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Biden gives closing argument on the state of U.S. democracy

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

** President Biden sounded the alarm tonight about internal threats to American democracy. With the midterm elections less than a week away, he said voters need to think about the future of democracy as they cast their ballots because this is no ordinary election year.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As I stand here today, there are candidates running for every level of office in America - for governor, Congress, attorney general, secretary of state - who won't commit. They will not commit to accepting the results of an election that they're running in.

SUMMERS: And that, he said, is a recipe for chaos. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now with more. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So this is not the first time that I remember the president speaking about threats to democracy. He gave that speech in Philadelphia about two months ago. But tell us what he said tonight.

KEITH: This is his closing argument on this issue. And his speech was more pointed this time, especially about the former president and candidates in his mold running in this year's midterms. Biden delivered the speech near the U.S. Capitol building because it was the site of the January 6 riot, an attack on a democratic institution. And now he said that the same election lies that fueled that violence are fueling political violence, including the attack on Speaker Pelosi's husband.

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BIDEN: This intimidation, this violence against Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisan officials just doing their jobs are the consequence of lies told for power and profit, lies of conspiracy and malice, lies repeated over and over to generate a cycle of anger, hate, vitriol and even violence.

KEITH: And he said he wants people to think about whether the person they are voting for will accept the results of this election. He also tried to get ahead of election night problems by warning voters that the results may not be known right away in some races, and that doesn't mean that something nefarious has happened.

SUMMERS: Election season, Tam, is already in full swing. Millions of people have already voted early, and many more will cast ballots next Tuesday. So who is President Biden trying to reach with this message?

KEITH: You know, he said more than once during his remarks that he was making an appeal to all Americans. He acknowledged a lot of people are worried about the economy, but he said that this election requires people to vote based on who would be best for America's institutions. But a little reality check here. The new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released today indicates that threats to democracy is a big issue for voters but mostly for Democratic voters. I spoke with pollster Christine Matthews before the speech. She says President Biden is trying to raise the stakes for the public.

CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: I think President Biden is trying to create a river-catches-on-fire moment, and I don't think the American public is there yet.

KEITH: The river that she's talking about is the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland that caught in - on fire in 1969. Before that, some people were worried about pollution. After that, it became a front-of-mind issue. But, you know, this is widely seen as an effort to boost Democratic turnout rather than to persuade Republicans.

SUMMERS: And so what about Republicans? How have they responded to the case that the president made tonight?

KEITH: Well, party - Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel said Biden was being divisive and demonizing her party, though the president insisted in his remarks that he wasn't talking about all Republicans.

SUMMERS: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.