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Is Biden’s Favorite Phrase a Sign of Urgency or Desperation?

The president has been calling everything an “inflection point” this month.

Joe Biden
Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s rhetoric has reached an inflection point. In recent weeks, the president has been discovering “inflection points” everywhere. And that’s no malarkey. Here is a sampling from just the last two weeks:

At the United Nations, in a quote that the Biden team later highlighted on Twitter: “We stand, in my view, at an inflection point in history.”

Speaking about the economy from the East Room of the White House: “I believe we’re at an inflection point in this country—one of those moments where the decisions we’re about to make can … literally change the trajectory of our nation.”

Addressing world leaders about climate change on a video conference: “I wanted to show that we’re at an inflection point, and that there’s a real consensus … that while the climate crisis poses an existential threat, there is a silver lining.”

The precise words that a president uses matter since they offer a window into his thinking. White House speechwriters might test-market a new phrase on their own without direct orders from the president. But the constant repetition of the same line is an unequivocal indication of presidential ownership.

For Biden, “inflection point” has become his favored verbal method of grabbing people by the lapels and shouting, “There’s no going back—we’ve got to change.” Biden put it bluntly in welcoming Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to the White House last week, “We are at an inflection point; things are changing. We either grasp the change and deal with it, or we’re going to be left behind, all of us.”

The president has also used this turn of phrase to describe the quest for racial justice. In June, commemorating the 1921 Tulsa racial massacre, Biden said, “At some point, there will be a reckoning, an inflection point, like we’re facing right now as a nation.”

Biden’s expansive view of inflection points both explains and justifies his far-reaching ambitions as president. It would have been tempting after the pandemic and the Trumpian threat to democracy to offer the nation the balm of restoration. That was certainly Biden’s initial approach, during the 2020 primaries, as he referred to his years with Barack Obama in almost every sentence. But Obama 2.0 morphed into something more expansive with the arrival of the pandemic, in March 2020. Now the surprise of Biden’s bumpy tenure in the White House is that the 78-year-old president believes that the old days are gone for good—and the challenge for the future is mastering the flux. 

Inflection point is ubiquitous in the language these days, which is why Biden’s excessive use of it has barely registered on the rhetoric meter. But its history as a popular term is surprisingly recent.

Until the mid-1990s, inflection point was almost exclusively a mathematical concept, defined as “a point on a curve at which the curvature changes from convex to concave or vice versa.” (I hope you got that because it will be on the midterm.)

But then Andy Grove, the founder of Intel, started talking and writing about “strategic inflection points” in business, which he defined as “what happens to a business when a major change takes place in its competitive environment.”

The 1990s were the decade when the language of Silicon Valley transformed the business vocabulary. Initially, Grove’s “inflection points” were brandished by strategic consultants as a fancy way to tell executives, “Change or die.” But before long, the vogue concept migrated to foreign policy, politics, and, yes, journalism by people whose grasp of math stopped with the multiplication tables.

Biden, based on database searches, first used the term in a 2009 commencement address at Syracuse University, where he had attended law school. The vice president enthusiastically embraced the concept, employing it five times in the speech, and even implied a certain degree of originality. As Biden put it, “Only a handful of us have been alive at a time when we can actually—not rhetorically—actually shape the course of history. I call these inflection points.” (In 2009, so did a lot of other people.) But the temporary infatuation with “inflection points” may have been  a speechwriter’s flourish, since Biden rarely went in that artistic direction during his vice presidential years.

When he did use the words, it was usually in a foreign policy context. There was a 2014 op-ed on trade in The Financial Times in which Biden stated, “The global economy is at an inflection point.” And in a 2015 speech in Atlanta, Biden talked about how the world stands at an “inflection point” comparable to the rebuilding of Europe after World War II.

The language of foreign policy is filled with tendentious phrases about “the movement of tectonic plates” and, yes, “inflection points.” And reading dozens of articles about global affairs and chatting with academic experts during his prepresidential years is probably how inflection points became embedded in Biden’s mindset.

Still, the term wasn’t one he trotted out regularly during his presidential campaign, with no mention in either of his debates with Donald Trump. But at two key moments during the 2020 campaign, Biden resorted to the inflection point construct. In his convention speech, offering a dramatic contrast to Trump’s hatred and vitriol, Biden declared, “America is at an inflection point. A time of real peril, but extraordinary opportunities.” And in his belated victory statement on the Saturday after the election, Biden likened the current moment to other presidential inflection points in American history: Lincoln in 1860, FDR in 1932, Kennedy in 1960, and Obama in 2008.

Once in the White House, Biden consigned inflection point to the rhetorical cupboard like a fancy plate only to be brought out for special occasions, usually involving foreign policy. In a mid-February address to the Munich security conference, Biden said, “We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that … autocracy is the best way forward … and those who understand democracy is essential.” In similar fashion, Biden used the term in his April 29 address to Congress to describe “competition with China and other countries to win the twenty-first century.”

But Biden as president only uttered the words inflection point 10 times prior to September, plus once in a written statement. That changed this month as Biden went into inflection point overdrive.

This rhetorical shift could be a coincidence or a sign of creative burnout by White House speechwriters. But more likely, the overuse of these words reflects Biden’s realization that his presidency is in crisis. Danger lurks everywhere, from the virulence of the delta variant to the fires and floods of climate change. As Mitch McConnell chortles, Capitol Hill threatens to spin out of control from recalcitrant and rambunctious Democrats. And the visual imagery is haunting, whether it is remembered scenes of the abject retreat from Afghanistan or the current harassment of Haitians at the border.

In another era, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Today Joe Biden sees inflection points—and prays that the change will be for the better and not the worse.