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Opinion Biden channels Harry Truman — to his party’s delight

President Biden speaks at a rally at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., on Aug. 25. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

After a year of rambling President Biden, muted Joe Biden, unconvincing-bipartisan-cheerleader Joe Biden, on Thursday we got feisty Joe Biden, pugnacious Joe Biden and MAGA-condemning Joe Biden in a speech in Rockville, Md., marking his start to midterm campaigning. For all the hand-wringing about his negative polling (which seems to be improving) and his drag on Democratic candidates, Biden reminded us how he got elected in 2020. When he gets his dander up, he can be an effective campaigner.

Biden seemed to channel Harry S. Truman, who, to a voter shouting “Give ’em hell, Harry!” declared, “I don’t give them hell. I just tell the truth about them, and they think it’s hell.” And did Biden ever give it to the MAGA radicals.

“In 2020, you and 81 million Americans voted to save our democracy,” he reminded the crowd. “That’s why Donald Trump isn’t just a former president. He is a defeated former president.” As for the midterms, Biden declared, “Your right to choose is on the ballot this year. The Social Security you paid for from the time you had a job is on the ballot. The safety of your kids from gun violence is on the ballot, and it’s not hyperbole, the very survival of our planet is on the ballot.” He added, “Your right to vote is on the ballot. Even the democracy. Are you ready to fight for these things now?”

Biden reveled in recalling how Democrats took on Big Pharma, Big Oil and National Rifle Association. But his strongest words came in a blunt assault on the MAGA movement, something Democrats and other democracy defenders have been pining to hear.

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“The MAGA Republicans don’t just threaten our personal rights and economic security,” Biden said. “They’re a threat to our very democracy. They refuse to accept the will of the people. They embrace — embrace — political violence. They don’t believe in democracy.” He continued, “This is why, in this moment, those of you who love this country — Democrats, independents, mainstream Republicans — we must be stronger.”

His harshest language came earlier at a separate fundraiser, where he told donors, “What we’re seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy.” He continued, “It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something — it’s like semi-fascism.”

No one should be shocked by the president calling the movement — one that tried to overthrow a democratic election, continues to threaten violence, spews the racist Great Replacement theory, operates in a universe of delusion and disinformation and seeks to redefine America as a White Christian nation — semi-fascist. (Pro-fascist or just fascist would have worked as well.)

A party that celebrates Hungary’s illiberal Viktor Orban, embraces Russian propaganda and grovels before Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan cannot complain when it is held accountable for its right-wing nationalism and authoritarian hero-worship.

Biden seemed both to be energized by his wins on gun safety, prescription drug prices, climate change, veterans’ health care (the Pact Act) and the Chips and Science Act but also freed from the necessity (in his own mind) to pull punches for the sake of getting GOP lawmakers to buy into his agenda.

No more talk that “Biden was elected to lower the temperature.” No more blather that “voters want to stop the partisan fighting.” After ceding rhetorical ground to an unhinged opponent never interested in “unity,” Biden has decided to tell the truth — and let the GOP think it’s hell.

Democrats and weak-kneed pundits need not fret about Biden free-ranging on the campaign trail. As vice president and then as presidential candidate in 2020, he was at his best when fighting against special interests and their right-wing pets. Republicans have to date paid little price for opposing a minimum tax on big corporations that pay nothing, opposing middle-class relief from high health-care and energy costs and, most of all, opposing widely held views on contraception, a woman’s right to choose, free speech and LGBTQ equality.

Biden’s message now is simple: Republicans’ free ride is over. Let’s call them out for what they are. That Joe Biden is the one who could recapture the hearts of Democrats as he considers a second term. Certainly, helping Democrats pull off an expectations-defying midterm election could help as well.

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