Analysis: How Biden heaped shame on the Senate in thundering speech


So President Joe Biden turned to shame on Tuesday, thundering at US senators that they’ll be siding with the Confederate President Jefferson Davis over the American President Abraham Lincoln if they don’t vote to change Senate rules. Biden called for sidestepping the filibuster in a procedural vote by next Monday to move toward a vote on a new national voting rights standard.

American voters gave Biden the bully pulpit of the presidency, but they didn’t give Democrats enough votes to end the filibuster in the Senate.

That’s the context behind the speech Biden delivered Tuesday in Atlanta, which was nominally about voting rights but in the President’s telling symbolizes so much more. See his choice of words: “democracy over autocracy,” “light over shadows,” “justice over injustice.”
Some voting rights activists skipped the speech. Grousing that Biden should have done more to push voting rights earlier in his presidency, a coalition of voting rights groups in Georgia boycotted the remarks. Stacey Abrams, the Democrat running for governor there and a voting rights force in her own right, cited scheduling conflicts.

The 50-50 Senate is not new. The math to change the filibuster, impossible since Biden took office, has not changed.

While he has routinely highlighted voting rights as a key issue, Biden has mostly refrained from targeting senators, and Democrats chose to pursue a Covid-19 relief bill, a bipartisan infrastructure package and a social spending and climate change bill, currently stalled, before turning to this.

A moment in history. It may have been fourth in the line of priority, but Biden framed the upcoming vote in the Senate, which currently appears doomed to fail, as a turning point in American history during his speech.

Without singling out Democratic opponents of changing Senate rules, like Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, or skeptics like Jon Tester of Montana or Chris Coons of Delaware, Biden still said every senator would be followed into the history books by this vote.

Shame may not work on Manchin. The Democrat who represents West Virginia, an otherwise Republican-controlled state, has already single-handedly stalled Biden’s social spending and climate change bill.

Manchin wants bipartisanship, even though Republicans have made clear they’re not interested in a voting rights bill, which would counteract state laws to limit mail-in and absentee voting.

Until then, the minority rules. “We need some good rules changes to make the place work better. But getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it work better,” Manchin told reporters before Biden’s speech.

Biden has evolved on the filibuster. He has previously opposed ending the Senate custom, which has been supercharged and weaponized in recent years to grind most Senate business to a halt.

It was news that Biden now supports ending the filibuster. Telling opponents of ending the filibuster that they would be siding with Bull Connor — the notorious segregation-era police chief in Alabama — over Martin Luther King Jr. shows that Biden is all in now.

Shaming senators was new Tuesday, but Biden has tried to build his presidency around a light vs. darkness theme.

“I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness,” he said in accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

Biden’s fear of the US making a lurch toward authoritarianism motivated his decision to come out of retirement and run for president, and it is a frequent theme in his speeches.

He’s often used words similar to the ones he spoke Tuesday.

“The goal of the former President and his allies is to disenfranchise anyone who votes against them, simple as that,” Biden said, describing voting roadblocks passed in multiple states since his election. “The facts won’t matter. Your vote won’t matter. They’ll just decide what they want and then do it. That’s the kind of power you see in totalitarian states, not in democracies. We must be vigilant.”

Back in July during a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Biden foreshadowed Tuesday’s speech when he said the world is wondering what America will do: “We have to ask: Are you on the side of truth or lies; fact or fiction; justice or injustice; democracy or autocracy?”

During an October speech at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, he also said this voting rights effort was a moment in history. “We now face an inflection point in the battle, literally, for the soul of America,” he said. “And it’s up to us, together, to choose who we want to be and what we want to be.”

Biden isn’t the only one using this type of language. Republicans, increasingly, are using the term “authoritarian” to describe mask and vaccine requirements to protect Americans against Covid-19.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential presidential candidate in 2024, used the term Tuesday.

“Florida has become the escape hatch for those chafing under authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions,” DeSantis said in a State of the State speech.

That’s another choice Americans can make. Is limiting access to voting authoritarian? Or is requiring masks in public places during the pandemic?


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