The president went to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia to deliver remarks about the patriotism, sanctity and valor in voting. He came to add fervor to the growing tower of dispiriting facts.
President Joe Biden warned against the assault on voting rights that has come from a Republican Party steeped in fear and grievance, a corps of citizens who believe in a fairy tale about a stolen presidential election and a band of insurrectionists who want to set fire to democracy because they can’t stand the reality of who gets to participate in it.
“They want to make it so hard and inconvenient that they hope people don’t vote at all. That’s what this is about,” Biden said.
The president rattled off dire numbers: 17 states have enacted 28 bills to make it harder for Americans to vote. He encouraged Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. He reminded his audience — not the choir of about 300 lawmakers, activists and admirers in the room, but those recalcitrant souls listening remotely with more than a little partisan disdain — that the world was watching and judging.
“We’ll be asking my Republican friends in Congress and states and cities and counties to stand up, for God’s sake. And help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our election and the sacred right to vote,” Biden said.
Then he asked: “Have you no shame?” From every indication in states such as Texas, Georgia and Arizona, shame — along with guilt and regret — has gone missing from the American psyche.
In his Tuesday afternoon remarks, the president didn’t say anything new or profound. After all, how many different ways can one tell the story of how long it has taken for America to move from its original declaration of “We, the people” to the point at which those words actually include most of its citizens?
Biden didn’t fly on Air Force One and motorcade through the streets of Philadelphia simply to reiterate the facts as they are known. He came to create a visual narrative about patriotism, to pull hard on the emotions with cinematic urgency, to be plain-spoken about the dangers to which the country is at risk. Biden leaned into a microphone to express his anger and disgust at the attack on American suffrage. He came to rouse the populace.
He dressed for this day in a sharp suit and dusky-blue tie with a flag pin affixed to his lapel. The president, who regularly runs late, stepped onstage some five minutes early for his scheduled speech. He stood before a row of flags at a lectern adorned with the presidential seal and assured “folks” that it was “no joke” that the country’s allies in NATO and the Group of Seven are wondering if our democracy is at risk. He made it clear that he believes our friends are right to worry.
He used a bit of profanity for emphasis, noting that some antagonists want people “to drive a hell of a” long way to be able to vote. And then he excused his language, which was beside the point because he had already put his blue-collar agitation on the public record.
Biden’s voice rose and fell as he warmed to his subject; he whispered and he shouted for emphasis. He preached a little. He pointed out his favored politicians in the room. He acknowledged Al Sharpton — a very public gesture to a man many see as impolitic. At a time when some argue that the only way to quash the flames licking at democracy is by dynamiting Senate rules that require 60 votes to pass legislation rather than a simple majority, Biden held to diplomacy. He did not discuss the filibuster. But he didn’t hold his tongue.
The president argued against politics, even though it is as omnipresent as oxygen. He dismissed the hunger for power as craven and un-American — even though that is the bullhorn that amplifies his own voice. Instead, he aimed to sell the version of America that lives outside of Washington and Capitol Hill and the broader ecosystem of consultants, pollsters and exasperated voters. He pointed toward an America that is reflected back by Hollywood, where stories of goodwill and sacrifice are set to stately bass lines and gospel-tinged voices lifted in harmony.
“There’s real peril in making raw power, rather than the idea of liberty, the centerpiece of the common life. [The] founders understood this. Women of Seneca Falls understood this. The brave and heroic foot soldiers of the civil rights movement understood this,” Biden said.
“So must we.”
The president didn’t offer precise guidance on how he would safeguard the vote. Instead, his was a boisterous reminder of how unsafe that right has become. He quoted the late congressman John Lewis, the civil rights icon after whom the voting rights act is named. “Freedom is not a state, it’s an act. And we must act. And we will act. For our cause is just, our vision is clear and our hearts are full,” Biden said. “For America itself, we must act.”
And as the president finished speaking, the event’s soundtrack came up — echoing across YouTube and Twitter, where the speech was live-streamed. It featured the vibrato of John Legend singing lines from “Preach”: “I can’t see the use in me crying, if I’m not even trying to make the change I want to see.”
And then the soundtrack launched into Legend’s opening verses of “Glory.” The song, from the film “Selma” about the fight for suffrage, draws a direct line from the civil rights marches of the 1960s to the continued call for racial equity. It’s a song that merges gospel with rap, past with present, fact with the rousing motivation of Hollywood.
The president raised his fist in determination and waded into the crowd. And the crowd cheered with fervor — even as the facts remain the same.