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Joe Biden’s Bold Defense of American Democracy

In his first joint address to Congress, the president spoke out against the forces that threaten democratic values. That may be what defines his legacy.

Pool/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s presidency now has a lasting theme—one far more powerful than slogans like “Build Back Better” or all the variations on the “American Rescue Plan.” As he delivered his address to a more than half-empty House chamber on Wednesday night, Biden portrayed himself, above all, as the defender of democracy.

Again and again, often in surprisingly personal terms for a formal address, Biden came back to China’s quest for global mastery. Describing his many conversations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Biden told the nation, “He’s deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world—he and others, autocrats, that think that democracy can’t compete in the twenty-first century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus.”

That focus on democratic values, more than anything, may guarantee Biden a place in American history. The president’s team had billed the address as Biden’s “One Hundred Days” speech—an allusion to Franklin Roosevelt, who was first associated with the phrase during the heady launch of his presidency in 1933. (In fact, long before Roosevelt, the term was used to describe Napoleon’s dramatic 1815 return from his exile in Elba and the military campaign that abruptly ended at Waterloo.)

But there are valid parallels to 1933. As Jonathan Alter details in The Defining Moment, his chronicle of the early days of Roosevelt’s administration, important figures on the left as well as the right believed that democracy had failed and America needed an autocrat to confront the Depression. Even liberal columnist Walter Lippmann, one of the founders of The New Republic, told FDR shortly before he was inaugurated, “The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.”

Biden, for his part, defeated a president dripping with contempt for democracy and eager to assume dictatorial powers. “As we gather here tonight,” Biden said late in his speech on Wednesday, “the images of a violent mob assaulting this Capitol—desecrating our democracy—remain vivid in our minds.” The Capitol attack was for Biden an event like Pearl Harbor or September 11, a defining moment that clarified the kind of president he wanted to be.

On a purely rhetorical level, the Biden speech was at times too long and too jarring. This is the occupational hazard of all addresses to Congress because at a certain point the speechwriter’s dream of brevity and eloquence gives way to the political pressures to include one more item. As a result, some of the transitions in the Biden address were abrupt. Within the space of a single breath, the president went from talking about caregivers for the elderly to declaring, “For too long, we have failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis. Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.”

But the speech was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a master class in political artistry. Over the course of a career that stretches from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, Biden has listened to countless presidential addresses from the floor of the House—and he has learned the wisdom of sticking to a single theme. If you listened carefully, he framed almost every major initiative in the speech as a response to the rise of China and the threat of its version of autocracy. Biden said at the beginning of the speech, “We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the twenty-first century. We’re at an inflection point in history.”

Later in the speech, Biden went beyond economic competition to report, “I also told President Xi that we will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific, just as we do with NATO in Europe. Not to start a conflict but to prevent one.” Biden’s only failure in this part of the address was to talk about “human rights” in abstract terms rather than link them directly to the plight of the Uighurs and the assault on democracy in Hong Kong.

His demonization of China may trouble the foreign policy doves. But in political terms, a foreign adversary is often a valuable tool that a president can use to pass legislation and forge national unity. It probably was not lost on Biden that Dwight Eisenhower partly sold the interstate highway system in the 1950s as a way of moving supplies quickly in case of conflict with the Soviet Union.

Biden knows that the point of his presidency is to convince a majority of Americans that democratic norms can be relied on in even the most devastating set of crises. His focus on democracy and his steady, measured demeanor both seemed designed to further that goal. Even before his speech, almost half of all Americans (some 42 percent) viewed him as a moderate, according to an NBC poll released Sunday, which is significantly higher than the number of voters who regarded Barack Obama as a moderate at a similar juncture in his presidency.

Biden attempted to keep up his image as a reasonable centrist confronting unprecedented crises by lowering his voice during the important first half of the speech. He saved almost all the left-wing material in the speech (lines that were impossible to imagine Obama or Bill Clinton delivering) for the second half—at a point when presumably most of the moderate swing voters had clicked away from the speech to lighter fare. “Wall Street didn’t build this country,” Biden said, in words that must have shocked much of the Republican Party. “The middle class built this country, and unions built the middle class.” In another historic moment, Biden said, “All transgender Americans watching at home, especially young people who are so brave, I want you to know that your president has your back.”

No single speech will change the trajectory of a presidency. And for all we know, historians may conclude that the most important political event that occurred Wednesday was the FBI’s search of Rudy Giuliani’s apartment and office. All of Biden’s initial political success in office could be upended by a new coronavirus variant, a major crisis on the southern border, or a Taliban takeover of Kabul as soon as the last American armed forces leave Afghanistan. That’s the inherent problem with placing too much weight on the 100-day mark in a presidency.

But as Biden said in the stirring conclusion to his first address to Congress, “We’ve stared into the abyss of insurrection and autocracy, pandemic and pain, and ‘We the People’ did not flinch.” That alone is a lasting presidential legacy, no matter how the politics of 2022 and 2024 play out.