WASHINGTON — On Thursday morning, President Joe Biden said a lot of things about democracy poetically, and a lot of things about his predecessor forcefully. But it was something he didn’t say that cut to the heart of the challenge he — and his country — are facing.
He stood in the statuary hall of the Capitol building, where one year earlier, give or take a few hours, rampaging supporters of then-president Donald Trump had paraded the Confederate battle flag alongside the Stars and Stripes and the Trump campaign banner while calling for the execution of the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives. There, Biden invoked the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, the biblical Gospel of John and the U.S. Constitution in a speech describing what he thought caused the insurrectionist riot of Jan. 6, why those events posed an ongoing danger, and how he intended to “stand in the breach” to fight for the integrity of U.S. democracy.
He didn’t say Trump’s name, which wasn’t unusual for him — “my predecessor” and “the former president” have become Biden’s default ways of referring to He Who Shall Not be Named. Less routine for Biden was that he spent the great bulk of his time at the podium pointedly blaming Trump for the events of Jan. 6, offering a detailed rebuttal to Trump’s “web of lies” including claims of election fraud and revisionist history of the riot, and vowing to fight back against Trump and his supporters, whom he said were holding a “dagger at the throat of America and American democracy.”
“The former president, who lies about this election, and the mob that attacked this Capitol, could not be further away from the core American values,” Biden said. “You can’t love your country only when you win. You can’t obey the law only when it’s convenient. You can’t be patriotic when you embrace and enable lies.”
(Trump, who called off his own plans to commemorate the day with a speech from his Florida resort, responded with at least four separate statements fired out by email, repeating his claims that the election was rigged against him, and saying that Biden and Democrats were trying to politicize the Jan. 6 riot to cover for Biden’s own failings.)
And Biden outlined briefly what he planned to do about it. “I did not seek this fight brought to this Capitol one year ago today, but I will not shrink from it either. I will stand in this breach. I will defend this nation.”
That defence, in the near term, it seems, will consist of attempting to pass voting rights and election integrity legislation that has been stalled in the Senate. While much of his first year in office was spent on COVID-19 policy and pushing forward an ambitious economic agenda — in both cases to mixed results — he appears ready to turn the focus of the start of his second year to the fight to protect democracy through this legislation. He and Vice-President Kamala Harris will appear in Atlanta next week to speak about voting rights, when this emphasis will likely be unpacked in more detail. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has announced that if the voting rights legislation remains stalled until Jan. 17 he will attempt to change the filibuster rules that have allowed Republicans to block it.
Alongside this, Biden promised to carry forward a spirit of neighbourly bipartisanship that increasingly appears to be more a fantasy he publicly engages in than a strategy. “I believe the power of the presidency, and the purpose, is to unite this nation, not divide it. To lift us up, not tear us apart. To be about ‘us,’ not about ‘me.’”
In service of this goal, he said, he wanted to work with his partisan opponents. “Whatever my other disagreements are with Republicans who support the rule of law and not the rule of a single man, I will always seek to work together with them to find shared solutions where possible,” he said.
And then, tellingly, “If we have a shared belief in democracy, then anything is possible.”
Which brings us to the part he didn’t say. What if “we” don’t have a shared belief in democracy? Then, what is possible?
Not a single Republican senator attended his speech or was in the Senate chamber for the day of commemoration that followed. In the House of Representatives, the only Republican apparently in attendance during a moment of commemorative silence was party pariah Liz Cheney.
In the immediate aftermath of the riot last Jan. 6, a majority of the Republican House caucus still voted not to certify the votes reflecting Biden’s election victory.
Among voters, a year later, only 25 per cent of Republicans — and 55 per cent of all Americans — believe Biden’s election was legitimate, as I wrote recently. A plurality of Republican voters in the same poll said it was more important that the “right people” vote to ensure the “best leaders are chosen” than it is that as many people vote as possible.
The current president insists that if all parties are working in good faith on what they believe is a level playing field then democracy functions well for everyone. He says this idea is America. It’s also kind of a truism of democracy. But the opposite is also true — if enough people don’t believe the playing field is level, and will not participate in good faith, then a functioning democracy becomes nearly impossible.
That, as much as the logistics of overcoming the filibuster or protecting the government from armed attackers, is the great crisis Biden faces.
He ended by invoking the words of the Pledge of Allegiance. “Together, we’re one nation, under God, indivisible.” More than at any time in recent memory, that sentence sounded more like an expression of hope than a statement of fact.
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org