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Politics chat: 2024 campaigning season begins with speeches from Trump and Biden

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The start of the new year means things are getting real for the 2024 presidential race. President Joe Biden delivered a fiery speech in Pennsylvania on Friday when he brought up the January 6 attack on the Capitol three years ago.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As America was attacked from within, Donald Trump watched on TV in the private small dining room off my Oval - off the Oval Office. The entire nation watched horror. The whole world watched in disbelief. And Trump did nothing.

RASCOE: Former President Donald Trump also gave a speech on Friday. Here to tell us more about those speeches - NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So President Biden's speech focused on threats to democracy posed by another Trump presidency. Is that more or less going to be the crux of President Biden's campaign?

LIASSON: Yes, I think it is. Trump's role in January 6, in the insurrection on January 6, is what the Biden campaign feels is Trump's biggest weakness. They feel he's a threat to democracy. Biden gave a very tough speech. He went on to say, you can't be pro-insurrectionist and pro-American. And he was referencing Trump's support for the January 6 rioters, calling them patriots and political prisoners.

This is not dissimilar from the way Biden started his last campaign in 2020. He called it a battle for the soul of the nation, and he believes that American democracy's survival is what this election is all about, too. Now, politically, he is trying to make the election a referendum on his opponent. Presidential reelections are usually a referendum on the incumbent. But when you're polling as badly as Biden is, you have no choice but to disqualify your opponent. You can't just run on your record and all the positive things you feel you've done for the American people.

RASCOE: OK, but President Biden is officially kicking off his campaign in South Carolina tomorrow. Tell us a bit about the voters that he's trying to rally there.

LIASSON: Well, he's clearly trying to rally African American voters. He's going to go to the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C. That's where 10 people were shot by a white supremacist in 2015. Nine of them died. So this is also a callback, a reference, to his campaign in 2020, when he said it was the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., three years earlier that motivated him to run for president because he saw that march as an attack on American democracy and on equal rights. That's where marchers were chanting, among other things, Jews will not replace us. But also, as you said, he needs to shore up his support among key Democratic constituencies - first and foremost, African American voters - who have been softening in their support for him. He needs them to turn out.

RASCOE: And he's got a lot going on today. It was reported last night that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was hospitalized on New Year's Day, and it took the Pentagon three days to tell the White House. That doesn't sound like standard practice. I mean, even with my boss, I got to call in, you know?

LIASSON: It isn't standard practice. Lloyd Austin was hospitalized on Monday. The White House wasn't told until Thursday. The public wasn't told until Friday. And this is very unusual. Now Austin has resumed his full duties. He released a statement saying that he took full responsibility for the decisions around disclosing his hospitalization. He says he could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed, and he said, I commit to doing better.

RASCOE: OK, so now we'll turn to former President Donald Trump's speech. He criticized President Biden's economic and immigration policies and said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: It's no wonder crooked Joe Biden and the far-left lunatics are desperate to stop us by any means possible. They don't care how. They don't care. They don't have any scruples. They're weaponizing law enforcement for high-level election interference.

RASCOE: So what are you hearing there from him?

LIASSON: Well, he is saying that the indictments against him are a way to rig the election, to stop him from winning. He's - one of his modus operandi is always to accuse his opponent of what he's accused of. So he's saying that Biden is the real threat to democracy. Now, Trump is fighting battles in a lot of venues. He's fighting in court, but he's also fighting in the court of public opinion, which, at least for now, in the universe of Republican primaries, he is winning. You know, a majority of Republican voters believe that these indictments are witch hunts, that he's being persecuted, that he was the true winner of the last election. Whether that continues into a general election, and he's able to convince independent voters and swing voters of that, is unclear.

RASCOE: OK. Looking ahead, the Iowa caucus is eight days away. When you look at both Biden and Trump, these frontrunners are rather unpopular, right?

LIASSON: Very unpopular - they have a lot in common. They're both old, white, male and unpopular. And the American people have told pollsters again and again, this is not the matchup they would prefer, but there's still a high likelihood that it's what they're going to get because there's no strong opposition to the nomination on the Democratic side for Biden and none of Trump's Republican competitors have been able to attack him very effectively. He is way out ahead.

RASCOE: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you so much, Mara.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.

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