CNN  — 

President Joe Biden delivered his sharpest rebuke yet of Republicans and their fealty to his predecessor in an evening speech in Philadelphia on Thursday, alleging they “thrive on chaos” and warning their attempts to undermine democracy could devolve into violence.

“They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies,” Biden said in front of a red-lit Independence Hall, harnessing the historic setting to call for a reckoning on the movement led by former President Donald Trump.

It was a strident and urgent call to Americans months ahead of midterm elections that will determine control of Congress. Biden’s remarks, while billed as an official address, provided the broad contours of his election message heading into the fall.

Even as he worked to balance a dose of optimism about the country’s future – and his own string of recent accomplishments – Biden painted a dark portrait of his political opponents, saying Trump and his followers are threatening the entire American experiment. He named his predecessor within minutes of taking the stage, and suggested Americans faced an existential choice in the coming elections.

“As I stand here tonight, equality and democracy are under assault,” Biden said. “We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise.”

Biden attempted to separate Trump’s most loyal followers from the Republican Party as a whole. And as he concluded, he sought to strike a more upbeat note, saying it was still within voters’ power to rein in the nation’s darkest forces.

But the heart of Biden’s address was a ringing alarm bell about what he called “an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”

“MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards. Backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy. No right to contraception, no right to marry who you love,” he said, striking on cultural issues Democrats believe can help them win in November.

“They promote authoritarian leaders,” he went on. “They fanned the flames of political violence.”

After tearing into Republicans for what he calls “MAGA extremism” and “semi-fascism” over the past week, administration officials say Biden determined the time was right to provide a more serious, sober reckoning on what he regards as growing anti-democratic forces building across the country.

Officials insisted Biden’s message wasn’t partisan and instead targeted to an extreme wing of the GOP. Still, he called on his audience to go to the polls in November and lashed into his predecessor, backed by traditionally apolitical symbols like the United States Marine Band and two Marines who were positioned in a spot where they were on camera throughout the speech.

“We must be honest with each other and with ourselves: Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal,” Biden said. The Republican Party of 2022 is partly “dominated, driven and intimidated” by Trump and his acolytes, he said.

24:04 - Source: CNN
Watch President Joe Biden's full prime-time address

It’s a topic Biden has come to embrace more publicly in recent months after initially attempting to ignore the after-effects of his predecessor and focus instead on national unity. At its core, the speech represented the same overarching theme that defined the launch of his presidential campaign in 2019 as he set out to defeat Trump.

It remained a constant through high profile speeches in locations rife with historical symbolism, including Warm Springs, Georgia, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The prime-time remarks was no different, this time with the site of the nation’s revolutionary beginning as the backdrop.

A crowd of about 300 invited guests – a mix of elected officials and dignitaries, along with Democratic supporters – watched Biden speak from behind panes of bulletproof glass. It was a short distance away from where Biden formally announced his bid for the presidency in 2019, striking similar themes about the “battle for the soul of the nation.”

White House officials emphasized ahead of time that when Biden warns of the threat to democracy, he is not talking about Republicans as a whole, but those who style themselves after Trump: the “MAGA Republicans,” as the administration has deemed them.

Ahead of the speech, Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said Biden was dividing the nation.

“Joe Biden is the divider-in-chief and epitomizes the current state of the Democrat Party: one of divisiveness, disgust, and hostility towards half the country,” she said in a statement.

Biden had been mulling a thematic speech about American democracy for several months, spurred in part by the revealing hearings convened by the congressional committee investigating the January 6 riot, according to an official. He has also watched with alarm as election deniers running for statewide office have been elevated by Trump and was outraged by the attempted attack on an FBI field office in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In his remarks, Biden said forces on the right were stoking political violence, insisting it was “inflammatory and dangerous.”

“We, the people must say this is not who we are,” he said.

Biden looks to seize the moment

While Biden underestimated when the “fever will break” when it came to the GOP’s ties to Trump, the last several weeks have brought into sharp focus that many of the campaign pledges that seemed just as unrealistic – from major bipartisan deals to substantial investments in the manufacturing, climate and health care – have, in fact, been signed into law.

The convergence of factors has created a genuine sense inside the West Wing that the political winds are changing just as Americans start to tune in ahead of the midterm elections. It has also had a dramatic effect on the White House itself, where months of intraparty warfare, a resurgent and ever-present Covid-19 pandemic and a myriad of crises many aides viewed as outside of their control appear to have finally turned their way.

Even Biden, who revels in telling the story of the doctor who called him “a congenital optimist,” wasn’t immune from a sense of gloom and occasional doom that hung over the West Wing for months.

“He could get pretty dark,” said one person who spoke regularly to Biden said of his view of things toward the end of his first year in office. “It’s not his way, but there was a period there” when Biden’s mood reflected that of the exhausted country he led.

Yet the shifting winds this summer coincided with Trump’s major re-emergence into the national spotlight. Republican politicians and candidates running entire campaigns based on false claims of fraudulent elections have only become more prevalent.

As the midterm campaign season kicks into high gear, convergence of factors created an ideal moment for Biden to lay out what has long been on his mind, officials say.

“The President felt that this was an appropriate time before the traditional campaign season begins next week to lay out what he sees at stake, not for any individual political party, but for our democracy itself,” a senior administration official said.

A rare prime-time speech shows Biden’s focus on democracy

Biden worked for several days with his speechwriters on drafts of the 20- to 30-minute address, poring over the precise language and wording. The President typically rehearses his major addresses beforehand and his schedule was clear of public events on Wednesday and Thursday as he prepared.

Biden has delivered only a smattering of speeches in prime-time over the course of his presidency, including his yearly addresses to Congress and remarks on gun violence earlier this summer. Aides said the President felt the topic was serious enough to address the nation in the evening – and ask television networks to interrupt their regular programming (though the broadcast networks declined to air the President’s remarks).

White House officials have said they want to be selective in when and where to address the issues surrounding the erosion of democracy, even though many party activists have clamored for more sustained focus on the issue. The issue itself is one that consumes much of Biden’s own thinking, those close to him say – something can spill into the public sphere during the rare moments he engages in a substantive way with reporters.

But choosing the right moment to address them on a major national scale, Biden’s team believes, will prevent the issue from becoming rote and routine for voters. Biden, officials note, has had no qualms about that strategy.

‘Semi fascism’ comment draws ire, but White House won’t back down

Biden’s newly aggressive rhetoric has drawn howls of protest from Republicans. When he accused followers of Trump of “semi-fascism” at a fundraiser last week, the response was swift.

“Horribly insulting,” said Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, a Republican who has not aligned himself with Trump. “He’s trying to stir up controversy, he’s trying to stir up this anti-Republican sentiment right before the election, it’s just – it’s horribly inappropriate.”

At least one Democrat in a tight reelection race also distanced herself from Biden’s remark; Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire said Biden “painted with way too broad a brush” when he uttered the comment.

While officials describe Biden’s message as urgent, it remains to be seen whether voters facing high prices and an uncertain economy will respond to his warnings about the state of democracy.

Yet recent polls have shown concerns about democracy rising among voters. An NBC poll conducted in August found “threats to democracy” rose to the No. 1 issue facing the country, surpassing “cost of living.” And a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found 67% of respondents think the nation’s democracy is in danger of collapse, a 9-point increase from January.

Unplanned – but not entirely unwelcome – for the White House has been the ongoing developments over Trump’s handling of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate, a matter the White House has officially kept at arm’s length to avoid the appearance of politicization.

Still, the reminder to voters of the chaos that surrounded Trump’s presidency has been privately gratifying to some Democrats, who believe it presents a stark contrast to Biden’s way of doing business.

“It’s like the chaos was memory-holed because of the 50 million other things going on,” one Democratic official with close ties to the White House said.

Biden “will never make it about Trump alone – he views it as so much bigger than that and probably, to some degree, beneath him,” the official said. “But I think most in our party appreciate the very clear contrast now that he’s back in the headlines.”

This story has been updated with additional developments on Thursday.

CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.