Saturday, March 9, 2024



Three nights ago, I once again watched The King’s Speech, with brilliant and moving performances by Geoffrey Rush, as an Australian speech therapist with an uncanny talent (but no credentials) for gifting speech to the speechless, and Colin Firth, as the reticent, stammering Prince Albert of Britain, who was to become King George VI, upon the abdication of his older brother, David, who gave up his crown in exchange for the love of a twice-divorced American commoner with a racy reputation—a love story that would resonate throughout the English-speaking world as a popular fairytale for years to come.

Firth and Rush in "The King's Speech"

The following night, I watched, in its entirety, President Joe Biden’s 2024 State of the Union Address, and I couldn’t help but strike a parallel in my mind between the award-winning film and the president’s stunning performance. Granted, Biden has a half-century history in American politics and has learned to tackle public speaking with vigor and aplomb. But like King George VI, Biden has struggled all his life with a speech impediment, a stammer that has always taken great concentration for him to overcome. Journalists and commentators who should have done their research and, as such, should have known better, have far too often, on hearing Biden’s sometimes halting and disjointed speech, echoed the president’s bitterest opponents in misconstruing it as diminished mental faculties, due entirely to the fact that he is, without a doubt, an old—but not, for that, automatically elderly—man.

I suppose the reason I naturally struck the comparison between The King’s Speech and President Biden’s speech was that, at least in my mind, there were unavoidable parallels. In order to be a constitutional monarch at the service of his people, George VI (father of Queen Elizabeth and grandfather of King Charles) had to overcome his crippling stammer and attendant terror of public speaking to become an effective head of state of the British Empire through some of the darkest years in its history. As if that weren’t enough, he also had to clear the hurdle of his unpopularity as the also-ran replacement for the former, if short-lived, heir to the throne, his flamboyant and popular brother David (a.k.a. King Edward VIII).

Biden’s situation is similar. Not only does he follow four years of Donald Trump, which, for better or for worse (worse), reshaped American politics and rendered the Republican Party unrecognizable as the respectable Grand Old Party of yesteryear, but he is also, as a former two-term vice president, “heir to the throne” of Barrack Obama, the most rock-star-popular and dynamic president in living memory, and one of the nation’s youngest and most consequential leaders. And, like George VI, Biden continues to struggle with his life-long speech impediment and with the prejudices of the ignorant and mal-intentioned, who seek to equate that struggle, applying flawed Medieval logic, with unsoundness of mind.

Like George VI, but with the comparative disadvantage of cable TV and a twenty-four-hour news cycle, Biden is under constant observation, with supporters holding their breath that he “doesn’t screw up”, and opponents gleefully awaiting the moment he does. Meanwhile, his political rival, former President Donald Trump, who is only a little more than three years Biden’s junior, screws up consistently. For instance, confusing Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi, confusing the current administration with the Obama administration—once even talking about running against Obama when he meant (or perhaps didn’t) Biden—and failing to pick his own second wife, Marla Maples, out of a photo line-up. Indeed, he even confused Maples with his sexual assault victim, newspaper columnist E. Jean Carroll. And those only form a small portion of his gaffs.

But as Trump himself once said, he could “shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue” and wouldn’t lose any votes. Over the years, if we’ve learned anything about MAGA Republicans, it is that this is shockingly and sadly true.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, vulgar and rude as ever.
That said, anyone listening to, and indeed watching, Biden’s State of the Union Address to Congress on Thursday night heard and saw a rejuvenated and articulate Joe Biden. The octogenarian president was vigorous, energized and upbeat, yet critical and combative, as well as extending an invitation to politicians of all colors to eschew hatred and division, and to negotiate and compromise on major issues for the good of the country, and the world. He was ready for hecklers in the MAGA camp, clearly knew in advance what each of his own statements would elicit, and responded intelligently, often wittily, and with admirable grace to what were clearly rude and vulgar interruptions—led, of course, by the ever crass and inappropriate Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose behavior was so unacceptably boisterous that she was threatened with removal by the Sergeant-At-Arms.

Biden was, in short, how every critic on both sides of the aisle posit he should be—strong, sharp, edgy, in command, but still willing to compromise, within ethical limits, to get what the nation’s people need from a reluctant and, in part, completely renegade Legislature. If anyone attended that historic event either fearing or hoping, depending on their political bent, to hear a confused and bumbling “Sleepy Joe”, they were either pleasantly surprised or bitterly disappointed.

Michigan Representative (D) Debbie Dingle, who was on the floor of the chamber for the speech, said it was “very clear” that her Republicans colleagues were “uncomfortable”, both with Biden’s strong showing, and with loud displays of impropriety from the MAGA sector in their own ranks. That behavior only seemed to underscore Biden’s pointed references to the undemocratic disorder and chaos sown by Trump and his most ardent supporters. Clearly, Republicans had set a miserably low bar for this State of the Union speech, believing their own electioneering hype in thinking that the perception would be that of a confused, doddering old man, who was obviously unfit to serve.

They were about to be disappointed. The president came out swinging from the very beginning, landing a stunning blow to the jaw of the MAGA wing, by opening with a quote from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, in 1941, told Congress: “I address you at a moment unprecedented in the history of the Union.” 
Biden then embraced that idea as his own, saying that, back then: “Hitler was on the march. War was raging in Europe. President Roosevelt’s purpose was to wake up the Congress and alert the American people that this was no ordinary moment. Freedom and democracy were under assault in the world. 
“Tonight I come to the same chamber to address the nation. Now it is we who face an unprecedented moment in the history of the Union. And yes, my purpose tonight is to both wake up this Congress, and alert the American people that this is no ordinary moment either. Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault here at home as they are today. What makes our moment rare is that freedom and democracy are under attack, both at home and overseas, at the very same time.” 

From that moment on, in strong and vibrant terms, he enumerated the things that, against all odds, his administration had been able to accomplish, and passed back to the GOP the bundle of failures that they have sought to lay at his door. At the top of the list was the continued chaos on the US-Mexico border, and in the immigration system as a whole. The president pointed out that while he had managed to prompt a bipartisan solution to the crisis with some of the most conservative members of Congress, the GOP leadership had bent to Donald’s Trump’s personal will in not passing the immigration bill so as to keep from giving Biden a major policy win before the elections. To which far-right Oklahoma Senate Republican James Lankford, mouthed the words “that’s true.” Biden made it clear that, if there was no improvement on the immigration front, the fault was entirely that of Trump-led Republicans, and that their reasons for rejecting the bipartisan solution were strictly a matter of political electioneering.

Lankford - "That's true"
In point of fact, Biden never mentioned Trump’s name in the nearly ninety-minute address, referring to him only as “my predecessor”. But those references were to number a baker’s dozen, always remaining within the initial context of the speech, positing that Donald Trump is a clear and present threat to American democracy.

Nowhere was that clearer than when he said: “Overseas, Putin of Russia is on the march, invading Ukraine and sowing chaos throughout Europe and beyond. If anybody in this room thinks Putin will stop at Ukraine, I assure you, he will not. 

“But Ukraine can stop Putin if we stand with Ukraine and provide the weapons it needs to defend itself. That is all Ukraine is asking. They are not asking for American soldiers. In fact, there are no American soldiers at war in Ukraine. And I am determined to keep it that way. But now assistance for Ukraine is being blocked by those who want us to walk away from our leadership in the world. 

“It wasn’t that long ago when a Republican President, Ronald Reagan, thundered, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ Now, my predecessor, a former Republican President, tells Putin, ‘Do whatever the hell you want.’ A former American President actually said that, bowing down to a Russian leader. It’s outrageous. It’s dangerous. It’s unacceptable.”

Biden went on to underscore the obvious link between Trumpism and authoritarianism, saying: “History is watching… My message to President Putin is simple. We will not walk away. We will not bow down. I will not bow down.  History is watching, just like history watched three years ago on January Sixth, (when) insurrectionists stormed this very Capitol and placed a dagger at the throat of American democracy.” 

Biden continued to drive this point home, saying that the insurrectionists, “had come to stop the peaceful transfer of power and to overturn the will of the people.” 

Recalling the anti-democratic infamy of the chaotic end to the Trump presidency, Biden qualified the historic significance of that incident, saying: “January Sixth and the lies about the 2020 election, and the plots to steal the election, posed the gravest threat to our democracy since the Civil War. But they failed. America stood strong and democracy prevailed. 

“But we must be honest, the threat remains and democracy must be defended. My predecessor and some of you here seek to bury the truth of January Sixth. I will not do that. This is a moment to speak the truth and bury the lies. And here’s the simplest truth. You can’t love your country only when you win. As I’ve done ever since being elected to office, I ask you all, without regard to party, to join together and defend our democracy!”

The president went after Trump and the MAGA Republicans on another burning domestic issue, saying that “history is watching another assault on freedom.” He went on to say that American women’s reproductive rights were under continuing attack following the overturning of Rowe v Wade during the Trump presidency. To make that point, he introduced two women in the audience, one who had had to escape the law in her own state to terminate a pregnancy in which the fetus had a fatal condition and carrying it to term would put her at medical risk and would threaten her ability to have children in the future, and another woman who had also had to leave her state after local laws declared embryos to be people, and the IVF facility where she and her husband were seeking relief from infertility shut down.

Biden described both cases—like thousands of others—as being the direct outcome of the overturning of Roe v Wade, opining, in juxtaposition to the Supreme Court ruling, that Rowe v Wade “got it right.” Taking more precise aim, he said: “Many of you in this Chamber and my predecessor are promising to pass a national ban on reproductive freedom. My God, what freedoms will you take away next?”

In assigning blame for the diminishing of women’s rights, he laid primary responsibility at Trump’s door, saying: “… My predecessor came to office determined to see Roe v Wade overturned. He’s the reason it was overturned. In fact, he brags about it. Look at the chaos that has resulted.”

To the Supreme Court Justices sitting in the front of the chamber, he quoted their Rowe v Wade decision back to them, saying: “In its decision to overturn Roe v Wade the Supreme Court majority wrote, ‘Women are not without electoral or political power.’ No kidding! Clearly, those bragging about overturning Roe v Wade have no clue about the power of women in America. They found out, though, when reproductive freedom was on the ballot and won in 2022…and they will find out again, in 2024.”

Meticulously throughout the evening, the president laid out issues affecting the United States both at home and abroad and underscored how MAGA Republicans are conspiring to stymie any and all solutions, despite Democratic efforts to reach across the aisle and achieve suitable compromises to enact improvements in the state of the union.

But the president also listed his administration’s achievements—all too often given short shrift by detractors and the media in general—despite this overwhelming opposition from the far-right. He touted, among other things, a record fifteen million new jobs in three years, unemployment at fifty-year lows, a record sixteen million Americans starting small business ventures, historic job growth and small business growth for Black, Hispanic, and Asian-Americans, eight hundred thousand new domestic manufacturing jobs, more people having affordable health insurance than ever before, the greatest reduction of the racial wage gap in twenty years, and a drop in inflation from a soaring nine percent to just three percent annually, and six hundred fifty billion dollars in private sector investment in clean-energy production that promised to add thousands of good-paying jobs to the workforce. He praised the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed into law on his watch and promised “buy American” policies would apply to both manufacturing and labor that formed part of the resulting construction projects. And he proudly discussed his administration’s part in taking on Big Pharma to bring down exorbitant drug prices for Americans, specifically talking about the reduction of insulin prices that had already been slashed for seniors from four hundred to just thirty-five dollars a month, with future plans to do the same for the rest of the country’s insulin users.

In short, it was, perhaps, the most political State of the Union Address in history. It was bitterly criticized as such by the MAGA opposition. But that factor also drew certain expressions of disapproval among some of the generally friendly mainstream media.

I disagree. If there was ever a time for a powerfully political State of the Union Address, instead of the usual meaningless waffling that goes with trying to please everyone, it is now. Biden is not wrong. US democracy is facing an existential crisis, the visible authoritarian head of which is Donald Trump, who has hijacked the former GOP and turned it into a cult of personality at his complete service.

Biden spent the first part of his term staying aloof of the fray, while Justice independently took charge of enumerating Trump’s transgressions and turning them into criminal indictments. But as the wheels of justice turn with agonizing lethargy, and it is clear now that insurrectionist and populist autocrat Donald Trump will once again be on the November election ticket, there is no longer any room for Marquis of Queensbury rules.

Democrats must strictly maintain the constitutional rules of democracy at a governmental and legal level, and see to it that they are obeyed by others, especially in the MAGA movement, who would burn it all down and plunge the country into anarchy. But at an electoral level, Biden and his party need to be ready to gird for battle and, when necessary, to get down and punch it out, to paraphrase the late Johnny Cash, in the blood and the snot and the beer.

The most indubitable point that President Biden made in his address last Thursday was the first one: US democracy is under mortal attack by authoritarians both at home and abroad (and all too often in cahoots with each other). The stakes are intolerably high. What is in play, is democracy’s very survival. And like it or not—in the absence of a strong third party conservative candidate willing to torpedo the GOP’s chances for the sake of the nation—re-electing Joe Biden is the only safeguard against democracy’s otherwise certain demise.




Anonymous said...

Well said. I could not agree more.

Joe Stewart said...

I must admit that I haven't read a more glowing response to the latest Biden SOTU speech. Or should I say SOTU yelling match. You missed the part where Mr. Biden said Lincoln Riley instead of Laken Riley. And for him to blame Republicans for not voting for his latest attempt to solve the border crisis is so wrong. If you were to read the bill, it allowed an average of 5000 illegals to enter the country a day for 7 straight days before they would close the border. 5000 A DAY? How about none. When did the onslaught of illegal immigrants start? Shortly after Biden removed the Executive Orders of Trump like stay in Mexico. Since then he's left millions of illegal immigrants enter our country, ship them to cities across our nation and they have no idea where they are. Some cities have tried to give them government issued cards that even allow them to vote. If he was serious about stopping illegal immigrants from entering our nation, he would put Trump's EO's back into law and negotiate in earnest to solve our border problem. We need a POTUS who will ignore political pressures and do what's right. That's neither party, but Trump does have the experience of having done it once before. Congress needs to step up to the plate.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for your comment, Joe.
As for that about, "We need a POTUS who will ignore political pressures and do what's right,"
that's clearly NOT, in my opinion, Donald Trump, whose greatest claim to fame (or infamy) is that he is the first president in history to violate the peaceful transfer of power, the first to lie about winning an election he clearly lost, and, more importantly, the first to try to overthrow American democracy. That, for me, completely trumps (pardon the expression) any perceived "good" he might have done.

Joe Stewart said...

Dan, unfortunately, we'll never know the true results of the election because the courts refused any valid investigation. Trump only filed suit in Georgia and all other suits were made by other groups using the Trump name. Why wouldn't courts allow the investigations? According to the laws any citizen can question the results. It seems as though it was interpreted as any citizen except Trump. Why can't we have paper ballots and have results in one day? Just so you know, I'm not planning on voting for Trump or Biden. I can't wait for the Presidential debates.

Dan Newland said...

The idea that "there was no valid investigation" is simply not true. More than 60 court cases and minute Republican scrutiny of every vote in every swing state proves that to be a falsehood, one perpetrated and perpetuated by Trump and his surrogates. Let's just agree to disagree and leave it at that.