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How Biden bungled his pro-democracy speech

How Biden bungled his pro-democracy speech

How Biden bungled his pro-democracy speech
September 15
12:00 2022

Two weeks ago, President Joe Biden took the stage to defend democracy. Standing in front of Independence Hall, he delivered a 25-minute address in support of free and fair elections, calling out those who threatened them while making a broad appeal to defend “the soul of our nation.” Unfortunately, he failed.

While some have claimed that President Biden’s speech was filled with divisive partisanship, that’s absolutely not the issue here. Biden did call out “MAGA Republicans” and former President Donald Trump specifically, but he also made it abundantly clear both during and after the speech that “not every Republican — not even a majority of Republicans — are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology.”

Granted, this claim’s accuracy is questionable, as poll after poll has shown an overwhelming majority of Republicans believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Still, it shows an attempt to separate the Republican Party as a whole from its worst actors. Contrasted with the GOP’s frequent denouncements of the entire left as socialist pedophiles who rigged an election, Biden’s attacks are remarkably restrained.

No, the much bigger issue with this speech is it gets bogged down by political pandering. After 15 minutes of a mostly straightforward defense of democracy, Biden shifted his tone. For the remainder of the speech, he promoted the Inflation Reduction Act, climate action and a long list of other Democratic talking points.

He attempted to spin his boasting into how democracy can lead to meaningful change, saying “the cynics and the critics tell us nothing can get done, but they’re wrong,” but these last 10 minutes were still enough to completely undermine everything he said before.

This may not seem like a problem at first because politicians speak like this all the time. If you watch events like town halls, debates and the State of the Union, most of these speeches are dominated by similar rhetoric. 

Biden’s address at Independence Hall wasn’t just any other speech. With politicians and academics sounding alarm bells about threats to our democracy, this was meant to appeal to a nation in crisis. Biden refused to treat it as such by distracting from the matter at hand. 

To highlight the issue, look at similar addresses from the past. Abraham Lincoln never once touted his social policy when speaking to crowds at Gettysburg. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t boast about the New Deal’s success in his address to the nation after Pearl Harbor. Even George W. Bush, for all his numerous faults, knew not to promote his tax cuts in his response to the 9/11 attacks.

In these speeches, the presidents realized the circumstances demanded focused appeals to the American people and that normal hyperbole and self-promotion of politics would be cheap and opportunistic. 

Speeches to a nation in crisis demand the president to look beyond ordinary politics. Although Biden was able to do this at first, he ended his speech with boastful distractions that undercut the severity of what came before.

Why did Biden do this? The most likely answer comes down to political attitudes. After a rough first half of 2022, Democrats have recently been enjoying a enjoying a surge of support after the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling and numerous legislative victories. These gains have extended to Biden too, and while this speech had been proposed as early as June, the timing allowed him to deliver it from a much stronger position.

Polls have also shown widespread opposition to the GOP’s past election interference, leading Biden’s staff to see this speech not as a call to action to defend our nation from tyrants, but as an opportunity to further support Democratic candidates going into the midterms. As such, they wanted the president to emphasize every possible reason to vote blue instead of keeping his focus on the core issue.

It made his defenses of democracy seem insincere, undermined everything he said in those first 15 minutes and ultimately failed to distinguish his remarks from the mountains of rhetoric we’re surrounded by on a constant basis. These issues aren’t minute and the average American will see nothing special or noteworthy about this speech. It’s just more political noise.

Going forward, it’s unlikely this speech will have much of an impact. Poll numbers for both Biden and Democrats in general are up slightly, but those can be explained by trends over time.

As we approach the midterms, Biden’s address is already all but forgotten as more prevalent stories and issues take their place in the national spotlight. What could’ve been a defining moment for Joe Biden’s presidency will be tossed into the dustbin of history as just another typical speech from this era of politics. 

Featured Illustration by Erika Sevilla

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Ian Cropper

Ian Cropper

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