Joe Biden

Interview with John Harwood of ProPublica

September 29, 2023

HARWOOD: Mr. President, thanks for doing this.

THE PRESIDENT: Happy to do it.

HARWOOD: I can't start without acknowledging how wrong I was the last time we sat down nearly four years ago. I did not expect the 2020 campaign to go well, and here we are.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, I'm optimistic, and I thought we could do that well. And you remember, in 2022, I thought we were going to do well, too.


THE PRESIDENT: I think the means in which people are tracking polls now, they've kind of lost their focus and it's hard to get it done. Secondly, I think that -- I think, you know, the media has changed a lot.

HARWOOD: Mm hmm. Since you gave your democracy speech in Philadelphia a year ago, we've had orderly midterm elections, no violence, and the beginning of legal accountability for former President Trump and other January 6th defendants. No civil unrest. Could the threat to democracy be smaller than you think?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the opposite things happen. I think that this is sort of the last gasp or maybe the first big gasp of the MAGA Republicans. And I think Trump has concluded that he has to win and he'll pull out all the stops. I mean, the quotes he uses are just -- I never thought I'd hear a president say some of the stuff he says.

And so, I think that -- and you see what's happening in terms of what the MAGA Republicans are doing in the House.

HARWOOD: Yeah. Right.

THE PRESIDENT: They don't make up a majority of the House, but they're bringing everything to a screeching halt.

As you think about the threat to democracy, do you think of it specifically as the refusal to accept election defeats and peaceful transfer of power, or is it more broadly encompassing some of the long-standing features of democracy like the Electoral College, the nature of the Senate, the gerrymandering process that sometimes thwart the will of the majority?

THE PRESIDENT: We should never condone violence in a democracy, but I think it's well beyond that. For example, the idea -- when I talk about democracy, democracy is sort of the -- what surrounds the -- the -- the underpinning of democracy, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, all those things that provide for the certainty that everybody gets a shot.

And so, you know, we the people, I know it sounds corny, but that's what we're talking about.

HARWOOD: Mm hmm.

THE PRESIDENT: And everything that's happening now is designed to prevent that from happening, for the people's voice. For example, he wants to change the way the civil service works for --


THE PRESIDENT: And he wants a whole new category that is not answerable -- not answerable to the civil service rules but only answer to -- answerable to the president, those kinds of things.

HARWOOD: Let me ask you about one specific issue. You've, in your campaign and as president, supported a variety of tax increases for corporations and wealthy individuals to pay for some of your programs. They're very popular in the polls, but few of them passed even when your party controlled the Congress. Is that a failure of democracy or just politics?

THE PRESIDENT: It's more -- it's more politics. Look, when I got elected, remember, everybody told me that we would never get anything bipartisan, not going to get it done.

HARWOOD: Mm hmm.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we surprised some people. With one vote majority, we were able to get a number of things passed, and -- and about half of it was bipartisan.

HARWOOD: Mm hmm.

THE PRESIDENT: So, I don't think it was a consequence of -- of -- of the parties. It was a consequence of things I'm worried about are the institutional changes --


THE PRESIDENT: That are attempted to be made.

HARWOOD: Well, speaking of that, Speaker McCarthy has advanced an impeachment inquiry on the basis of innuendo about your son but not evidence of wrongdoing by you. He's done that partly to try to keep his job, partly to persuade some of his most extreme members not to shut the government down. It, so far, has not worked.


HARWOOD: And it looks like they are going to shut the government down this weekend. What does that say about the current Republican Party's ability to govern in our constitutional democracy?

THE PRESIDENT: I think it says two things. The speaker's made a terrible bargain. In order to keep the speakership, he's willing to do things that he -- I think he knows are inconsistent with constitutional processes, number one. Number two, I think it says that there is a group of MAGA Republicans who genuinely want to have a fundamental change in the way the -- the system works.

And that's what worries me the most, is the change in what constitutes, for example, the idea that we'd be in a position where they're willing to say that it's OK for the president to talk about -- he said, "I am your retribution. I am --"

HARWOOD: Mm hmm.

THE PRESIDENT: I mean, these -- all these weird things that are being said, and they seem to be encouraging it.

HARWOOD: You've said that most Republicans are not MAGA.


But they're being driven and intimidated by the smaller number who are. If January 6th, a new presidential campaign and a government shutdown does not motivate that majority to regain control of the party, what can?

THE PRESIDENT: I'm really worried if that's the case, and that's why I think that I want to change -- increase the focus on the fundamentals here, that democracy, literally, our democracy is at stake. And -- and it's by altering the institutional structures to protect it. And -- and I think that -- I think we're in real trouble if that's not the case.

But I'm convinced that part of it is communicating to the American people this is bigger than political disagreement.

HARWOOD: Mm hmm.

THE PRESIDENT: It's beyond that. And when you -- when you talk to people like, for example, the speech I recently made on democracy, I made about four major speeches on democracy. Initially, with notable exceptions, people thought, "What's Biden talking about here?" Well, you know, that has showed that over 60% of the American people, they were worried, too.

And that's one of the reasons why 2020 turned out the way it did, 2022 turned out the way it did. And so, I think it's important that -- to give people some hope that we can get through this. Look, we're on the cusp of being able to do not because of me, not because of my presidency, but because of being able to do some really big things in America.

HARWOOD: Speaking of institutions, rule of law is an essential feature for a democracy. Do you personally have confidence that this current Supreme Court is upholding and will uphold the rule of law?

THE PRESIDENT: I worry because I know that if the other team, the MAGA Republicans, win, they don't want to uphold the rule of law. They want to get rid of the FBI. I mean, the thing -- the things they say, and -- and I think that, somehow, we got to communicate to the American people, this is for real.

HARWOOD: Uh-huh.

THE PRESIDENT: This is real if they were to take over, if they were to have their way. And -- but I do think, at the end of the day, this court, which has been one of the most extreme courts, I still think, in the basic fundamentals of the rule of law, that they would sustain the rule of law.

HARWOOD: My colleagues at ProPublica have documented undisclosed gifts for justices from friendly billionaires and, in the case of Justice Thomas, appearances at events for donors of the Koch network which wants reduced regulation of business in a pending court case. Justice Alito has said that calls for stricter regulation in Congress don't work because the Constitution gives no authority to the Congress to regulate Supreme Court ethics.

Is he right?

THE PRESIDENT: It's a tough call whether we can. I think we can, but let's skip over that. What does the Constitution call and expect of the court, of the court? And I -- the idea that the Constitution would, in any way, prohibit or not encourage the court to be -- have basic rules of ethics that are just on their face reasonable.

HARWOOD: Do it themselves.

THE PRESIDENT: Do it themselves is just not -- not the case.

HARWOOD: Another constitutional question. There are some legal experts who say that -- regardless of the outcome of any criminal case, that former President Trump's efforts to overturn the election in 2020 disqualify him from running again under the 14th Amendment. Are they right?

THE PRESIDENT: That's a -- you get a lot of serious constitutional scholars disagreeing on -- on either side of that. As you can understand, I'm not going to opine on that right now.

HARWOOD: Richard Haass, the foreign policy adviser, past Republican presidents, says that Trump wants Budapest on the Potomac in his efforts to get greater personal control of the government and pursue retribution, I think you spoke about yesterday. He says, like you, that the voters should make protection of democracy the paramount issue, which is another way of saying the only way that voters can protect democracy is to vote for the Democratic nominee, you.

Are voters going to be comfortable hearing that argument?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't think it was phrased that way. But I think if you say -- if it's phrased if the president -- if the former president were to become president again, the things he says he will do are a threat to American democracy. And by the way, it's not just here.

HARWOOD: Mm hmm.

THE PRESIDENT: As I travel the world, I have a head of state asking me -- I mean, conservative state, "Look, what's going to happen? Does that mean --" because democracy is in jeopardy in other parts of the world as well. And, you know, Madeleine Albright was right, we are the essential nation. If it fails here, Katy, bar the door.

HARWOOD:   Given the concerns that many voters have about your age, among other things, why are you the only Democrat who can protect democracy next year?

THE PRESIDENT: I'm not the only Democrat that can protect it; I just happen to be the Democrat who, I think, is best positioned to see to it that the guy I was worried about taking on democracy is not president.

HARWOOD: You, yesterday in your speech, said that voters should put partisanship aside for the larger cause, Republicans, Democrats, independents. What democratic priorities are you prepared to set aside to attract the largest possible coalition?

THE PRESIDENT: Look, if you take a look at all what I propose, they're overwhelmingly popular with the American people. Not -- nothing I've proposed is extreme. For example, you know, dealing with investing in America and increasing manufacturing, creating jobs, being in a position where we put more money into education, where we just make everybody pay their fair share, those things, as measured, broadly, they're -- they're popular across the board.

So, the thing that -- that I have trouble trying to figure out is what it is that -- other than protecting the Constitution, what is it that these MAGA Republicans think is extreme about what I'm doing?

HARWOOD: Mm hmm.

THE PRESIDENT: They haven't been -- I mean, I haven't heard or seen any articulation of any of that.

HARWOOD: Your former Senate colleague, Joe Lieberman, says he is upholding democracy by working with an organization called No Labels to --  


HARWOOD: Pursue a potential third-party candidacy. Is he?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, he has a democratic right to do it. There's no reason not to do that. Now, it's going to help the other guy, and he knows. So, that doesn't -- that -- that's a political decision he's making that I obviously think is a mistake, but he has a right to do that.

HARWOOD: There are millions of Americans who think the country is changing in ways that are harmful to whites, men, social conservatives, small-town, blue-collar America. A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 40% of the people who called themselves Christian nationalists think that patriots may need to use violence to save the country.

Is that fear of change where the threat to democracy comes from?

THE PRESIDENT: When I left the Senate, I was able to convince Strom Thurmond to vote for the Voting Rights Act. Strom Thurmond. And I thought, you know, you can -- you can defeat hate --

HARWOOD: Mm hmm.

THE PRESIDENT: You can bury it, you can kill it, but I learned you can't. All you can do is you can drive it underground.

HARWOOD: Mm hmm.

THE PRESIDENT: And when you breathe oxygen under the rock, it comes roaring back out again. And I think one of the things that I see -- you may recall, in the 2020 campaign, I said, "I speak to you not from Wall Street; I speak to you from Scranton, Pennsylvania." That was a bit of a populist point, but it was a genuine point that, in fact, I represent all those people, I will represent all those people.

But there is a real play. The world is changing, John, and we're going to be -- the fact is we're going to be, very shortly, a minority-white European country.


THE PRESIDENT: And sometimes, my colleagues don't speak enough to make it clear that that -- that's not going to change how we operate. That's not going to change them.

HARWOOD: You focused on delivering economic benefits to some of those voters who are afraid of change. What is the evidence that, in this current moment, it's economic benefits that will diminish their grievances?

THE PRESIDENT: It's not so much the economic benefits; it's treating them with respect, treating them with respect. You may remember, because you're barely old enough, but you may remember back in '72, we ran a campaign that Nixon won overwhelmingly in '72. He won over 60% of the vote in my state, and I won by 3,100 votes.

The issue then was that we were limousine liberals. We weren't paying attention to the problems of ordinary families and speaking to their immediate needs. Well, I've never not done that. And I think the Democratic Party in the past has, on occasion, spoken less to the needs and fears and concerns. And so, I think, you know, a lot of the guys I grew up with in Claymont, Delaware and Scranton, Pennsylvania, they feel like they're not being respected, not so much by policy, just by the -- by the failure to talk about their needs.

HARWOOD: Mm hmm.

THE PRESIDENT: And that's why, John, I think -- I think the reason why I was able to get the -- my economic programs passed is because I talked about -- I'm talking about building a country from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down, and that includes everybody, And embracing, embracing the blue-collar workers.

HARWOOD: As you noted in your speech yesterday, the specter of violence has become increasingly visible in Republican politics. What can you, law enforcement, decent Republicans, do to prevent incitement to violence, another January 6th, or something worse than that?

THE PRESIDENT: Not legitimize it, not talk about it like it's appropriate, not talk about it. There's never, never, never, never a rationale for political violence in America. That's not who we are. And speak to it, speak up. It matters. It matters.

HARWOOD: Do you think that right-wing media outlets, Fox News and others, that have spread lies about the 2020 election, do they drive the threat that you're concerned about, or are they simply reflecting a sentiment that already exists in the country?

THE PRESIDENT: They do both. Look, there are no editors anymore. That's one of the big problems. There's nobody telling -- and I gave my word I never would reveal who, but I've spoken to at least half a dozen serious reporters over the last six, eight years who say to me, "I'm worried if I do not say and do something that gets me -- raises the issue up, I'm not going to get a hit. And if I don't get a hit on television, I don't -- I don't -- my pay, my --"

I mean, the whole dynamic has changed. I'm no expert in the press, but it's changed.

HARWOOD: What about what Elon Musk has done to Twitter, lowering guardrails against misinformation, does that contribute to it?

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah, it does. Look, one of the things, as I said to you, when I thought I wasn't going to run, I was going to write a book about the changes taking place. And most of it's directed, over the years, these fundamental changes in society by changing technology. Gutenberg printing and the printing press changed the way Europeans could talk to one, another all the way to today.

Where -- where do people get their news? They -- they -- they -- you know, they go on the internet. They -- they go online. They go -- and you have no notion whether it's true or not.

HARWOOD: You said, in your speech yesterday, you want average Americans who share your concerns to engage, to stand up for American values. How would you advise those people who do share your concerns but maybe wary to -- about talking to a MAGA parent, neighbor, co-worker, how would you advise them to do that?

THE PRESIDENT: Vote. Vote. Look, I was saying to my staff, I never thought I'd see a time when someone was worried about being on a jury because there may be physical violence against them if they voted the wrong way. I never thought -- I never thought that would happen. Like maybe a mobster's case, right?


THE PRESIDENT: I mean, think about that.

HARWOOD: But a lot of average people think those are really difficult conversations to have with people and may be reluctant to engage.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, they are. And I think if you don't want to engage, you just act. You just do what you think is right, and part of that is just showing up, showing up. But I also think that we should be engaging people more and -- and not -- not be worried about our neighbor. Talk to them, sit down, and say, "What do you think?" Well -- and not get in arguments but say this is what -- you say this, but how about this, and force people to get in a two-way conversation.

But it's hard, John. But the biggest thing is, look, I really do believe that the vast majority of the American people are decent, honorable, straightforward. I mean, I think it's a minority minority. And I think they have to, though, understand, one, what the danger is if they don't participate, and two, show up, show up, show up.

HARWOOD: Mr. President, thank you very much for sitting down.

THE PRESIDENT: Thanks for having me. Quite frankly, I'd like to do more of it with you, and I mean it sincerely.

Joseph R. Biden, Interview with John Harwood of ProPublica Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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