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Biden speech boldly promotes value of government, rebuking GOP
The president also let Americans know he answers to them, not to the media or Republicans in Congress
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In his address to the nation Thursday night from the White House on the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic, President Joe Biden urged Americans to have “faith” in government.
It may not seem radical — and certainly Biden’s demeanor is far from that — and it’s true that it’s a message Democrats have traditionally articulated. But that message was more muted during the Obama and Clinton administrations, both of which found themselves responding to — and often recalibrating toward — the Reagan era re-framing of government as too big and and as an evil force.
What was radical about Biden’s speech was the unabashed description of government as saving America in terrible times, a complete rebuke to the GOP’s philosophy and the anti-government message Donald Trump rode to victory. That message only became more embedded and extreme as the Trump years went on, culminating in an insurrection against the Capitol — and in Republican leaders now embracing the defeated, one-term, twice-impeached president who inspired that attack on American democracy and government.
“Put trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important function, which is protecting the American people,” Biden said. “No function more important.”
Biden then directly refuted the GOP frame:
We need to remember the government isn't some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it's us. All of us. We, the people.
Toward the end of the speech Biden came back to it again, noting the loss of people’s belief in the power of government to help make things right, while discussing other losses amid the pandemic:
I'll close with this, we've lost so much over the last year. We've lost family and friends. We've lost businesses and dreams we spent years building. We've lost time, time with each other…No graduation ceremonies this spring, no graduations from college or high school, moving up ceremonies. You know, and there's something else we lost. We lost faith in whether our government and our democracy can deliver on really hard things for the American people.
Biden and the key players in his administration know this moment calls for a new vision. In a CBS News poll 75% of Americans support the American Rescue Plan, backing the idea of government coming to the aid of people in need. That means many more people support the plan than supported Biden himself. Biden took the opportunity in his address to call on those people who may not have supported him to be part of unifying America.
“I need you,” he implored all Americans, consistently talking about the current battle against the pandemic as something “we” are in, a “war” against a virus with all of us on the same side. Every American must “do their part” and the only way we’re going to truly beat this thing is if we have “national unity.” If we do unite, we’ll all be able to celebrate the nation’s birthday, July 4th, safely, together with our families, he said.
“This is the United States of America and there's nothing, I believe this from the bottom of my heart, nothing we can't do when we do it together,” Biden said. He used the word “together” 13 times in the speech.
All of that is kryptonite to Republicans, who thrive on disunity and division. Sure, one speech after one bill may not change many people’s minds, and the GOP’s not about to divert from its reckless course, held hostage by Trump. But Biden has Americans’ attention with a major piece of legislation that they like and which he signed into law, and he has a leadership style that is steady and reassuring. He’s using that to his advantage.
The driving force throughout Biden’s speech was that loss Americans have experienced — something that has escaped no one in this one-year period, whether they lost loved ones or a job, a home, the ability to see grandparents, go to a wedding, attend a ball game, or all of the above. He has a natural ability to connect with people who are grieving, and did that time and again. He focused on the shared experience that transcends political party.
In asking people to have faith in government, Biden not only checked off the accomplishments of the administration in battling Covid-19 in a mere 50 days in office; he confidently laid out a series of benchmarks and dates by which he would get things done — such as surpassing his pledge of getting 100 million vaccines to the public in his first 100 days. This positioned government as empathetic and efficient rather than as cold and heartless — or as sinister, like the so-called “deep state” of Trumpian fever dreams.
It’s also significant that Biden gave this address to the American people before he has held his first press conference with White House reporters or given an address to a joint-session of Congress (both of which he’ll be giving later this month). Some in the media have been yammering on about how he’s not given a presser by this point in his presidency — unlike his predecessors, including Trump — even though he’s been faced with unprecedented challenges (and has done a town hall on CNN and other interviews).
The last six newly-elected presidents also gave a speech to a joint session of Congress by the end of February, most of them before giving an address from the White House to the American people. Biden, taking office during a crisis of massive proportions and focusing in on it immediately, appears to be telling Americans, “I’m working hard and I answer to you,” not to the media or the GOP in Congress, where the 50 Republicans in the Senate represent tens of millions less Americans than the 50 Democrats.
Certainly that is how he’s talked about the American Rescue Plan, as a bill, now a law, that is bipartisan in terms of who supports it among the American people — majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents — even as all Republicans in Congress voted against it.
Some say Biden’s delivery is bland, and that may be true. But that actually helps him. He’s disarming, confounding his opponents as he lays out a bold and forceful agenda.