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Joe Biden’s January 6 Speech Is a Turning Point For His Presidency

Biden’s forceful condemnation of Trump reminded the public that the choice is between democracy and authoritarian rule.

Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images
President Joe Biden gives remarks in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol on the anniversary of the insurrection on January 6, 2021.

Just a handful of sentences into his speech commemorating the insurrection a year ago on January 6, President Joe Biden unveiled the biggest political decision of his presidency.

Instead of tiptoeing around the specter of Donald Trump, Biden went after the former president directly with an intensity unparalleled in modern political memory. “For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election,” Biden declared, his voice dripping with anger. “He tried to prevent a peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob reached the Capitol.”

A few moments later, Biden returned to the same theme—Trump’s complicity in the worst attack on American democracy since the Civil War. After conjuring up the scene of the Capitol a year ago, including the mock gallows for Mike Pence, Biden said, “We didn’t see a former president who just rallied the mob to attack sitting in the private dining room of the Oval Office in the White House watching it all on television and doing nothing for hours as police were assaulted, lives at risk, the nation’s Capitol under siege.”

History provided no template for Biden’s speech.  Traditionally, to mark an anniversary, White House speechwriters look back at what other presidents have said on similar occasions. When Biden gave an address last September 11, his staff could call upon the prior remarks of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

But nothing had prepared Biden to speak on the anniversary of a failed insurrection to overturn a free election. How do you mourn? How do you commemorate? How do you send the message: never again in America?

Biden had the option of speaking obliquely about Trump and his Republican enablers. That’s the route that Kamala Harris, under obvious constraints not to upstage Biden, took in her introductory remarks. “On January 6,” the vice president declared, “we all saw what our nation would look like if the forces who seek to dismantle our democracy are successful—the lawlessness, the violence, the chaos.”  

In contrast, Biden went for the jugular, not the capillaries.

Never uttering Trump’s name, Biden denounced a “former president” whose “bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution.” Biden also went after the ascendent Trumpist GOP, noting that they “seem to no longer want to be the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan, the Bushes.” Living up to Biden’s portrayal of kiss-the-ring Trump sycophants, the political changeling that is Senator Lindsey Graham immediately tweeted, “What brazen politicization of January 6 by President Biden.”

The Biden speech was indeed brazen—brazen in directly confronting Trump’s authoritarian ambitions. It was telling that Thursday morning, before Biden spoke, former White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham told CNN that she saw Trump in the White House on January 6 watching the sacking of the Capitol as he gushed, “Look at all the people fighting for me.’”

No one in politics should feel confident that they know how this speech will play for Biden and the Democrats in 2022 and beyond. It’s not like anyone could have posed a reliable poll question that asked in advance, “If President Biden denounced Donald Trump for trying to overthrow democracy, would that make you more or less likely to vote Democratic in November?” This was a decision that was made totally on gut and instinct.  

Ideally, turning 2022 into a referendum on the future of American democracy might help deter suburban independents and wavering Republicans from voting GOP for Congress and state offices. Because of Trump, this has become a which-side-are-you-on moment of reckoning for old-fashioned Republicans.

Most, like Graham, have made the wrong moral choice. But it was surprising and heartening to read Karl Rove in The Wall Street Journal Thursday morning admit that the Republicans carry a heavy “burden” after January 6. As the GOP partisan–warrior put it, “There can be no soft-pedaling what happened and no absolution for those who planned, encouraged and aided the attempt to overthrow our democracy.”

Much depends on the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack as it prepares for public hearings late this winter or early spring. This will be the moment that tests whether the Biblical injunction that Biden quoted Monday will hold: “The truth shall make us free.” Will it ever be possible for the truth to break through the news silos of today so that a significant fraction of Trump voters accept the former president’s complicity in the January 6 rampage?

There is a temptation on the part of Democratic candidates and strategists to run another cookie-cutter campaign in 2022 talking about economics and “fighting for working families.” While the uneasiness caused by the pandemic and inflation have to be part of Democratic appeal, it cannot obscure the struggle to uphold democracy and demand accountability for last January 6.

At the beginning of his speech in Statuary Hall of the Capitol, Biden referred to a nearby sculpture of Clio, the muse of history. It was an appropriate lead-in to the way that Biden made history with his brutal honesty about the insurrectionist events of a year ago in the Capitol and the White House. Whatever the long-term political verdict, Biden deserves major plaudits for his courage in calling out Trump for deliberately triggering the worst attack on the Capitol since the British in 1814.