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A norm breaker in the White House

When a presidential address turns into a campaign rally

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden wave after the president's speech outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pa.. Associated Press/Photo by Matt Slocum

A norm breaker in the White House
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Last Thursday night, President Biden made a major national address from Philadelphia’s venerable Independence Hall. This was supposed to be a speech from the president as the president and not as a candidate or a party leader. The airtime was not purchased. Rather, it went out to the citizens of the country as though it were a State of the Union address, an announcement of a major policy change (such as President Nixon’s decision that the United States would abandon the gold standard), or a commitment of the nation’s forces to war.

In fact, however, the speech contained none of these things. The context was wrong for a State of the Union address. No policies were announced. There was no declaration of American forces joining the fight in some far-flung part of the globe.

What, then, was the reason to ask all Americans to turn their attention to the public airwaves? The president cast himself as the defender of equality and democracy as though those ideals face an existential threat. And from whom does this existential threat come? The answer is simple. It comes from his predecessor, Donald Trump, and from the “MAGA Republicans.”

It is difficult to accept the idea that President Biden actually believes what he said in Philadelphia. As others have noted, groups aligned with the Democratic party have actually donated some $44 million to the campaigns of MAGA candidates in primaries in various states. Why would they do that? Because they obviously believe a MAGA candidate will be easier to defeat than a more traditional Republican.

Let’s work out the logic then. The MAGA Republicans are so great a threat that all decent Americans must rally against them. Yet, Democrat-aligned groups have donated money to MAGA candidates in the current cycle. Are they the greatest threat to the republic or just the threat that can be used most effectively to generate votes during election season? The answer to that question clearly appears to be the latter. A speech that is supposed to unite Americans (oddly by carving out about a third of them for calumny) looks like a remarkably cynical exercise.

The Philadelphia speech is the second action taken by the president in a short period that looks to be calibrated to overcome the traditional obstacles the president’s party faces in the midterm elections. President Obama, despite his great popularity, suffered significant setbacks in the midterms. The same happened to then President Trump. Staring at the likelihood of a similar outcome, President Biden first brazenly exceeded the executive power by spending many hundreds of billions of dollars to forgive student debt, an action even Nancy Pelosi did not believe he could take. A more transparent and transactional play for votes during an election season could scarcely be imagined. Second, and equally devastating to the American political culture, he now has turned a major national address into a campaign commercial and demonized a third of the country.

A speech that is supposed to unite Americans (oddly by carving out about a third of them for calumny) looks like a remarkably cynical exercise.

When you consider some of the rhetoric in the speech, the use of left-wing taglines and stratagems is obvious. What do these terrible “MAGA Republicans” want to do?

They want to remove “the right to choose.” The right to choose is one of the greatest euphemisms and violations of plain speech of all time. There is a sense in which literally any bad thing we might imagine could be covered over with such a phrase. What about something positive such as the right to choose where your child goes to school? In this case, the right to “choose” means a supposed right to end an unborn life.

“They” want to take away the right to contraception. Do they really? Has any Republican ever campaigned on such a thing? I still recall Mitt Romney’s befuddlement when George Stephanopoulos raised the issue with him in 2012. Or could it be that the Democratic party believes single women can be motivated to vote at the merest hint of such a threat? Or are they redefining birth control itself?

They want to remove “the right to marry who you love.” As we go through the list, one might recognize that the concerns listed here are hardly the ones we associate with MAGA, which has been focused on trade policy, illegal immigration, American jobs, and law and order. Again, the conclusion seems pretty obvious. The Biden White House is hitting issues they think favor them in order to bolster their odds in the midterm elections. These things have little to do with the supposed lawlessness of Donald Trump’s supporters.

However, let’s be fair and concede that Donald Trump was a norm breaker and didn’t respect American political culture. We could highlight many examples about the former president’s rhetoric and conduct that are indefensible. But at what point will President Biden be correctly viewed as himself a threat due to his breach of the separation of powers and his abuse of the president’s authority to address the nation for the purpose of simple campaign propaganda? President Biden could have used the occasion to call the nation to a common defense of democratic self-government. Instead, he held a political rally meant only to score points.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker serves as dean of arts and sciences and professor of political science at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He is a research fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the author of three books (The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student's Guide, and The System Has a Soul).

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