Last night, in a speech to honor Independence Day, President Joe Biden used his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic to defend democracy.
Biden urged people to remember where we were just a year ago, and to “think about how far we’ve come.” “From… silent streets to crowded parade routes lined with people waving American flags; from empty stadiums and arenas to fans back to their seats cheering together again; from families pressing hands against a window to grandparents hugging their grandchildren once again. We’re back traveling again. We’re back seeing one another again. Businesses are opening and hiring again. We’re seeing record job creation and record economic growth—the best in four decades and, I might add, the best in the world.”
The president was referring, in part, to the jobs report that came out on Friday, showing that the nation added a robust 850,000 non-farm jobs in June.
But he was also talking about how the United States of America took on the problem of the pandemic. Coming after two generations of lawmakers who refused to use federal power to help ordinary Americans, Biden used the pandemic to prove to Americans that the federal government could, indeed, work for everyone.
The former president downplayed the pandemic and flip-flopped on basic public health measures like masking and distancing. Unlike most European and Asian countries, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, the Trump Administration sidelined the country's public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, considered to be the top national public health agency in the world. Trump downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus out of fear of hurting the stock market, and turned over to states the process of dealing with this unprecedented crisis. The U.S. led the world in COVID-19 deaths. More than 603,000 Americans have died so far.
When he took office, Biden had already begun to use the government response to coronavirus as a way to show that democracy could rise to the occasion of protecting its people. The day before his inauguration, President Biden held a memorial for the 400,000 who had, to that date, died of COVID-19. He put Dr. Rochelle Walensky, a renowned infectious disease expert, at the head of the CDC and reinstated the CDC at the head of the public health response to the pandemic. And he made vaccines accessible to all Americans. Fifty-eight percent of American adults have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus; 67% have had at least one shot. The U.S. has one of the highest vaccine rates in the world and is helping to vaccinate those in other countries, as well.
Biden recalled that the United States of America was based not on religion or hereditary monarchy, but on an idea: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all people are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights—among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
We have never lived up to that ideal, of course, but we have never abandoned it, either. Those principles, he said, “continue to animate us, and they remind us what, at our best, we as Americans believe: We, Americans—we believe in honesty and decency, in treating everyone with dignity and respect, giving everyone a fair shot, demonizing no one, giving hate no safe harbor, and leaving no one behind.”
But, he said, democracy isn’t top down. “Each day, we’re reminded there’s nothing guaranteed about our democracy, nothing guaranteed about our way of life,” he said. “We have to fight for it, defend it, earn it…. It’s up to all of us to protect the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the right to equal justice under the law; the right to vote and have that vote counted; the right.... to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and know that our children and grandchildren will be safe on this planet for generations to come… the right to rise in the world as far as your God-given [talent] can take you, unlimited by barriers of privilege or power.”
Biden’s speech recalled that of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on June 5, 1944, upon the fall of Rome during World War II. It was Italian leader Benito Mussolini who articulated the ideals of fascism after World War I, envisioning a hierarchical world in which economic and political leaders worked together to lead the masses forward by welding them into a nationalistic, militaristic force.
In his 1944 speech, FDR was careful to explain to Americans how they were different from the Italian fascists. He talked about “Nazi overlords” and “fascist puppets.” Then, in contrast to the fascists’ racial hierarchies, FDR made a point of calling Americans’ attention to the fact that the men who defeated the Italian fascists were Americans from every walk of life.
And then he turned to how fascism treated its people. “In Italy, the people have lived so long under the corrupt rule of Mussolini that in spite of the tinsel at the top—you have seen the pictures of it—their economic conditions have grown steadily worse. Our troops have found starvation, malnutrition, disease, a deteriorating education, a lower public health, all byproducts of the fascist misrule.”
To rebuild Italy, FDR said, the troops had to start from the bottom. “[W]e have had to give them bread to replace that which was stolen out of their mouths,” he said. “We have had to make it possible for the Italians to raise and use their local crops. We have had to help them cleanse their schools of fascist trappings….”
He outlined how Americans had anticipated the need to relieve the people starved by the fascists, and had made plans to ship food grown by the “magnificent ability and energy of the American people,” in ships they had constructed, over thousands of miles of water. Some of us may let our thoughts run to the financial cost of it,” he said, but “we hope that this relief will be an investment for the future, an investment that will pay dividends by eliminating fascism, by ending any Italian desires to start another war of aggression in the future….”
FDR was emphasizing the power of the people, of democracy, to combat fascism not only abroad but also at home, where it had attracted Americans frustrated by the seeming inability of democracy to counter the Depression. They longed for a single strong leader to fix everything. Other Americans, horrified by FDR’s use of the government to regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, and promote infrastructure, wanted to take the nation back to the 1920s and in so doing had begun to flirt with fascism as well.
As he celebrated the triumph over democracy in Italy, he was also urging Americans to value and protect it at home.
Biden, too, is focusing on how efficient his administration has been in combating the coronavirus to combat authoritarianism both abroad and at home. With its support for the Big Lie; congress members like Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ), who openly associates with white nationalists; and its attack on voting rights, the modern-day Republican Party is moving rapidly toward authoritarianism. But the former president botched the most fundamental task of government: protecting its people from death. In contrast, more than 60% of Americans approve of how Biden has managed the coronavirus pandemic, with 95% of Democrats approving but only 33% of Republicans in favor.
Biden’s approach appears to be helping to solidify support for democracy. A recent PBS Newshour/NPR/Marist poll showed that two thirds of Americans believe democracy is under threat, but 47%— the highest number in 12 years—believe the country is moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, that number, too, reflects a difference by party. While 87 percent of Democrats say the country is improving, 87 percent of Republicans say the opposite.
Biden conjured up our success over the coronavirus to celebrate democracy: “[H]istory tells us that when we stand together, when we unite in common cause, when we see ourselves not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans, then there’s simply no limit to what we can achieve.”