Biden pummeled former President Donald Trump, mentioning him 16 times but without once using Trump’s name — and doing it in ways that surely infuriated the disgraced politician in Mar-a-Lago.
Biden noted in his remarks that the former president started spreading election lies long before the November 2020 election, preemptively looking for an excuse should he be defeated. “He’s not just the former president,” Biden declared, “He’s a defeated former president; defeated by a margin of over 7 million of your votes.”
The piercing jabs kept coming: “The former president of the United States has created and spread a web of lies … He’s done so because he values power over principle.”
His words and delivery were quite a contrast from the Biden whose speeches, especially those dealing with democracy and the future of the nation, have tended to emphasize national unity and reconciliation. The shift reflected a recognition that the insurrection of January 6 is not simply a part of the past, but a looming threat into the future.
Speaking at the site of the assault by Trump supporters seeking to prevent the certification of the 2020 election, Biden seemed to largely leave behind his effort to soothe and heal the country. Instead, he wielded the bully pulpit to push forcefully against the efforts of the former president and his allies to distort the truth about the election or rewrite history to downplay or misrepresent what occurred last January 6.
It was the rhetorical equivalent of grabbing the country by the lapels and forcing us to look at the facts. Great nations, Biden said, “don’t bury the truth. They face up to it.”
The only way to heal, he told reporters after the speech, “is to recognize the extent of the wound.”
The stage was set by Vice President Kamala Harris, who listed the resonant dates “when our democracy came under assault” — December 7, 1941, September 11, 2001, and January 6, 2021. With that, Harris placed the assault by Trumpist forces alongside the Pearl Harbor attack that brought the US into World War II, and 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in modern US history.
By adding January 6 to that list — and with Biden making it clear that responsibility for those events rests with the former president — the administration has thrown down the gauntlet. And Harris’s framing reflects the reality that January 6 — like other days that have gone on to “live in infamy” — has now become a yearly marker and reminder of this wound on national collective memory.
Biden had campaigned and took office on a promise to bring Americans together after the tumultuous, divisive Trump presidency.
His speech in National Statuary Hall, the heart of the US Capitol, suggests he has come to the realization that a different strategy is needed. The effort to restore normalcy and end the threat to democracy has not been sufficient in the face of the relentless campaign by the former president and his allies to rewrite the history of the last election and set the stage for a more effective push to seize power — for a successful coup — if they lose at the ballot box next time.
Biden pointed implicitly at Trump and his GOP supporters as culpable for January 6 and its ongoing repercussions. “Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited, and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America, at American democracy.”
Having laid out the gravity of the threat, Biden vowed in soaring words to take it on with all his might. “I did not seek this fight,” he declared, “but I will not shrink from it.”
“I will stand in this breach,” he promised. “I will defend this nation, I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of democracy.”
This was a historic address, one that not only marks an important pivot point — at least a rhetorical one — for his presidency. Biden’s appeal that Americans work to make January 6 “the beginning of a renaissance of liberty and fair play,” begs the question — how is that going to happen?
The very personal allusions to Trump, coupled with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s speech on Wednesday, when he said the Justice Department will hold “all January 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law — whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault,” should make the former president very nervous.
Biden has taken the mantle of the warrior in the effort to lead the country out of the existential crisis he described. Now he has to show how exactly he plans to win that battle for the soul of America, the campaign to save American democracy from an ongoing menace.