Biden’s speech Thursday — from the spot where Donald Trump’s mob defiled the US tradition of peaceful transfers of power a year ago — was easily his most authoritative moment as President. He redefined himself against the extremism of the ex-President after struggling to project control during brutal months when a resurgent pandemic and chaos in his own party withered away any sense that he was commanding the political stage.
In generations to come, his address may be viewed either as the rallying call that saved the American experiment or as a pained eulogy for the democracy that his predecessor and would-be successor seems determined to destroy.
“We must decide: What kind of nation are we going to be?” Biden said, beseeching his compatriots to fight for their democracy as a “great nation” should. “Are we going to be a nation that accepts political violence as a norm? Are we going to be a nation where we allow partisan election officials to overturn the legally expressed will of the people? Are we going to be a nation that lives not by the light of the truth, but in the shadow of lies?”
“We cannot allow ourselves to be that kind of nation. The way forward is to recognize the truth and to live by it,” the President said.
It’s a lofty comparison, but Biden’s speech sought to accomplish a task similar to President Abraham Lincoln’s much shorter Gettysburg Address. The 16th President urged his nation in 1863 to rededicate itself, at a time when democracy was under existential threat, to the “unfinished work” of preserving government “of the people, for the people, by the people.” At the beginning of 2022, Biden — who noted he was speaking from National Statuary Hall, where Lincoln sat at desk 191 when the space hosted the House of Representatives — defined that same national quest as saving “the right to vote, the right to govern ourselves, the right to determine our own destiny.”
A strategy shift and a collision course with Trump
Biden’s speech also represented a shift of tone and strategy. Early in his presidency, Biden sought to consign Trump to history by depriving him of the commodity the ex-President most craves: attention. In his inaugural address nearly a year ago, he sought not to wage old wars over the election but to instead stress national unity — a concept hard to imagine after the violence that had unfolded on the steps beneath him just weeks before. Later in the year, he dissed Trump as the “former guy” and urged Americans to together take up arms, literally, in a new challenge: the vaccine drive that he hoped would end the worst pandemic in 100 years.
But Biden’s strategy has become untenable. Trump may have a tighter grip on the Republican Party than ever. He is making the 2022 midterm elections a platform for his dangerous lies that his second term was stolen. And he’s building the infrastructure of a 2024 campaign for a return to the White House that would likely make his aberrant previous term seem a paragon of legality.
So while he didn’t mention the word “Trump” on Thursday, Biden went hard at his rival. Showing a ruthlessness that has been absent from his leadership in recent months, he identified the spot where he could most wound Trump and repeatedly thrust a metaphorical sword. Over and over, he reminded a predecessor who hates losers that he had been “defeated,” that he had “lost” and had trailed by 7 million votes in an election in which he took a fair and square battering. Twisting the blade, Biden nailed Trump’s fundamental motivation: “He sees his own interest as more important than his country’s interest and America’s interest because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution.”
Inside Trump’s gold-leafed private members’ club, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, Florida, the insurrectionist in chief was fuming. Trump had canceled a news conference planned for Thursday — much to the relief of Republicans who would have had to answer for his certain tirade of fresh lies and demagoguery.
Instead, through his spokeswoman on Twitter, he issued a series of wild statements that burned with resentment, were barely coherent and renewed his delusions that the 2020 election was rigged — despite every possible authority, from the courts to his own Justice Department, declaring the vote was clean.
But there was very little in Biden’s description of the horror that unfolded a year ago that was not accurate. Trump’s reaction, likely to be fleshed out further in an upcoming rally in Arizona, actually provided more evidence for Biden’s broader point: that the splintering of truth, autocratic tendencies and self-obsession of his predecessor were un-American.
Slamming Trump’s mob, Biden charged: “They didn’t come here out of patriotism or principle; they came here in rage, not in service of America, but rather in service of one man.” Pressing home his theme, he argued that Trump’s behavior was antithetical to founding American values. “This is not a land of kings or dictators or autocrats. We’re a nation of laws; of order, not chaos; of peace, not violence,” the President said. And he dismantled Trump’s argument that the “real insurrection” had been not on January 6, but on Election Day.
“Is that what you thought when you voted that day?” he asked Americans. “Taking part in an insurrection, is that what you thought you were doing? Or did you think you were carrying out your highest duty as a citizen and voting?”
A political reset
Biden’s performance Thursday was a return to the fundamentals on which he had built his successful presidential campaign — that he is leading a battle for the “soul” of the nation. His refocusing came at the right time for a presidency that has been stumbling for weeks.
Ever since the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the resurgence of Covid-19, a supply chain crunch and a spike in inflation, Biden has struggled to control events. His authority has also been tarnished by Democratic infighting that stalled the massive social spending and climate change bill that could cement his legacy as a historic, reforming Democratic President.
Every presidency needs a relaunch at some point. And while Republicans might have spectacularly missed the point when they accused Biden of using January 6 commemorations for political reasons, they were not wrong that his performance could boost his and his party’s prospects. If Thursday’s strong speech is followed by an equally powerful State of the Union address in the coming weeks, the President may inject some momentum into his stalled domestic agenda and give hope to congressional Democrats in what has been shaping up as a grim midterm election year. On Thursday, as he vowed, “I will stand in this breach, I will defend this nation and I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of democracy,” he may have reminded some voters why they had chosen him to purge the nation of Trumpism in 2020.
His promise appeared to accept that democracy, after a year in which Trump’s lies and conservative media propaganda have convinced millions of Americans that the election was stolen, is in more danger now than a year ago. That position appears antithetical to the organizing principle of the first months of his presidency, in which he constantly stressed national unity.
But if there is to be a battle for democracy, it means taking the fight directly to Trump, his supporters and Republicans who have spent months passing laws in the states, including several presidential battlegrounds, that make it harder to vote, especially for minorities and Democrats in cities, and easier to steal power. And it will be a bitter battle in which more political violence cannot be ruled out. Trump has convinced millions of Americans of his voter fraud lies. His political appeal lies in stoking the GOP base with ever more extremism. And Republicans in Washington unwilling to stand up for democracy are hostage to grassroots conservative voters who willingly embrace Trump’s January 6 call last year that they must “fight like hell” or they won’t have a country.
Biden’s credibility is now on the line
Biden has effectively also thrown down a challenge to himself.
For his words on Thursday to deliver, he must find some way to pass two bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — that are stuck in the Senate. But the same roadblocks thwarting his social spending plan stand in the way of voting reform: Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who oppose reforming the Senate filibuster that allows Republicans to block the bills in the 50-50 Senate. The President will increase the pressure on those two senators when he delivers a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, which will resonate with the symbolism of the civil rights era, and will point to a coming battle for a Senate seat and the governorship in a state that helped him secure the presidency and Democrats to take the Senate.
He has already given himself a task that will define how he is remembered.
“We will make sure the will of the people is heard; that the ballot prevails, not violence; that authority of this nation will always be peacefully transferred,” Biden said in Statuary Hall.
That this goal is even in doubt not only points to the daunting mission ahead for the President, it also underscores just how perilous this moment in American history is.