WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden told voters last year that he plans to run for re-election. Now, he's showing Democrats what a second campaign might look like.
In bookend speeches delivered at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday and in Atlanta on Tuesday, Biden portrayed himself as the central player in a mostly partisan battle for the survival of the republic.
"They want chaos to reign. We want the people to rule," he said as he promoted voting rights efforts in Georgia, a highly competitive electoral battleground where, in 2020, he became the first Democrat in 28 years to win the presidential race. "The goal of the former president of the United States and his allies is to disenfranchise anyone who votes against them."
Last week, in remarks memorializing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Biden promised to be the singular force fighting Trumpism.
"I will stand in this breach, I will defend this nation, and I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of democracy. ... We will make sure the will of the people is heard," he said.
In both speeches, he repeated his campaign mantra, the "battle for the soul of America," and in both cases, his running mate — Vice President Kamala Harris — spoke ahead of him.
Biden has rung in the new year with a campaign-style tone at a moment when he is at risk of losing influence if Democrats start to see him as a lame duck. With Biden's approval rating mired at 42 percent, the Democrats' social safety net and voting rights measures stalled and the midterm elections fast approaching, many Democrats have questioned whether he will — or should — top their ticket in 2024.
Biden is "absolutely" demonstrating what he has been saying about running for a second term, said Adrienne Elrod, a Biden campaign aide who remains close to the West Wing. "We all believe that he’s running for president," she said.
Turning to more combative and partisan rhetoric — last week, he derided Donald Trump as a "defeated former president" — gives Biden multiple angles to improve his standing, Democratic strategists say. It reminds his supporters of the candidate they chose, raises the electoral stakes for Republicans and Democrats who oppose his agenda, refocuses Democrats on their common GOP adversary and serves as a buttress against the perception that he's a short-timer.
"What they’re doing here with Trump and voting rights should be replicated on a lot of other issues where Biden demonstrates that he’s got some fight in him," said Faiz Shakir, who managed the 2020 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., referring to the White House. "One of the things they suffer from is a perception of weakness."
That stems in part, he said, from Biden's trying to steer clear of intense partisanship early in his presidency.
"As a result, over the course of a year, he has lost some political standing, because people have lost the thread of what are you fighting for, who are your opponents," Shakir said.
The erosion was evident Tuesday, when some voting rights activists skipped his Atlanta speech because they viewed it as geared more toward Biden's politics than toward the substance of ensuring the franchise.
Two House-passed bills relating to elections and voting rights are stuck in the Senate, where a narrow Democratic majority must either collect 10 Republican votes or change the rules of the chamber to move forward. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., whose votes would be necessary for a rules change, have been vocal in their support of the filibuster.
On Tuesday, Biden called for the Senate to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which would expand access to the polls, make Election Day a federal holiday, require greater disclosure of political contributions and ban mid-decade congressional redistricting, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore sections of the original 1965 Voting Rights Act.
If Democrats aren't able to muster the 60 votes necessary to consider the legislation directly, Biden said, "we have no choice but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster on this."
Although he has been under heavy pressure from civil rights leaders to more aggressively pursue voting rights, Biden's options may be limited to what he can do through executive orders and Justice Department enforcement of laws already on the books. For Democrats, there are both substantive and electoral imperatives in strengthening voting rights.
"If we don’t pass voting rights now, we as Democrats are going to be in deep doo-doo," Elrod said.
In his remarks Tuesday, Biden tied the Jan. 6 attack to the voting rights push.
"We must stand strong and stand together to make sure January 6th marks not the end of democracy but the beginning of a renaissance of our democracy," he said.
A Democratic consultant with ties to Biden said the Jan. 6 remarks may signal more strongly that he plans to seek re-election.
"I don’t think it’s calculated, but I don’t think it hurts," the consultant said. "It reminded me of his great campaign speeches."