05 September 2022

Unifying or divisive? Biden's speech

Last thursday evening, 1 September, United States President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., delivered a speech in Philadelphia, a city of historic significance for Americans. Here is the speech in full:

There is reason to be ambivalent about the appropriateness of this speech, which will likely be seen as hopelessly partisan by his political opponents. I will make three observations concerning the speech.

First, I believe it well illustrates a structural deficiency in the American constitutional system. Unlike many countries, the United States does not distinguish between a head of state and a head of government. A president must function in both of these roles, and it is the rare president who can carry off both well. At a time of political instability or extreme partisanship, one would prefer to see an official with the status of a constitutional monarch or state president reaffirm the importance of respecting the constitution and abiding by its procedures, including accepting the results of an election that one's favoured candidate or party has lost. Because a head of state is guarantor of the constitution and stands above party politics, such an official is in a good position to issue warnings to those factions casting doubt on procedures for obviously self-serving purposes.

A head of government, because he is embedded in a particular party organization, is in a poor position to counsel opponents to respect constitutional procedures. Why? Simply because in so doing he appears similarly self-serving. This poses a barrier to the very people who need to hear these warnings. Biden has placed himself in a position in which he cannot win.

Second, because he is a partisan figure, Biden mistakes his own vision of the country for something like a national consensus, as seen in his words below:

MAGA [Make America great again] forces are determined to take this country backwards — backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.

Of course, there is no national consensus in favour of what is euphemistically described as a "right to choose," a code word for the abortion licence. The country is bitterly divided between those who favour this licence and oppose the Supreme Court's recent Dobbs v Jackson decision on the one hand and those who believe that all human beings from the moment of conception are created in God's image and thus deserve protection on the other. This poses one more obstacle to Biden's opponents taking seriously his otherwise legitimate concerns.

Third, Biden is correct about the danger posed by those whose personal loyalty outweighs their loyalty to their country's constitution and laws--by those willing to follow a disgraced former president who effectively holds America's political institutions hostage to his own outsized ego. Call them MAGA Republicans, if you will. But these people will inevitably perceive Biden as motivated by partisanship during an election year.

Someone needs to say many of the things in this speech. It's just not clear to me that that person is Biden.

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