Biden is finally ‘in the arena’ on the fight of our time


And yet, Biden, of all presidents, seemed perfectly suited to do just that. His decades-long stint in a Senate chamber once hailed as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” predisposed the president to a certain conciliatory disposition toward Republicans. The notion that compromise is not only possible but preferable was the hallmark of the Biden-era Senate. After all, GOP Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t start bludgeoning the chamber’s comity with his partisan club until President Barack Obama set foot in the Oval Office in 2009 with Biden as his No. 2.

Biden’s palpable glee at cementing a deal with Senate Republicans on a bipartisan infrastructure bill seemed only to confirm his preference for the softer touches of persuasion over brass-knuckle partisanship. Sure, he pushed through the American Rescue Plan on party lines, but stalling Build Back Better seemed like a sacrifice Biden was all too willing to make on the road to passing an infrastructure package with the support of a surprising 19 Senate Republicans.

Biden’s bipartisan victory, many pundits noted, proved the theory of the case he had made repeatedly on the campaign trail. In fact, liberals (myself among them) marveled at Biden’s naïveté as he continued to make the case that Republicans would come around if he were president.

“The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House. Not a joke,” Biden had told reporters in 2019, during a campaign stop in Concord, New Hampshire. “You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”

Biden’s overestimation of a party that had cravenly coddled Trump and kowtowed to him at the expense of the country itself seemed disqualifying on its face.

But while a return to good ol’ back-slapping bipartisanship appeared to animate Biden’s approach to governing, it certainly wasn’t the foundation of his candidacy. What got lost in Biden’s yearning for a reversion to decency in Washington was the fact that Donald Trump’s ouster was foundational to his scheme. There was no GOP “epiphany” with Trump still in the scene.

Biden rightly understood Trump and Trumpism to be a malignancy for the nation. In the announcement video for his presidential bid, Biden cited 2017’s deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a “defining moment” when he understood “the threat to this nation was unlike any” he had seen in his lifetime.

“If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation—who we are,” Biden said. “And I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”

But Biden’s miscalculation was believing that Republicans would have the fortitude—or even the desire—to untether themselves from Trumpism if only Trump was defeated at the ballot box. Biden ultimately succeeded in defeating Trump, but it did little, if anything, to extinguish Trumpism, much less rehabilitate the Republican Party.

Over the course of 2021, as the White House engaged seemingly endless negotiations over Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda, the president appeared oblivious to the fact that Republicans were setting up the framework for fascist overthrow of any democratic outcome they didn’t like.

When the year wound down without the completion of Biden’s tantalizing Build Back Better bill, I feared the White House would dedicate all its resources in early 2022 to a full court press on the historic package alongside a noble effort to vanquish the pandemic’s grip on the country.

But this week, President Biden appeared to fundamentally alter the course of his presidency with his uncharacteristically blunt and even combative assessment of the Big Lie advanced by Trump and his Republican conspirators. Biden’s Jan. 6 commemoration speech was far and away the best speech I have seen him give as president, precisely because it recognized the dire threat that both Trump and the GOP pose to the republic.

“You cannot love your country only when you win,” Biden said. “Those who stormed this Capitol, and those who instigated and incited, and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America—at American democracy.”

Biden’s unsparing dissection of the lies Trump has peddled to the American people was as essential as his “He lost” declaration was glorious. Everything from Biden’s candor to his denunciation of Trump and Republicans to his pledge to “defend this nation” against them caught me by surprise.

I dare say that it likely set Republicans back on their heels too. The fact that they all fled town, with the singular exception of Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, epitomized the exact point Biden was making. Republicans’ uniformed absence from the day’s events embodied their glaring betrayal of the country—not to mention the law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line that day to protect U.S. lawmakers, regardless of party or creed.  

On Jan. 6, 2022, President Biden announced that he is in the arena of this existential fight for the country. As Teddy Roosevelt famously said in a 1910 speech, titled “Citizenship in a Republic“:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

The president’s triumph is far from assured. His speech raised immediate questions about whether and how he would continue to prosecute the case against Republicans’ anti-democratic plot and push for crucial voting rights legislation. But Biden’s presence in the struggle is an undeniable boost to the those of us fighting for the survival of this imperfect republic.

It’s a hopeful sign in the face of the GOP’s sustained campaign to subvert the will of the people—a more hopeful sign than I had imagined in the first week of the new year.

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