Joe Biden’s National Address Raises the Question: How Many Times Can a Nation Be Saved?

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    Joe Biden’s National Address Raises the Question: How Many Times Can a Nation Be Saved?

    The question going into President Joe Biden’s address last night was not one of policy but of positioning: Would he appeal once more to the fiction of unity as a bipartisan endeavor? The answer, thank God, was no. Inasmuch as he rose above division it wasn’t through shallow bromides but by the depth of his proposed spending, $6 trillion. He was not there to “pitch,” as so much of the press likes to describe presidential addresses, in terms borrowed from sales. Except for the briefest of nods to Republican proposals, Biden came to argue. That’s what we do in a democracy, and if he was there to argue for rather than against, his speech was not, as some pundits raced afterward to frame it, respectful of Republicans. Mostly, he just ignored them. 

    “Incredibly ambitious, some would say aggressive, policy proposals,” said Anderson Cooper, as if it was a depending-on-how-you-look-at-it kind of deal. But in Biden’s speech ambition and aggression weren’t a one-or-the-other proposition. Ambitious? Obviously. Aggressive? That too. “We are all created equal,” he nearly shouted. He sounded mad. How could he not? It’s an ideal we’ve never embodied, but under Trump, we stopped even pretending to try. The center did not hold. Biden said “build back” but in the most bracing moments of his speech he proposed, with grief and anger as much as hope, to build what has not been before, to attempt to build not only what we can but something resembling, at least, that which is needed. Such is the ambitious, aggressive Democratic Party that Donald Trump unwittingly summoned into being. 

    It’s a party that at long last seems to be aiming not merely to echo in milder terms Reagan’s mindless banal, his mockery of what he dubbed in 1986 the “nine most terrifying words”: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” I’m from the government, Biden declared, clearly and with force. “It’s time we remembered,” he said, “that ‘We, the people’’’—a phrase MAGAnauts attempted to make over as a mantra for insurrection—“are the government.” And then, tenderly—his real rhetorical strength—“you and I.”

    “He is making it look easy,” observed one Twitter fan, “not sounding his age.” In fact, he sounded exactly his age: an old man looking backward, past the calculation and conflation of ego and ambition that weather vaned his prideful prime; to the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, to a childhood lived in a country made—saved, he would have been taught in the Democratic Party of his youth—by FDR’s New Deal. 

    But if the answer to the question going into the speech was given in the visionary negative, the answer to the question the speech inadvertently raised—how many times can a nation be saved?—is less certain. In a line that met Trump’s “American carnage” on a dark plain, Biden declared, “we have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy, of pandemic and pain.” We the people, he said, “did not flinch.” 

    But, of course, so many of us did. Not just Republicans but also so much of the media Trump named “enemy of the people,” now laundering Ron Johnson and Rick Scott and other insurrectionists through the great normalizing engine of cable “chat.” The great white outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter has subsided. It never actually made it to a majority; now it’s slipped to 37%, while the belief that police treat racial groups equally has actually spiked, to 69%. Ostensibly liberal consultants beg the party to drop police reform. And to speak of our great and ongoing turning away from the pain of the pandemic—the pain of others—in states both red and blue as resolute is…there are no words. Only numbers. Roughly 400,000 the day Biden was inaugurated. Nearing 600,000 now.

    Some will say such a statement of fact is unfair. It’s true that this endless wave of death was set in motion by Trump, and it’s undeniable that it’s been slowed by the Biden administration. Do the nearly 200,000 dead since January 20 care? Are their deaths any less heartbreaking because we have a government that’s trying to prevent them instead of one that thinks they don’t matter? 

    The dead are still dead. Here among the living, the Senate and House insurrectionists remain in office and ever more loyal to the man who boastfully oversaw the greatest loss of American life since the last civil war. 

    “If you gaze long into the abyss,” Nietzsche wrote (as Biden’s speechwriters surely know), “the abyss gazes also into you.” We’ve looked, long and hard, and damage has been done, and our losses are real. “One of the defining images of this crisis,” said Biden, “has been cars lined up for miles.” The ghost of his stammer here added resonance. “Cars,” he said again. Then, “nice cars.” Nice cars, lined up. “Waiting”—the tender voice—“for a box of food to be put in their trunk.”

    Cars in food lines: a New Deal image for an SUV age. A sorrowful image, but also one government exists to resolve. Biden has; he will. And yet there were other, unspoken images in the room last night that will linger too, unanswered—the chamber door once-shattered, at which just months ago we watched law enforcement agents aim their guns, their guns, and the black ribbon striping every two seats between souls in the gallery, like the mourning bands for the missing that we never wore.

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    Published at Thu, 29 Apr 2021 17:39:16 +0000

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