By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
There’s been a lot of coverage and commentary about what President Biden said Thursday about his predecessor, including his pointed failure to mention him by name. I’m more interested in what Biden said about the founding ideals of the nation itself; and how he emphasized some and failed to mention others.
To begin with, the president traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue to give his address from Statuary Hall in the Capitol, where many of the crimes of a year ago were committed. By joining in the commemoration from the Capitol, Biden symbolically endorsed the idea that Congress is the “first branch” of government; the one closest to the people. That’s certainly what the framers of the Constitution believed; in the 18th century, elected legislatures were thought to be the main, and perhaps the only, institution of democracy.
But from the time of Woodrow Wilson, presidents have customarily treated themselves as the true representatives of the people, often noting that they were elected by the entire nation, while members of Congress represent only their districts. Biden still adheres to that tradition — he was the one giving the speech, after all — but nevertheless there he was. It’s also worth noting that only president he mentioned by full name was Abraham Lincoln; and it was to remind the audience that he served as a member of the House, when it met in the room Biden was standing in.
The speech itself, when it comes to the values Biden wants to fight for, was repetitious and conflated a number of ideas. His main subjects were democracy and the will of the people, especially as expressed through the vote; and the rule of law, especially as articulated in the Constitution.
In some ways, these are appropriate and expected themes for a speech on the anniversary of Jan. 6. They also illustrate how Biden sees America: His vision of democracy emphasizes the formal structures of the republic: the Constitution and the rule of law, rather than freedom, liberty and equality. It’s easier to praise these qualities without devolving into blind worship of the Founders. Indeed, the implication is that it is the task of each successive generation to use the tools the Founders created to build a nation that cares about that generation’s ideals.
Thus Biden can claim that “we are a great nation” while also noting that “our founding fathers” were “imperfect.” They “committed to paper an idea they couldn’t live up to but an idea that couldn’t be constrained” (presumably despite their own efforts). They “set in motion an experiment” that future generations — at Gettysburg, Seneca Falls and Selma, Ala. — would continue. For Biden, the great value of the United States is that it “literally changed the world” by giving it the example of modern democracy.
Biden also referred to the Declaration of Independence’s famous assertion that “all men are created equal” (he changed “men” to “people”). But overall, his speech was far more focused on 1787 than 1776. Biden took an oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” but one of the main messages of his speech is that this is a task for all Americans.
And how does Biden propose we do this? Through what he implicitly sees as the great democratic virtue: truth. The word appears 16 times in his speech (“true” gets another five mentions). Perhaps this is simply rhetorical necessity, given that he is speaking against former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. But even if so, Biden seems to regard truth — not equality, not justice (which is unmentioned), not liberty — as critical to America’s ideals: democracy and the will of the people, and the Constitution and the rule of law.
Perhaps this too is Biden’s way of acknowledging both the achievement and imperfection of the Founders. Biden cannot say that they achieved equality, justice or freedom, at least not without a whole lot of disclaimers. But he still wants to say — and he surely believes — that America is a great nation that gave the world democracy. A focus on truth as a democratic virtue allows him to sidestep the whole issue. Yes, 18th-, 19th- and even 20th-century versions of equality, justice and liberty are flawed. But we can still celebrate what the Founders accomplished, and we can contrast their virtues with one of Trump’s most obvious flaws.
And this allows Biden to reclaim the patriotism he so obviously feels: not a backward-looking patriotism of recovering greatness, but a forward-looking patriotism in which America relies on the ideal of truth cherished by the Founders to work toward new re-foundings. That’s how we achieve goals of equality, justice and freedom; which, even if they were conceived of imperfectly by the Founders, can be achieved through the basic structure that they built. In Biden’s vision of America, democracy is again virtually synonymous with the nation.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.