In the first moments of his presidency, Joe Biden called on Americans to set aside their deep divisions inflamed by a predecessor he intentionally ignored. He emphasized national unity and appealed to Americans to come together to “end this uncivil war”.
Nearly a year later, as a divided nation reflects on the first anniversary of the 6 January assault on the US Capitol, the uncivil war he sought to extinguish rages on, stronger than ever. In a searing speech on Thursday, Biden struck a different tone.
He said he was “crystal clear” about the dangers facing the nation, and accused Donald Trump and his political allies of holding a “dagger at the throat of America, at American democracy”. In the course of the 21-minute speech, delivered from the US Capitol, Biden offered himself as a defender of democracy in the “battle for the soul of America”.
“I will stand in this breach,” he promised. “I will defend this nation.”
That moment of visceral speech-making marked a shift in strategy for how Biden has chosen to engage Trump – whose name he never uttered but instead taunted as the “defeated former president”.
The decision to break his silence about Trump comes at a challenging moment in Biden’s presidency, with his Build Back Better agenda stalled, the Covid-19 pandemic resurgent and economic malaise widespread. It also reflected the reality that, far from being shunned, Trump remains the most powerful force in the Republican party and a potential rival to Biden in 2024.
Confronting Trump was a calculated risk. Trump seized the opportunity to hurl all manner of insults and accusations at his successor, whose remarks he said were “very hurtful to many people”.
But Biden’s speech was an acknowledgment that there were dangers in continuing to ignore Trump and what Biden called his “web of lies”. Recent polling suggests the vast majority of Republicans believe Trump’s unsubstantiated claims about the election fraud while a growing percentage of Americans are willing to tolerate political violence in some instances.
Republican-controlled states are pursuing a raft of new voting restrictions, motivated in part by the doubts they sowed about the 2020 election results. At the same time, Republicans are passing laws that inject partisanship into the administration of elections and vote-counting while stripping power from and driving power from election officials who resisted pressure to throw out votes or overturn the elections in their state.
“It was essential to be specific about the problem, and the source of the crisis,” said Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. “Otherwise the vague rhetoric, without agency, that we hear about polarization misses the way in which Trump and the GOP are the source of so much instability.”
But he warned that a speech can only do so much. “Without holding people accountable for January 6 and the campaign against the 2020 election, and without real legislation to protecting voting rights and the electoral process, the ‘dagger at the throat of democracy’ won’t go away.”