This was the speech many have been waiting for for months: the President standing in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and speaking the truth about the democracy-defying January 2021 insurrection. Conciliatory softness would just not do for the first anniversary of the lethal violence when a mob, incited by the former, defeated President, tried to overthrow an election and subvert the U.S. Constitution.
Did he change any minds among Donald Trump supporters? Probably not. But the American electorate needs to know how imperiled our democracy was on that day – and how it remains even more so today. We are at an inflection point in history. We must work to protect the right to vote, a foundational commitment in our national narrative, the theme uniting Lexington and Concord, Gettysburg, Seneca Falls and Selma, Alabama.
Biden painted the picture, revealed in testimony before the Special Committee to Investigate January 6th, of the former President sitting in the White House dining room contentedly watching for hours as hundreds of enraged and lethally armed rioters breached the walls of Congress, attacked the Capitol Police, invaded the Senate and House chambers and offices, drove members of Congress away from the process of certifying the election results, and caused multiple deaths and 140 injuries. As President Biden reminded us without naming Donald Trump, the former President’s bruised ego was more important to him than the will of the American people and the security of the country.
Yet, here we are, a year later, with most Republicans still believing and perpetuating Trump’s Big Lie, that the 2020 election was stolen. Even potentially reasonable Republicans in Congress are cowed into silence, fearful of Trump’s efforts to destroy their political careers if they speak the truth. Appropriately, Biden detailed the events around that “most scrutinized” election in American history, replete with recounts and audits, none of which proved any cheating that would have changed the outcome, all legal claims rejected by the courts.
So the “battle for the soul of America,” which Biden first evoked in reaction to the August, 2017 murder by truck at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, endures to this day. The fight for voting rights protections as drafted in the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act is on life support. Because of uniform Republican opposition, the only hope lies in a carve-out of Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes to pass it. Elements of proposed rules changes vary, and there’s also room for negotiation on some of the proposed legislation. This may be the most important challenge the Democrats face because failure to act could lead to the result Trump and his minions sought in 2021.
Biden’s challenge ahead includes persuasive messaging. The man who stood today before the American people was not the weak, aged, even senile President that Fox News like to paint. It’s not hyperbole to acknowledge that American democracy is under greater threat today than at any time since the Civil War. If we are to meet that challenge, the President who spoke today is the one who must show up as the leader of a renewed and sustained movement to get the people to understand what’s at stake. The fact that we have survived serious crises in the past is no reason for complacency. COVID, climate change and China are real issues, but – long term – none is more important than saving our democracy, the noble experiment launched by our Founding Fathers – which Benjamin Franklin extolled as “A republic, if you can keep it.”