House in a landslide and the party was weakened in the Senate, eventually gave it up in another midterm election in 2014. And we've seen this in the past. When a Democratic president gets elected, that person gets his congressional legs cut out from under him in a midterm election. So that could easily happen to Joe Biden. He knows that, and he is fighting that with every means that he has, whether that be energizing Democrats or trying to lure over, if you will, non-MAGA Republicans.

KEITH: And for President Biden, this threading the needle continued today. He got a lot of criticism because the White House, before the speech, had said, this won't be a political speech. And then everybody saw the speech and said, wow; that seems like a political speech. And Republicans responded saying, oh, my God; you're painting us with this brush and saying that we're all terrible people and a threat to democracy. We don't think we're a threat to democracy. We think you're a threat to democracy.

So President Biden was asked about this today by Fox News during an unrelated event. He was asked, do you consider all Trump supporters to be a threat to the country? He said, no, I don't, if we accept the premise that a majority of Americans also accept and that people who study decline in democracy have been shouting from the rooftops about.

So if we accept that American democracy is threatened because people don't trust institutions and because of all of these threats of political violence and everything that's swirling out there, if we accept that, who is the right messenger to stand up and say, we've got to fix this? We have to reverse course. We have to somehow restore the things that America was built on.

ELVING: It would be useful if there were someone in a senior statesman role that had respect in both parties, someone - perhaps a former president, perhaps a war hero. It's a little hard to imagine who that person might be. But if there were someone who could summon the nation and have some claim to the attention of something like what a president can claim, that could be useful in a moment like this, somebody who could not tell people how to vote, but exhort them to vote and to believe in the counting of their votes so that that basic element of democracy can be preserved.

KEITH: And traditionally, that would be the so-called pastoral role of a president.

ELVING: But not if the president is looking at reelection in two years, possibly, and not if that president is desperately trying to hang on to some of his congressional support just a few months from now. So he is cast, in a sense, hopelessly in a political-player's role and cannot function as the kind of paterfamilias you might want to have who could summon the nation to its, you know, better angels.

KHALID: So that leaves me with a question that I've been wondering ever since the speech was delivered last night, which is, who was it ultimately for? Was it about persuading people? Because if, indeed, the president is saying that he does not think all Trump supporters are extremist, well, there are moments in which, you know, the Republican Party, as it currently exists, has very much embraced itself, wrapped itself around Donald Trump and his message and has been very reluctant to criticize, you know, Donald Trump or to criticize, say, the attack on the Capitol. So that's a real tricky thing for me to understand. Like, who is this persuadable middle that may or may not actually exist out there? And if it wasn't about persuading people, then was it ultimately about energizing Democrats?

KEITH: In 2018 and again in 2020, there was a coalition that elected Democrats in Congress and elected Joe Biden. And that coalition included independent voters and included at least some Republicans who felt deeply uncomfortable with the direction that Donald Trump was taking the country. This would seem to be an effort to rebuild that coalition, to bring together people who are concerned broadly about erosion of rights, for instance. More than 60% of Americans believe that there should be a right to abortion. Well, President Biden is now trying to get those people to vote for Democrats.

ELVING: That's right. I would say in the end, while ideally you want to put that coalition back together - and Biden was awkwardly trying to do that last night - you have to fall back on the essential mission of energizing Democrats because they have been in the past, in the recent past, so complacent in midterm elections. Their falloff is absolutely fatal to competitive races for the Senate, for the House. And that's what caused elections like 2010 and 2014 to be so disastrous for the last Democratic administration. And Joe Biden was around for that and knows how it felt.

KHALID: Republicans had been trying to message around the economy, inflation. That certainly remains a top priority for many voters. But we have seen some improvements in gas prices, in some metrics in the economy. And Democrats have been trying to highlight people's concerns around democratic institutions and rights, especially after the reversal of Roe v. Wade. We have talked about this many times on this podcast - that it is difficult, traditionally, for the party in power, which is the Democrats, to win the midterms. But do you all get a sense that some of the momentum is shifting?

ELVING: Certainly the economic story is better for the Democrats than it has been at any point in the last six months. That may not continue, but this morning's job numbers pretty much did thread the needle we keep talking about. It was a Goldilocks report - not too hot, not too cold - doesn't look like recession, but it looks like the pressure on the Fed to increase interest rates, not just half a point, but 75 basis points - that could be huge for a lot of businesses, for a lot of individuals. It certainly could mean a lot to investors. So that is a better economic story for the Democrats for the moment. Plus, of course, the enormous effect of Dobbs, which you saw in Kansas, which I think we saw in Alaska. And I think that that's something the Democrats can be smiling about. Plus, they also have a better story to tell as the problems pile up around Donald Trump - January 6 commission and now the documents and everything that's going to come from that investigation.

KHALID: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we're going to shift gears and talk a bit about climate. But, Ron and Tam, please do not go too far away because we're going to bring you back for Can't Let It Go.

And we're back. And we're joined now by Nate Rott, who covers climate for NPR.

Nate, it is so good to have you with us. I really appreciate it.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: No, I'm excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

KHALID: So, Nate, two things that I love to talk to you about today. One is cars and the other is extreme weather - so kind of runs the gamut here.

ROTT: Ooh, my favorite topics - all right.

KHALID: (Laughter) So let's start with cars. Last month, California air regulators voted to phase out the sale of new, gasoline-powered cars. New sales of the vehicles will be banned by the year 2035 in the state of California. And the ban will not prevent people from using gas-powered vehicles, nor will it apply to the used-car market, but this is still expected to have a sizable impact, right?

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, a huge impact when you look at it. California is the largest auto market in the country. And traditionally, historically, more than a dozen other states follow California's lead when it comes to setting, like, tailpipe emissions standards. So under the Clean Air Act, California has a special waiver, essentially, that lets it set stricter air quality standards. And the federal government is - the federal government sets the floor. California can raise that floor.

KHALID: OK.

ROTT: And a number of states have already indicated that they're going to follow California's lead on this. Virginia, Massachusetts have trigger laws, which more or less mean that if California raises the bar, they're going to follow suit.

KHALID: Oh, interesting.

ROTT: Washington's governor has said they'd do this; add New York, Oregon. And so when you put all of this together, the states that typically follow California's lead, and California, that is a third of the U.S. auto market. So a huge, huge, huge portion of the auto market could potentially be going gas-powered free by 2035.

KHALID: OK, Nate, so I've got to ask, though, I mean, how has the auto industry responded to this?

ROTT: Look; it's mixed, right? So some parts of the auto industry say, hey; this is going to be really hard to achieve. And I've talked to analysts who say the same, right? Like, there's big limitations in terms of charging stations. There's big limitations right now in terms of raw materials to make batteries, like, lithium batteries - right? - and all the things you need for electric cars. That being said, the global car market is moving to electric vehicles. I mean, every analyst you talk to says that is the future. And if California, in this case, is making this huge signal to the auto market that this is where we're heading domestically, it could be a good thing for some of the U.S. automakers because it pushes them to have to go in the same direction as the global market. Does that make sense?

KHALID: You're saying that it's not clear that the auto industry has the tools or the resources to do this. When California says, we're banning people from doing this, is this, like, the law of the land now in California and there will be repercussions or financial fines?

ROTT: So basically, if you're a new car dealer - right? - so you own a Ford dealership in...

KHALID: OK.

ROTT: ...Camarillo. You're not going to be able to sell a gas-powered car in 2035 under this ban. I will say, 2035 is a long time away (laughter). And if you remember, during the Trump administration, they tried challenging California's ability, the special ability to set their own air quality standards. So there is the potential, and one of the analysts I talked to when I did this story basically said, hey; yeah. Depending on which way the federal elections go over the next decade, there is a chance that you could have an administration come in and say, actually, California, you don't have this special right, which would revert everything back to what, essentially, the EPA is doing under the Clean Air Act.

KHALID: So, I mean, it sounds like it's hard to plan over the long-run, potentially, when...

ROTT: Right.

KHALID: ...Sometimes climate policy changes under administration to administration.

ROTT: Totally - and for the auto industry, that's a huge problem - right? - because if you're going to be preparing manufacturing lines for cars you're going to be building in 10 years, you need to be doing that right now.

KHALID: So, Nate, let's move on to the other huge topic that I wanted us to discuss today, which is extreme weather. We have seen massive flooding in the U.S. recently. We saw more...

ROTT: Yeah.

KHALID: ...Than 150,000 people without drinking water in Mississippi this week because of flooding there. We saw flooding in Kentucky earlier this summer that killed dozens of people, and much of the Mountain West is dealing with historic drought. But, you know, Nate, you have reported that at the same time there could be this historic flooding that could possibly impact the state of California. I mean, what is going on with these extreme weather conditions that seem to be almost, you know, on polar opposite ends of the spectrum?

ROTT: This is something that climate scientists have been warning us about for decades, that as we release more carbon emissions into the atmosphere and we raise global temperatures, extreme weather events are going to be more common. And that includes extreme droughts like the kind that California, the Mountain West is experiencing right now, which scientists say is the worst drought in at least 1,200 years. But it could also mean crazy, bad flooding like we have seen in Kentucky and Mississippi and all these other places. And in California, there is a history of extreme flood events that happen on average every one to 200 years. You know, flood events where we're talking about parts of Sacramento being underwater and the...

KHALID: Wow.

ROTT: ...Central Valley, one of the largest agricultural areas in the country, being totally flooded. And there was some research that came out recently that basically said that those types of flood events have become much more likely because of human-caused climate change already, and that's just going to continue as we go into the future.

KHALID: And, Nate, I mean, I do think it's important that we point out to listeners that these kinds of extreme weather events are not isolated here to the United States. They're happening all...

ROTT: Totally - yeah.

KHALID: ...Over the world. And all of this is made more likely and more severe because of greenhouse gas pollution. And the United States has historically been the world's largest emitter. Earlier this week, I actually brought this up with White House Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi. And I want to play you a little bit of the exchange where I asked him what responsibility the U.S. has to help other countries adapt.

So, Ali, most of our conversation has focused on domestic legislation. But you were mentioning being born in Pakistan, a country where, you know, I think more than a thousand people have already died in recent flooding that is largely attributable, it sounds like from experts, to climate change. And I'm curious what responsibility you think the U.S. has to support other nations resilience and adaptation efforts because one of the points of criticism is that Pakistan is not such a large emitter, but it has certainly received a brunt of the fallout of what's going on.

ALI ZAIDI: I think there's a real responsibility, and this is a all-hands-on-deck moment. Everybody's got to bring the talent and the treasure that they have to this challenge 'cause we face it all together. And there are three very concrete ways in which I think we do that. One is, we've got to keep driving down the cost of clean energy technologies. We've got to make it easier and more affordable and more accessible for more people - not just in the United States, but to everybody in the world.

The second is, as a world, we haven't thought as critically about, how do we reduce the cost of cooling? So heat is a really big deal, right? Heat is torturing and torching communities all around the world. It impacts vulnerable folks with underlying health conditions, seniors. How do we reduce the cost of air conditioning, make it more efficient, make it more climate-friendly so that places - Pakistan, before it was dealing with the flooding, was dealing with extreme temperatures. And then the third part of it is we've got to galvanize the financing to help deploy, whether it's the clean energy or the resilience, all around the world.

The president's made significant commitments about increasing climate-related development spending. He's charged entities like the Development Finance Corporation to figure out how we get more lending into this space all around the world. We can't just become more resilient here. We can't just reduce our emissions here. We've got to build our backbone and our strength and our technology and our know-how, and we've got to deploy that all around the world.

KHALID: So, Nate, you have spent a lot of time interviewing climate activists. What's your sense of how they interpret the Biden administration's stance here or, broadly speaking, the U.S. government's stance here?

ROTT: I mean, look - so I think, you know, obviously, when you - when we're talking about climate activists, generally, and developing nations that are dealing with the effects of climate change, they're very happy to see the U.S. take a seat at the table. But when you look broadly at what the U.S. is contributing to developing nations that are suffering from the effects of climate change - whether it's island nations that are suffering from sea-level rise, if it's, you know, Pakistan, like you were saying, that's dealing with historic flooding or parts of the global south that is dealing with - you know, the heat waves that we're experiencing right now in the West are fairly commonplace - right? - it's nowhere near enough, right? The richest countries in the world promised, over a decade ago, that they would give $100 billion annually to developing nations to sort of try to right the wrong, right? It's almost like you could talk about it as almost, like, a climate reparation for developing nations. And the U.S., the richest countries in the world, have never done that. They've never even come close.

Later this year, there's going to be another climate conference in Egypt. And one of the main points of this climate conference is going to be this issue of how does - how do the richest nations in the world help, basically, right the wrong that they've done over the past century, post-industrialization, and try to give some of these countries that are trying to deal with climate-induced issues right now the means and the ability to prepare for them, to adapt to those changes, to be more resilient as these sorts of climate-fueled disasters occur more frequently.

KHALID: All right, Nate, thanks so much for joining us on the POLITICS POD. It is always a pleasure to have you on.

ROTT: Yeah. It's always a pleasure to be here. I appreciate it.

KHALID: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, it is time for Can't Let It Go.

And we're back. And it is now time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go. That's the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just cannot stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. And, Tam, why don't you kick it off for us?

KEITH: So what I can't let go of is this super sweet story that - I mean, it's just amazing. This 92-year-old grandmother, Joy Ryan, and her grandson, Brad Ryan - who is a veterinarian, which must prove that he is a wonderful human being, just on its face - for the last seven years or so have been - it's basically a bucket list. They have been trying to go together to every single national park. And they have just one left - the national park in Samoa. But they have made it to every national park. They've gone to Alaska. They're doing all of these things, and she's 92 years old.

KHALID: That's mighty ambitious.

KEITH: It is. Well, what, to me...

KHALID: I mean, it's amazing.

KEITH: Yeah. I - she's, like, hiking. She's sleeping in tents. These are things I do not do. So I am, like, amazed that anyone of any age would do that much hiking and camping, but especially at 92 years old. And it...

KHALID: That's also great that it's - like, you can start whenever. 'Cause I recently took my kids to their first national park, and I got that little, you know, passport that you can have and get it stamped at the different national parks.

KEITH: That's cool.

KHALID: And then we felt really sad 'cause we only have one stamp so far, so...

KEITH: But, you know, she had been a widow for almost 20 years. And then they got this idea, and they started doing it. And, I mean, what a full life to live in and to have all of this exploring. She had never - before they started this, she had never seen a mountain before.

KHALID: Wow. I love that.

ELVING: Grandson of the year.

KHALID: (Laughter).

KEITH: I wish they'd take me.

KHALID: Ron, what can't you let go of?

ELVING: I have to make a tip of the hat here to our colleague at the Cook Political Report, Dave Wasserman, a well-known expert on House elections. He tweeted out this week, after the results of the special election in Alaska were announced, the amount of land mass represented by House Democrats just went up by 104%.

KEITH: You mean double.

ELVING: I mean, most of us would say double. But Dave Wasserman says, let's get the numbers right - 104%. And of course, what that simply means is that, before the special election in Alaska which produced the new congressperson from Alaska - Mary Peltola, a Democrat - before that, the Democrats only represented a landmass in the lower 48 plus Hawaii that was roughly equivalent to the size of Alaska.

KHALID: That's wild.

ELVING: Or about - what is that? - like, 15% of the lower 48.

KEITH: Yeah, but Alaska is very large.

KHALID: I have never been to Alaska, but I do hear it is very large, yes.

ELVING: Indeed it is. But the point is that that means the Democrats, who are the majority party in the Congress and represent a slight majority of the people in America, were not representing but about 15% of the landmass. The people they represent are clearly densely populated - largely along the coasts, but not entirely - but they're the cities. They're the metropolitan areas...

KHALID: Yeah. That tells you how urbanized they are, yeah.

ELVING: ...And there is - exactly - that there is research that shows that the closer you live to a metropolitan center in America, the more likely it is you are a Democrat, and the likelihood you are a Republican increases per mile as you move away from the center of that metro area. That has many, many implications for all of our political decisions and all of our political conflicts for the next generation.

KEITH: Yeah, I just am trying to imagine the spreadsheet that Dave Wasserman has that has a column for the landmass of each congressional district, which I'm sure exists. Like, it probably wasn't even hard for him to do that math.

ELVING: I found all those numbers very quickly after Dave showed the way.

KEITH: (Laughter) Asma, what can't you let go of?

KHALID: So who I have not been able to let go of this week, but even far, far longer than that is Serena Williams. I'm sure you all know that Serena Williams is playing what could ultimately be her final U.S. Open tournament, and she plays tonight. She's made it, so far, to the third round. And if y'all have not been paying attention to this, I just - I love every moment of this. I feel like I've been following along with every update of her. Last night, she and her sister, Venus - they played doubles together. It was very tragic. They lost, which was very sad because the two of them, I just think, have been like a dynamic duo in my mind.

I've been playing tennis since I was a kid, and I feel like I just saw them always on the screen. And, you know, I don't even want to say I could aspire to who they were because they were amazing at playing tennis, but they were just such an inspiration to see. And on Monday night, what I loved the most was that Serena's little daughter, who was turning 5 this week, showed up, and she had these little, tiny, white beads in her hair. And it was a tribute to how Serena looked when she won her first U.S. Open Championship, which I think was in 1999 - also a testament to how long she has been, you know...

KEITH: Dominant. Dominant.

KHALID: ...Just dominant on the courts. So if y'all haven't seen those images of Serena and her daughter, Olympia, I encourage you to look them up. Also, you know, here's to hoping Serena wins tonight. I hope she goes all the way, guys.

KEITH: Yeah, 'cause we just can't let it go. We can't let her, like...

KHALID: I know.

KEITH: ...Go from the stage too quickly, right?

ELVING: Awfully hard to resist.

KHALID: It feels like every single round is - you're, like, holding your breath because you don't know if it will ultimately be her final - you know, final game, so...

ELVING: Last point.

KHALID: Exactly. So go Serena. Hopefully you win tonight, and we'll see you more again next week.

All right. Well, that is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editors are Eric McDaniel and Krishnadev Calamur. Our producers are Elena Moore and Casey Morrell. Thanks to Brandon Carter and Maya Rosenberg. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor/correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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