April 29, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Last night’s speech made clear Joe Biden is the most republican president in half a century
Every president since Reagan has focused on individuals. Not Biden.
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Last night’s speech by the president before a (sparsely attended yet still) joint-session of the United States Congress was the most republican speech I have seen. As a matter of fact, Joe Biden may end up being the most republican Democrat of my lifetime.
The last quarter of the speech was a progressive wishlist that can and will be debated ad nauseam till United States Senator Joe Manchin figures out what to do. The great bulk of the address, however, was dedicated to outlining a nationalist vision for the advancement of democracy and the preservation of the republic, by using the power of the government to flatten the hierarchies of power for the sake of the common good.
China, Russia and other autocratic governments loomed large in the speech not only because they pose clear and present dangers to our sovereignty. They loomed large as diametric opposites to the liberal principles of the founding, especially the idea, as the Biden said, that the government is us. “It’s time we remembered that ‘we the people’ are the government,” Biden said. “You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force that we have no control over. It’s us. It’s ‘We the people.’”
From that link—external and internal forces dragging down the republic—he evoked the pang of republican patriotism that few have felt since the days of Kennedy and Johnson.
Just as autocracy offends the republican spirit, so does violence used to cancel rule by democratic majority. The president, amazingly, put internal violence from organized white supremacy on par with external violence from Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other international groups. “White supremacy is terrorism,” Biden said. He went on to establish a link, though implicitly, between terrorism of all kinds and an insurgency incited by an autocrat who rejected the will of the people. From that link—external and internal forces dragging down the republic—the president evoked the dormant pang of republican patriotism few have felt since the days of Kennedy and Johnson.1
Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart? America’s adversaries, the autocrats of the world, are betting we can’t. And I promise you, they’re betting we can’t. They believe we are too full of anger and division and rage. They look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy. But they are wrong. You know it, I know it. But we have to prove them wrong. We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works, and we can deliver for our people.
Democratic presidents don’t talk this way. Not ones in the recent past. They worked from within a prevailing ideological assumption about how government should work, that is, how it shouldn’t. They usually talked about the need to empower individuals by way of education and job-training to compete in the 21st century marketplace. Joe Biden isn’t giving that up. The difference is focus. While presidents since Reagan focused on individuals, Biden is focused on the public—on the republic. Instead of moving around small pieces of the economy, he wants to expand it dramatically.
The American Rescue Plan, the American Families Plan and the American Jobs Plan would altogether invest upwards of $7 trillion into the republic, a vast expenditure we have not seen since the Cold War years when a bipartisan consensus recognized the prudence and wisdom of recommitting to institutions, civil society, but especially learning. The Cold War years saw a massive and rapid expansion of universities, research and development in order to compete Soviet Russia, another one of those anti-republican states. And those investments were largely paid for the way the president hopes to pay for them now: with higher taxes on the very obscenely rich.
I don’t now if we’re seeing the makings of a Cold War II. I do know, however, that 20th-century history suggests that internal threats—in the form of domestic terrorism, mutiny or a political party—can be dampened, or pacified, once the electorate sees that unity is necessary in the national interest. “The rest of the world is not waiting for us,” Biden said. “I just want to be clear, from my perspective, doing nothing is not an option. Look, we can’t be so busy competing with one another that we forget the competition that we have with the rest of the world to win the 21st century.”
Some are going to call Bidenism populist, but that’s only because its policies are popular. (According to a flash poll by CBS News, some 85 percent of viewers approve of the speech.) Better to call it republican—if only to irritate the Republican Party.
I was born in 1974. I can’t recall a president evoking such a pang.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.