It won’t be full-on Dark Brandon. No lasers will shoot from Joe Biden’s eyes when he speaks Thursday night in Philadelphia. But the tone of the president’s speech should be plenty blunt and aggressive. “This is not just stump. It’s something new,” a Biden insider says. “He’s not afraid of talking about Trump anymore. He’s not afraid of making the direct contrast anymore. The ‘let’s come together’ stuff? That’s over. We did that and got a lot done. Now it’s about winning.”
Biden is ramping up his retail appearances around the country just as the November midterms really start closing in, as is traditional. Campaigns believe voters truly start paying attention after Labor Day. His speech in Philadelphia will be the second of Biden’s three stops in Pennsylvania within a week, as he tries to help Democratic candidates running in key, tight swing state races—Josh Shapiro, for governor, and John Fetterman, for U.S. Senate, one of Democrats’ best shots at flipping a currently Republican-held seat in Congress’s upper chamber (Fetterman returned the favor by publicly pushing Biden to reform marijuana laws).
But the president’s newfound intensity is being fueled by two things. The first is a policy winning streak that seems to be boosting Biden’s popularity, particularly among independent voters, whose approval of the president climbed nine points in August, according to a new Gallup poll. Overall, Biden was still underwater, at 44%, but even that job approval rating was up six points from July, when he hit a record low. “Starting with Eisenhower, there’s only one president whose job rating improved from the summer into the midterms, and that was Trump, by just two points, in 2018, which shows you how hard it is,” says John Anzalone, Biden’s pollster. “So this president is doing something that is counter to every historical trend.” Progress, yes, though the precedent isn’t entirely encouraging: In 2018, the GOP still lost the House in a landslide.
A backlash against the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade is also clearly benefiting Biden and the Democrats. So the president and his advisers, who have not given up on wooing sane Republicans to Biden’s side, see Thursday’s speech as an opportunity to start converting momentum into political capital. “This is a historically difficult time for messaging to break through,” says Jen Psaki, who was Biden’s White House press secretary for the first 15 months of the administration, and who will start her new job as an MSNBC commentator in September. “Biden’s never going to out-Trump Trump. Nor should he—no one elected him to do that. But it’s better to have a little wind at your back to give a speech like this.”
The White House is teasing Thursday’s speech—which is expected to be written by Biden’s longtime close adviser Mike Donilon—as focusing on the “battle” for democracy, “and who is fighting for those freedoms.” Which is of course an important big picture theme, but one that still needs to be tied to everyday concerns if it’s going to resonate with voters. “The ‘threat to democracy’ is something that’s said so much it almost sounds like a talking point,” Psaki says. “People sitting in Ohio say, ‘Okay, but my eggs cost a lot of money and so does my gas, and I’m concerned about the cost of college.’ There are answers to that, and you need to make the connection. The president is someone who is very good at extracting highfalutin’ issues and making them mean something to people.”
Which is related to the second part of what’s animating Biden at the moment. He is a political lifer, and in Trump’s ongoing secret-document fiasco, Biden certainly sees an opening to exploit. But he also still takes this American experiment thing personally. On Tuesday, in a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, speech ostensibly devoted to crime, the president took a not-very-veiled shot at Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who recently threatened that there would be riots if Trump is indicted. “The idea you turn on a television and see senior senators and congressmen saying, ‘If such and such happens, there’ll be blood in the street,’” Biden said, at high volume. “Where the hell are we?”
Biden has talked frequently about his 2020 bid for the White House, and its “battle for the soul of America” slogan, as being spurred by the 2017 white supremacist and neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, part of a “Unite the Right” rally. Thursday’s speech promises to be a spirited sequel, with Trump’s cavalier handling of national security documents and his supporters’ threats against the FBI providing the fresh contextual backdrop—and Independence Hall providing the literal backdrop, just in case Biden’s message isn’t obvious enough. “The president often says, ‘Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative,’” Psaki says. “I expect he will continue to lay out the choice and the contrast. It’s exactly the right time to do it.”