Alliance is more powerful than disinformation
After a year of all-pervading crisis, stumbling out of inherited failures, grinding the wheels of legislative process, and lingering pandemic distortions of everyday experience, Biden is going on offense.
When Joe Biden became President, one year ago today, his task was perhaps most eloquently expressed by the poetry of Amanda Gorman:
This is the era of just redemption… We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation, because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation…
He was sworn in two weeks to the day after a mob of violent extremists attempted to cancel millions of votes by a paramilitary attack on the Capitol Building, the very place he would take the oath. The inauguration came at a moment of fragility and reckoning, when a nation sought healing and a refreshment of Americans’ long experience of the peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another.
Whether that moment of clarity and peace would have real transformative effect would depend on how ready Americans of all backgrounds were to leave behind the combative mindset of the preceding 4 years. During those years:
Supporters of Trump were radicalized by disinformation to believe everyone other than Trump was a mortal threat to their values.
Tens of millions of opponents quietly, and sometimes loudly, committed to resisting Trump’s abuses.
One of the grave degradations that Trump’s time in office imposed on the American civic space was the idea of the omnipotent leader.
The President of the United States is a public servant; the powers of the office are constrained on all sides by law, and by the authority of other public officials, including the federal legislative and judicial branches, and the rightful authority of states and municipalities.
The President is not a ruler, thankfully. The President does not have power to decide and correct all things occurring in all of our lives.
This fact is an integral part of the defense of human rights and liberty, but the ceaseless disinformation of the Trump years flooded our everyday news with the opposite idea; the President’s thoughts, feelings, words, and decisions, were treated as directly impacting all things.
We need to escape the madness of that authoritarian mindset.
President Biden has worked to move major legislative initiatives through Congress, at a time of great need, but without having persuaded enough Americans that his office is not all-powerful, and without having broken the allegiance of elected officials to nonsense lies and anti-social innuendo. That one person cannot unblock the politics of a divided Congress is not shocking; the system was designed to prevent any one person or faction from having absolute control.
He now faces a test not only of his political abilities, but of the institutions of our democratic republic. He said in his inaugural address that “Disagreement must not lead to disunion,” and he promised to “fight as hard for those who voted against me as I will for those who voted for me.”
When those who voted against him are being told lies about what transpired in the White House from 2017 through 2020, and about the nature of our political institutions, that will mean forcefully working to benefit his opponents in ways they will never acknowledge.
President Biden is also uniquely aware of this challenge. A year ago, he cited St. Augustine, who said “A people is a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” He then listed a number of those objects of affection that should, an in fact do, unite most Americans: “Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, and yes: the truth.”
Instead of working with the President toward those cherished common values, seditious pro-Trump extremists and institutional Republicans pretending to align with Trump have gambled on the “death by a thousand cuts” strategy. They oppose everything Biden tries to do for the benefit of ordinary Americans, in hopes Biden will be blamed for failing to provide the help needed. They are even, as we speak, organizing to oppose the protection of voting rights and the prevention of partisan manipulation of elections.
There are three major fault lines that make their strategy not only immoral, but unwise:
Trump is rapidly losing popularity among Republican primary voters, most of whom agree with then Vice President Pence that it was not lawful to unilaterally cancel millions of votes and overturn Biden’s election.
The famed Republican unity is in fact a very uncomfortable arrangement everyone within it expects will be temporary, and the extremists and the institutionalists all want the other side to give up their ghost.
The American people will soon remember that, in the words of one federal judge, “Presidents are not kings,” and so legislators who oppose improvements to everyday wellbeing will be blamed for their cynical actions.
In 2-hour press conference yesterday, President Biden redoubled his commitment to show up as a servant of all Americans, speaking forcefully about the hard work of addressing ordinary Americans’ needs in a time of great challenges:
He put before the American people the big question of what, exactly, his opponents stand for, other than causing the country to fail in hopes of taking power at the next election.
He pointed out the cowardice of public officials who use their office to serve a defeated insurrectionist facing multiple criminal investigations, who never exhibited even a hint of decency to anyone.
He recognized that Americans don’t want him to be “the president-senator”, but to be an effective President, conscious of and committed to honoring their rights and wellbeing.
He promised to get out into the community more, to listen to and connect with Americans of all backgrounds, to build common cause, and to reinvent this moment of necessary national reinvention.
And, by simply delivering yesterday’s press conference, the longest in America history, he brought another corrective truth into the national spotlight: his opponents’ lies about his health and mental acuity are just that, lies; he is present, engaged, and on the job.
This will not stop his opponents from attacking; it will not stop the flood of disinformation working to usurp the personal political sovereignty of tens of millions of Republican-leaning voters. But, more truth and forthrightness, more of what he was elected for, operating in full public view, will make it harder to cut those voters off from truth and make decisions for them about who is and who isn’t working in their interest. More direct engagement with the American people would be a welcome way of building trust amid a terrible trust deficit.
The last time inflation was at the levels seen in 2021 was 1982. Ronald Reagan was being blamed for economic conditions playing out across the country. Americans were unsure of Reagan’s commitment to their everyday wellbeing, and his public support plunged to the low 40s. His chances of re-election in 1984 would be contingent on his ability to convince Americans that he was on their side against forces he would fight to manage, even if they couldn’t be controlled by any one person in high office.
President Biden faces a similar challenge now. He must convince tens of millions of Americans who were told he was their enemy that he is in fact their ally, and one who is actively working every day to defend them against forces beyond their control. This isn’t just about Biden’s own political prospects; it is about whether the relationship between the White House and the American people is in good health for the overwhelming challenges of our moment.
One year into Joseph R. Biden, Jr.’s complicated project of national healing, we are not healed. Many worry the nation’s institutions are not well suited to guard against economic hardships that come with pricing booms for stocks and real estate, and the ways that capital surge translates into everyday cost of living.
Year 2 of Biden’s presidency will now shift to the work of demonstrating that alliance is more powerful than disinformation.
Biden’s fiercest opponents are in fact without allies in the current calculus. Trump stands only for himself, and his would-be heirs are just as selfish. They threaten and cajole their own partisans and supporters, while spreading peril and providing few solutions to any real problems. The Republican Party is straining to recover even the language of its long-held values.
The Bully Pulpit of the Presidency is not defined by authoritarian power; it is made powerful by what materializes when the President is understood to be an ally of ordinary people. Power, in a healthy democracy, lies with the people.
Today, Amanda Gorman has given us another luminous poetic rendering of our spiritual moment:
Our nation is still haunted by disease, inequality and environmental crises. But though our fears may be the same, we are not. If nothing else, this must be known: Even as we’ve grieved, we’ve grown; even fatigued we’ve found that this hill we climb is one we must mount together. We are battered, but bolder; worn, but wiser. I’m not telling you to not be tired or afraid. If anything, the very fact that we’re weary means we are, by definition, changed; we are brave enough to listen to, and learn from, our fear. This time will be different because this time we’ll be different. We already are.
We have great and heavy work to do, kindling a shared understanding of our republic and living a process of just redemption. We have a decent and experienced public servant in the White House. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity. It is time for telling the truth about what it means to work in alliance with those who hold only the power inherent in their own humanity.