Joe Biden Takes on the Reactionary Right
With humor and skill, the President thrashed the extremists and used their cartoonish anger against them. In doing so, he defended liberal democracy.
To understand that I’m calling the frayed but stubbornly interwoven “threads of democracy” and our needed response to defend and strengthen our liberal social structure, it’s vital to understand the threat - both its historic underpinnings and the current form.
One of our greatest failings is the habit of believing that we are uniquely modern in this living age, possessed of instincts and knowledge and intelligence that our forebears were too deprived of - or frankly, too simple - to rely on. Yet they often knew how to fight extremism better than we do.
Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear - are important today because they embody the values and aspirations of a free and democratic society. These freedoms provide a vision for a world in which all individuals are able to live with dignity and security, and in which diverse opinions and beliefs can be expressed and heard without fear of persecution. As we continue to face the challenge of extremism, FDR’s freedoms serve as a reminder of the importance of protecting and promoting the rights and liberties that define a just and equitable society. They also serve as a benchmark for evaluating the state of our own democracy and the progress we must make to ensure that these ideals are realized for all people. That’s why I return to them so often.
Last night, President Biden gave the strongest State of the Union Address of my adult TV-watching lifetime. Generally, these things can be heavy slumbering blankets of frozen prose and policy shopping lists, with pre-packaged zingers and marketing slogans. In the modern age (since Reagan), we watch for the pageantry and the sense that this long speech is about the country in general, whether our party is in power or not. More recently, it’s been like a B-list NASCAR circuit round-up: we watch for the wrecks. Comity and decorum are long gone.
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So Biden didn’t so much as hit the high notes of the Four Freedoms, or roll out a new vision for this frayed democracy. What he did was better, given this moment: he thrashed the Republicans by using their hateful extremism against them. David Frum in the Atlantic captured Biden’s moment well:
Not only did Republicans repeatedly heckle, jeer, and shout during President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, but Biden was ready for them. In impromptu remarks not included in the prepared text of the speech, Biden rolled with the interruptions, using them to reinforce his message. Biden accused “some” Republicans of plotting to sunset Social Security and Medicare. When he got protests, he grinned and accepted them as a “unanimous” endorsement. “I welcome all converts,” he told them, recasting for the television audience the Republican hubbub as a sign of submission.
Partisanship, populism, and patriotism were his themes. The speech was strewn with traps carefully constructed to ensnare opponents. He opened with a tribute to bipartisanship, but the mechanics of his address were based on shrewd and unapologetic hyper-partisanship. He anticipated negative reactions in the chamber—and used them to reinforce his message.
It was also clear that Biden was enjoying himself. He knew his opponents well, and lured them into a trap that will have significant consequences. It was the kind of thing that happens in parliamentary debates, but rarely under our federal system. And the Republicans - well, those with emotional ages above that of a middle-schooler, so a distinct minority - knew they’d been taken to the woodshed by a grinning master, who leaned gleefully into his own stammer like Jimmy Stewart on the Tonight Show.
For all the fun that Biden had with flaying the braying MAGA maniacs, there were serious shadows in the House. First, the shadow of the insurrection, a fascist attack on democracy two years ago in the Capitol. Second, the shadow of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic and cowardly demagoguery of right-wing (and fairly, some on the left) in opposition to government efforts to save lives. Third, the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Russia against Ukraine a year ago, and subsequent crimes against humanity undertaken by the Putin regime. And finally, the brutal death in police custody of Tyre Nichols. “Our children have a right to come home safely,” said the President, as he acknowledged the presence in the House Chamber of his mother, RowVaughn Wells, and stepfather, Rodney Wells.
"Here is what Tyre's mother shared with me when I asked her how she finds the courage to carry on and speak out: She said her son was a beautiful soul, and something good will come of this," Mr. Biden said. "Imagine how much courage that takes. It's up to us, to all of us."
"Let's commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre's mom true: Something good must come from this," he added.
Even Kevin McCarthy applauded.
One speech cannot defeat the extremist threat to this democracy. That threat remains real. However, by taking the political and rhetorical battle directly to those who supported insurrection, who clamp down on speech, who ache to destroy communitarian solutions that actually help people, who viscerally hate civil society, the President sounded a note of cheerful and ready political combat - just at a moment when we needed it.
He defended liberalism, and derided the reactionaries. FDR would have approved. Well done, indeed.