Joe Biden opens 2024 election campaign, says Donald Trump will 'sacrifice our democracy'

By Michael Williams for CNN

The value Americans place on democracy is the "most urgent question of our time," President Joe Biden said during a speech kicking off his 2024 campaign in Pennsylvania on the eve of the third anniversary of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol - launching an impassioned political attack on his likely opponent Donald Trump that painted a sharp distinction between how the nation's first and 45th presidents ended their terms.

"Donald Trump's campaign is about him, not America. Not you. Donald Trump's campaign is obsessed with the past, not the future. He's willing to sacrifice our democracy, put himself in power," Biden said.

The backdrop of Biden's speech near Valley Forge, where George Washington rallied an undersupplied and demoralized Continental Army at the height of the American Revolution, gave the president the opportunity to contrast Washington, who would eventually set the precedent of relinquishing presidential power in the face of an adoring new nation, with Trump, who went to extraordinary lengths to maintain his grip on power, encouraging his supporters to march to the Capitol as he refused to accept the result of the 2020 election.

Biden sought to jolt the memories of Americans - who, at a removal of three years, may view his predecessor's term with rose-tinted glasses - of the chaotic end to Trump's presidency.

Three years ago, Biden said on Saturday, "we nearly lost America."

"For the first time in our history, insurrectionists had come to stop the peaceful transfer of power in America - first time," Biden said. "Smashing windows, shattering doors, attacking the police. Outside, gallows were erected as a MAGA crowd chanted, 'Hang Mike Pence!' Inside, they hunted for Speaker Pelosi."

His message could rally a base that has been souring on Biden over his handling of various foreign and domestic crises, including the Israel-Hamas war and the influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border.

Polling has shown that while Biden is not a popular leader, democracy itself is a central issue for Americans ahead of November.

A majority of Americans, including 72% of Democrats, think the outcome of the 2024 election will be extremely or very important for the future of democracy in the United States, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last month, ranking the issue behind only the economy.

The president made he clear believes the threat to American democracy is not abstract and directly placed the blame of the deaths of several people who died on January 6 on "Donald Trump's lies."

"They died because his lies brought a mob to Washington," Biden said, adding that Trump, "as usual, left the dirty work to others."

Referencing the reverberations of election denialism, Biden mentioned the October 2022 attack on Paul Pelosi by a hammer-wielding man who was looking for his wife. Trump later mocked Paul Pelosi.

"He laughed about it," Biden said of Trump. "What a sick –," he said before stopping himself, prompting the crowd to laugh.

"Who in God's name does his think he is?"

With the passage of time, "politics, fear, money all have intervened, and all of these MAGA voiced who know the truth about Trump on January 6, have abandoned the truth and abandoned democracy."

"They made their choice - now the rest of us, Democrats, Independents, mainstream Republicans, we have to make our choice. I know mine, and I believe I know America's."

The insurrection was also a focus of the Biden campaign's first 2024 campaign ad.

"There's something dangerous happening in America," Biden says in the ad, interspersed with images from the 2018 Unite the Right rally of white supremacists; images of Trump supporters battling police officers on January 6; and images of a noose set up outside the Capitol. "There's an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs in our democracy."

"All of us are being asked right now: 'What will we do to maintain our democracy?'" Biden says in the ad, adding that "our children and grandchildren will hold us responsible."

In small, more intimate settings, Biden has all but conceded that he is running only to defeat Trump, telling supporters at a fundraiser last month that he's not sure he would be running again if Trump weren't seeking a second term.

Trump, meanwhile, hasn't been shy about his intention to seek retribution against his political opponents if he again wins the presidency, with recent messaging - saying he would be a dictator on Day 1 and vowing to "root out … radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country" - reminiscent of history's most infamous authoritarians.

Trump is scheduled to hold two events in Iowa later Friday afternoon. In a post to Truth Social, he said Biden, whom he called a "moron," was the real threat to democracy.

Closing his speech on Friday, Biden referenced John Trumbull's portrait of Washington resigning his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, which hangs in the rotunda of the Capitol, and which rioters passed as they stormed the building three years ago.

"Our leaders return power to the people, and they do it willingly, because that's the deal," Biden said.

That portrait should have caused the rioters to pause, the president said.

But it didn't.