Biden's speech about democracy in peril missed crucial points about America's future

The US President should have focussed less on the peril of Maga extremism

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on what he calls the "continued battle for the Soul of the Nation" in Philadelphia, on September 1. Reuters
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On Thursday, US President Joe Biden delivered what should have been a landmark primetime address about the dangers that Republican extremism, led by former president Donald Trump, poses to the US constitutional order. All broadcast TV networks in the US declined to carry the speech, preferring reruns including an episode of the game show "Press Your Luck”. The president's supporters were outraged, but the speech was so wanting the networks probably did him a favour.

Republicans, inevitably, are expressing – or feigning – fury and demanding apologies. That's absurd because everything Mr Biden said about their party is true, and hate-speech from members of the Republican party is so atrocious that they are in no position to contradict his assertions or challenge his tone. They are indeed angry dividers.

Yet the speech misfired badly, especially by not offering Americans a cause around which to unite other than a contentious Democratic partisan agenda.

The venue was appropriate enough, Independence Hall in Philadelphia being the birthplace of American democracy. But Mr Biden was bathed in a red glow that evoked misguided "Dark Brandon" internet memes that jokingly depict him as an all-powerful and somewhat sinister figure. The uniformed Marines in the background also looked highly inappropriate.

Everything Mr Biden said about how Mr Trump has turned much of the Republican Party into supporters of a Make America Great Again cult or a "semi-fascist Maga” cult is undoubtedly correct. And he was wise to insist that “a majority of Republicans” are not part of that movement – although he provided no grounds to distinguish “semi-fascist Maga” versus "mainstream" Republicans he insists he respects.

Worse, he didn't contrast the nefarious Maga movement with a simply nonpartisan, patriotic appeal to national unity based on shared values like honouring election outcomes and the legitimacy of adversary’s victories, rejecting political violence and intimidation and respecting the principle of majority rule. Since Thursday, he's been wisely recasting his positions to emphasise these crucial points which should have always been the substance of his attack on the Maga agenda.

Mr Biden's advisers failed him badly by not editing out a misplaced checklist of his legislative and governance accomplishments – which correspond to a liberal, rather than a national nonpartisan, agenda – that often made the speech sound awkwardly and inappropriately like a boastful “state of the union” address. The ideological content was simply too strong not to gravely damage any appeal to nonpartisan democratic values instead drowning them in partisan Democratic goals.

Mr Biden didn't make a serious effort to reach out to Republicans across the ideological divide beyond simply invoking the Constitution and other familiar, even hackneyed, tropes. He might have acknowledged, for example, legitimate disagreements about abortion or same-sex marriage. He certainly should have recognised that outgoing Republican representative Liz Cheney voted against almost all his legislative “achievements,” yet she is a singular champion of the battle to preserve American democracy, precisely because those two agendas are completely separate.

Mr Biden also needed to acknowledge Democrats have helped undermine constitutional legitimacy. In the current midterm campaigns, Democrats have reportedly funded some of the most extreme Republicans, who can only be described as semi-fascist, in Republican primaries, hoping they will be easier to defeat than more mainstream Republicans in the November general elections. The President should have expressed disgust at such cynical recklessness and acknowledged that promoting such extremists can only contribute to the rise of the Maga movement.

The US President didn't seem to make a serious effort to reach out to Republicans across the ideological divide

He should also have recognised that a few Democratic legislators in 2004 and 2016 rejected certified electors, albeit symbolically, a move that Mr Trump tried to organise into a mass revolt in Congress to overthrow the whole 2020 election. In hindsight, it should be easy enough to admit how unacceptable and foolish that was.

All that would have prevented the speech from sounding like a partisan attack on Republicans in general and less a defence of democracy than of the Democrats.

But beyond accepting the legitimacy of major disagreements on emotive issues and the contributions by Democrats to damaging US constitutional norms, Mr Biden, above all, failed to propose a solution to begin to reunite Americans.

He should have proposed two mandatory years of national service by every young American, regardless of factors like income and geography, coming together to serve the country – whether in the military or a wide range of other organised, collective public service initiatives.

Not only would this mobilise the energy and power of youth in service of the country, it would bring Americans together at an early age to meet each other and work together across barriers of geography, economic and social class, race, religion, ethnicity, culture and many other major chasms. It is because of those separations that many Americans never meet one another. Americans of different “tribes” simply don't know each other, never get a chance to work together in a common cause, and are not brought together to share sweat and tears, danger and labour, commitment and passion, to defend, build and develop their country and society.

If Mr Biden can't get Congress to mandate two years of national service, he can push for one. If he cannot get mandatory national service through at all, at least he leaves to his successors this proposed vital part of a deeply rooted American solution to a major US crisis. National service for young Americans can be legitimately and accurately cast as a first step toward healing the country, invoking the great collective victories of the two World Wars, the Great Depression and the Cold War, the space race that put an American on the moon and so much more. He could have linked the programme to any number of inspirational, aspirational goals, like his cherished goal of defeating cancer he cited in the speech, a manned trip to Mars, massive rebuilding of national infrastructure or whichever other projects inspire American passions.

Praising the sanctity of elections and majority rule is just not enough. Most Americans want to heal. They yearn to come together. They need to dream together. Last week, the president did not conjure a vision to seize the imagination and inspire collective national efforts, and he did not seem to even try.

Yet Americans urgently need, and most genuinely want, a shared national agenda to replace the self-destructive tribal feuding that empowers some demagogues but is rupturing and corroding their society. Mr Biden should try again after the midterms, whatever the results, with less focus on the Maga peril and much more on a great American future.

Published: September 05, 2022, 2:00 PM
Updated: September 09, 2022, 6:53 AM