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Biden to focus on ‘freedom’ in State of the Union — a central theme of his re-election campaign

When President Joe Biden launched his campaign last April, the first word he uttered was “Freedom.” As he gives his most important speech as a candidate for re-election Thursday night, the president will return to the theme as a key pillar in making his case to the country.

Biden will do so quite starkly, once again leaning on the example of one of his iconic predecessors. As the 46th president addresses the 118th Congress, he will invoke the 32nd president’s address to the 77th Congress, according to a copy of the speech that was visible in a photo his office published on X. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt said he was speaking at an “unprecedented moment” in American history — months before the United States would join World War II with the Great Depression still fresh in mind.

The Biden team’s focus on freedom and threats to democracy as a defining electoral issue has often invited criticism from allies, at a time when Americans’ perceptions of the economy, and of the 81-year-old president himself, are also expected to dominate the months ahead.

Advisers understand the importance of Biden’s delivery in answering questions about his age, and agree on the need to help better connect the administration’s economic agenda and accomplishments to the improvements in voters’ everyday lives.

But none of that will matter, aides counter, if America’s democracy falters, a reality the president will starkly warn is possible, and one his advisers say voters have already responded to.

“There was language in the 2020 campaign that democracy and decency were on the ballot. There were voices that thought this was academic — too remote — but now there have been two elections whose results prove that not to have been the case,” the historian Jon Meacham, an informal adviser to the president who helped him prepare his speech, said in an interview.

Roosevelt’s 1941 address became known as his “Four Freedoms” speech; he defined what he called the “four essential human freedoms” — of speech and expression, of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Biden, who has a framed painting of Roosevelt displayed prominently in the Oval Office, has already offered his own version of the four freedoms for the 21st century. In a speech that opened 2024, Biden said that freedom itself was on the ballot this year.

“We’ll be voting on many issues: on the freedom to vote and have your vote counted, on the freedom of choice, the freedom to have a fair shot, the freedom from fear,” he said near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

Each will be woven through his speech to Congress on Thursday, according to sources familiar with the address, who emphasized that it was still subject to further revisions.

Biden’s State of the Union address Thursday will be one full of both symbolism and substance, with every policy discussed and even the delivery itself seen through the lens of November. But to the small circle of advisers crafting the address, it is quite simple.

“This is a speech about Joe Biden,” as one senior administration official put it. Biden, they said, will “frame this moment in history, and offer a path for the future.”

In Biden’s re-election announcement video, he said the question facing Americans is “whether in the years ahead we have more freedom or less freedom. More rights or fewer.”

It’s been a consistent theme that even pre-dated the launch, though, one that Biden advisers felt was made all too clear in the events of Jan. 6 — 80 years from the day of the Roosevelt speech Biden will reference. And it was brought into a new context by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in 2022, which showed the threats to individual freedoms more broadly.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been traveling on a “Fight for Reproductive Freedoms” tour, made that immediate connection after the release of the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to abortion.

“The great aspiration of our nation has been to expand freedom, but the expansion of freedom clearly is not inevitable,” she said then. “It is not something that just happens — not unless we defend our most fundamental principles.”

She repeated that Sunday during remarks in Selma, Alabama, calling the right to vote “the freedom that unlocks all others.” 

In recent campaign appearances, Biden has also warned that former President Donald “Trump and his MAGA friends are determined to take away our fundamental freedoms.” And in advocating for securing funding for Ukraine, Biden has presented a choice: “Are you going to stand up for freedom, or are you going to side with terror and tyranny?  Are you going to stand with Ukraine, or are you going to stand with Putin?  Will we stand with America or — or with Trump?”

It shows what one Democratic strategist who works closely with the White House said was the great quality of freedom as a theme — its versatility. 

“It’s definitely something that all Democratic pollsters are testing more now, taking their cues from the speeches they hear” from the administration, the strategist said. “Republicans tried to run with that, but they became the party of banning books and banning LGBT clubs on school campuses, banning abortion and banning people’s rights.”

Republicans, of course, haven’t fully conceded the theme. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a possible Trump vice presidential choice, used her State of the State address to highlight what she called her “freedom works here” agenda, including the “freedom to keep and bear arms,” the “freedom to farm and ranch,” and “freedom to be secure.”

But to Biden, freedom and democracy are intertwined as unique themes in part because of the threat he believes Donald Trump poses.

“Democracy is nothing if it does not defend individual freedom against the whims and ambitions of an autocratic force. So I think an argument about freedom is the natural extension of the defense of democracy because they’re so closely entwined,” Meacham said. “Like any responsible president, President Biden has adjusted the intensity of the argument as the facts have warranted. It’s an organic argument, not a static one.”

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