A few days ago, when I heard President Joe Biden was going to speak about “the continued battle for the soul of the nation” in front of Independence Hall, I was intrigued.
After all, a new Quinnipiac poll recently showed that 67 percent of Americans think democracy could collapse. As I wrote a few months ago, “It feels like the country is coming apart and we are not united in some shared purpose. Just as an individual’s deep-seated psychological and spiritual needs (such as purpose and belonging) are fundamental (once their basic needs are met), the same is true at the national level.”
Anticipating Biden’s “soul” speech, images of former President Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech instantly came to mind. Carter was precisely correct about a “crisis of confidence…that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” That crisis afflicted America during the 1970s, but nobody wanted to hear the president acknowledge this gloomy, if honest, reality.
Would Biden make the same mistake?
But then, something interesting happened as Biden’s big prime-time speech approached and details about the speech began to trickle out: The headlines reflected a more political tone, warning us that “Trumpism threatens democracy.”
And that’s when it became obvious that Biden’s speech was always going to be about “November’s midterms,” not “America’s soul.” Instead of being a speech that was above politics, it would be a speech that was about politics.
Don’t get me wrong. I completely agree that Trump and the MAGA movement threatens democracy, that the normalization of political violence is an existential challenge to this country, that election denial is poison, that America is precious and worthy of preserving, and that the rule of law is under attack. But by taking his speech beyond these issues, the president missed its opportunity to make those points in a way that was beyond reproach.
First, Biden conflated some conservative positions with illiberal attempts to destroy the nation. He talked about how “MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards,” but then hastened to add, “Backwards to an America where there is no right to choose…”
To Biden’s base, this line probably sounds like music to their ears. But I’m someone who is both pro-democracy and pro-life. Wouldn’t a leader who is truly concerned about preserving democracy want the broadest coalition possible? And wouldn't that include allies in this cause who happen to support the right to life? Apparently not.
Biden also warned that America was going backwards to an America where there was “no right to marry who you love.” Going back to the way things were just seven years ago—before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the land—might very well be a step in the wrong direction, but what does that have to do with Trumpism—much less the collapse of democracy and MAGA conservatives scoffing at the idea that rule of law applies to Trump, too?
I don’t want to confuse causation with correlation, but wasn’t democracy actually in a better place in 2015?
It doesn’t matter. These progressive culture war issues—abortion and gay marriage—were included in the speech, not because they have much to do with Trump and his MAGA movement’s attacks on democracy, but because they have everything to do with firing up the Democratic base.
And it didn’t end there.
Heck, at one point, Biden started talking about high-speed internet and a “clean energy future.” He somehow managed to transition from jeremiad to State of the Union.
The second, and more fundamental, problem was that Biden crafted a prime time speech framed around a topic (Trumpism) that will benefit him and his party politically. Even though I agreed with a lot of what he had to say, his ulterior motives undermined his primary message. You can’t say, “I’m going to give a heartfelt speech about America’s soul…and while I’m there, I’m gonna score some crass political points.” His call to action toward the end of the speech, “VOTE, VOTE, VOTE” betrayed his goal.
Thursday night’s speech was clearly a part of advancing a political narrative. It’s part of a pattern of Biden trying to galvanize his base—like calling MAGA a “semi-fascist movement” last week, and his decision to cancel student loan debt.
I am reminded of a recent tweet from conservative commentator Ben Shapiro: “There is a reason Democrats are eager to keep Trump at the center of the conversation: half of independents say Trump is a major factor in their vote, and they're breaking 4-1 for the Democrats. Republicans shouldn't play that game. If they do, they're cruising for a bruising.”
If the election is about Trump, Democrats win (the same isn’t true if the focus is on, say, inflation). So Biden is making it about Trump.
That’s not to say Trump and his MAGA movement can be ignored, but there are other people who can and should be throwing those elbows. Wouldn’t it be better for a president to adopt a more grandfatherly pose and talk about the importance of reaching across the aisle, coming together as a nation, stopping the political violence, and ending the cycle that is poisoning the body politic?
He could have given an inspiring speech about protecting this miracle of liberal democracy and preserving the rule of law. Trust me, everyone would recognize the contrast. Instead of talking about healing America, he could model it. Instead of scoring political points, he could transcend the bitterness.
Instead, he hit rewind on his outdated VCR and gave us an old, tired rerun. He gave us a political speech right before an election.