President Biden delivered a message of unity at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, the first time the annual event has been held since its leadership and structure were overhauled to distance it from a controversial private religious group.
“In our politics and in our lives, we too often see each other as opponents and not competitors. We see each other as enemies, not neighbors,” Mr. Biden said. “And as tough as these times have been, if we look closer, we see the strength, the determination that has long defined America.”
Mr. Biden has pitched unity in the past, with one notable example coming in 2021, shortly after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. It was a departure from former President Donald Trump’s speech in 2020, in which he celebrated his acquittal by the Senate in his first impeachment trial and took shots at former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Mitt Romney.
The breakfast was held at the Capitol’s visitor center, and the auditorium’s 450 seats were packed with members of Congress, government officials and others.
Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has spoken at the breakfast, which in past years has been attended by thousands. For decades, the event was overseen by the International Foundation, a Christian organization that has drawn increasing scrutiny over the years.
Now the event is run by the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, a new group led by former members of Congress. The International Foundation held its own event at a nearby hotel, where Mr. Biden’s speech was being watched remotely.
“Welcome to all 1,300,” Mr. Biden said, a reference to the size of the crowd at the other breakfast. It was his only acknowledgement during the public program to changes behind the scenes.
The event is designed to bring people together across partisan lines, and Mr. Biden sat next to Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The two met Wednesday as a showdown looms over whether to raise the country’s debt limit to avoid default.
“We had a good meeting yesterday,” Mr. Biden said of McCarthy, saying they would work to “treat each other with respect.”
McCarthy on Wednesday also characterized the meeting as “good.”
Also present was Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for Arizona governor who lost her race in November but has refused to acknowledge her defeat. Mr. Biden has denounced election denial as a threat to American democracy.
Mr. Biden, the nation’s second Catholic president, quoted Scripture, saying it was important to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
“That’s the hardest one, I think,” he said. “At least it’s hardest here. It didn’t used to be as hard. I’ve been here a long time. But it seems to be getting harder.”