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To mark D-Day, Biden will deliver a defense of democracy that hits on campaign themes

World War II veteran Gene Kleindl, age 102, from Rockford, Ill., receives a kiss from Chantell Boivin while leaving the Normandy American Cemetery on June 4 in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Kleindl, a medic in the U.S. Army's 90th Infantry Division, arrived on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
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World War II veteran Gene Kleindl, age 102, from Rockford, Ill., receives a kiss from Chantell Boivin while leaving the Normandy American Cemetery on June 4 in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Kleindl, a medic in the U.S. Army's 90th Infantry Division, arrived on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

President Biden is in France to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day, when tens of thousands of allied troops landed on the beaches at Normandy and turned the tide in World War II.

It's a pilgrimage that many American presidents have made, but as Biden does it, the lessons of 80 years ago are being debated once again — and hold particular resonance for his reelection bid.

The anniversary comes as a land war rages once again in the European continent with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, raising the stakes as World War II fades from people’s memories and into the history books.

"He will take full advantage of the opportunity to talk about the moment we are living in: of democracies working together on behalf of their peoples — but also the importance of American leadership," John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters.

Biden argues that democracy is under attack

To get a sense of how Biden sees this current moment in the sweep of history, look no further than his most recent State of the Union address. He started with the image of President Franklin Roosevelt in early 1941, months before the attack on Pearl Harbor that would draw the United States into World War II.

President Biden delivers the State of the Union address on March 7, 2024.
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President Biden delivers the State of the Union address on March 7, 2024.

“President Roosevelt’s purpose was to wake up Congress and alert the American people that this was no ordinary time,” said Biden, delivering his remarks in the same House chamber where Roosevelt had spoken. “Freedom and democracy were under assault in the world.”

The United States was still on the sidelines in the war at that point. But Hitler was on the march in Europe, and American allies were under attack. Like then, Biden argued, this is no ordinary time.

“What makes our moment rare is that freedom and democracy are under attack both at home and overseas at the very same time,” said Biden.

The monument at Pointe du Hoc, where U.S. Army Rangers scaled cliffs on D-Day to disable German artillery as troops landed on beaches below.
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The monument at Pointe du Hoc, where U.S. Army Rangers scaled cliffs on D-Day to disable German artillery as troops landed on beaches below.

Biden is giving a speech from Pointe du Hoc

Expect Biden to expand on those themes in an address to the American people he’s set to deliver from Pointe du Hoc, overlooking the beaches where the Americans landed on June 6, 1944. More than 70,000 American troops joined allied forces for the dangerous and daring D-Day operation. Casualties were heavy, with 2,500 Americans killed on D-Day itself and some 29,000 more in the Battle of Normandy that followed.

While Biden's address isn’t a campaign speech, the undercurrent will be unavoidable. Biden has framed his reelection campaign against former President Donald Trump in stark terms, as he did at a fundraiser in New York earlier this week.

"What those soldiers died for should never be given up,” said Biden. “Democracy is literally on the ballot this year.”

Asked whether this speech about democracy and freedom was aimed at Trump, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said it would focus on universal themes. “Principles that have served as the foundation of American security and American democracy for generations, including the generation that scaled those cliffs, including today’s generation, including the next generation,” Sullivan told reporters traveling with Biden on Air Force One. “He’s going to be speaking in terms of principles and values and lessons from history that are applicable today.”

Trump has questioned the value of the NATO alliance

Biden, who describes Trump as an existential threat to America’s place as a global leader, takes pride in marshalling U.S. allies to support Ukraine after Russia's invasion, and expanding NATO to include two new members.

While at the international commemoration of D-Day on Thursday, Biden is scheduled to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the leaders will discuss the state of play in the war with Russia, Sullivan said. Biden recently authorized Ukraine to use U.S.-supplied weapons to strike inside Russia, an escalation as the war grinds into its third year.

Republicans in the Trump wing of the Republican Party have questioned the utility of ongoing U.S. support for Ukraine. And Trump himself has repeatedly toyed with the idea of the U.S. not keeping its commitment to the NATO alliance.

During a campaign rally in February, Trump said America would not defend allies that did not spend enough money on their own defense, should Russia attack them. “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want," Trump said.

The NATO alliance and its commitment to mutual defense grew out of the experience of World War II. And polling from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds the majority of Americans still support that alliance.

“We have understood for so long now since D-Day really, that our security, our prosperity and our freedom depends on the security, prosperity and freedom of our allies around the world,” said Ivo Daalder, who heads the Chicago Council and was the U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration.

But Daalder says isolationist views are growing. “NATO is becoming politicized in a way it never was until this point,” said Daalder.

President Ronald Reagan at two veterans looks at a hook used by the U.S. Army Rangers to climb the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc during commemorations for the 40th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 1984.
Ron Edmonds / AP
President Ronald Reagan and two veterans look at a hook used by the U.S. Army Rangers to climb the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc during commemorations for the 40th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 1984.

What Reagan said at the same spot Biden will deliver his speech

There’s a massive gulf between Trump’s message today and the one then-President Ronald Reagan delivered 40 years ago at a D-Day ceremony in Normandy.

“We in America have learned bitter lessons from two World Wars. It is better to be here ready to protect the peace than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost,” Reagan said then. “We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with expansionist intent.”

A lot has changed since 1984. The Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War ended. The Soviet Union dissolved, only for Russian President Vladimir Putin to decades later attempt to rebuild it.

There are echoes of that Reagan speech in the way Biden describes Putin and his war in Ukraine. But many people aren’t buying that argument.

“You could feel the loss of understanding at the end of the Cold War of what our allies were for,” said Heather Conley, director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Conley is in the midst of a tour of the country, trying to make the case for continued U.S. military aid to Ukraine. And she’s getting an earful.

“The American people have some important questions to ask about what’s important about our security, our level of debt,” said Conley. “These are the right questions to ask. But you have to engage them in a conversation.”

Conley, who was a senior official in former President George W. Bush's State Department, said she's glad Biden is giving the speech this week. But she said she wishes he had made this case more forcefully and more often.

“If it’s important to the country, we have to have an important conversation with our citizens,” said Conley.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.