West News Wire: Presidents are indelibly associated with their most famous quotes or catchphrases, which become inextricably linked to their place in history. America is now in the morning, declared Ronald Reagan. America was promised change and optimism by Barack Obama. Donald Trump promised to restore America’s greatness. However, their catchphrases can encapsulate their message, reveal their attitude, and even betray their worldview. For example, they may use phrases regarding lip-reading or the definition of “is” that they would rather not say.
Joe Biden has already chosen his favoured pitch over time. He stated in 2017, following the gloom of Charlottesville, “We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation.” Biden highlighted the battle for that soul again in his 2020 and 2024 campaign announcements and has revisited it in multiple speeches. It is ominous and a bit vague John Anzalone, Biden’s 2020 pollster, complained during that race that no one knows what “soul of America” means and that the line “doesn’t move the needle.” But it does provide the rationale for Biden’s candidacy and presidency. Under Trump, Biden contends, America was becoming something other than itself.
When this president muses on the American soul, on what the nation is and what it may become, another Biden quote really just a single word that also stands out is brought up. It’s still.
In the same post-Charlottesville piece, Biden stated, “We have to demonstrate to the world that America is still a beacon of light.”
In a speech to a joint session of Congress in April 2021, he said, “We have to prove democracy still works, our government still functions, and we can provide for our people.
“We are still an America that believes in honesty and decency and respect for others, patriotism, liberty, justice for all, hope, possibilities,” the president said in a speech in September at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where he asserted that the foundations of the Republic were under assault by MAGA forces. “We are still, at our core, a democracy.”
Biden’s “still” has an insistent quality that borders on stubbornness. Its underlying premise is that many Americans may no longer have faith in the nation’s declared ideals or confidence that they will last for very long, and that we must be convinced of either their worth or their durability. A declaration of belief is made when one claims that America is a democracy. To argue that we still have a democracy is to acknowledge and respond to growing doubts in the opposite direction.
The contrast between Biden saying America is still a democracy and Trump vowing to make it great again is more than a quirk of speechwriting. What presidents say especially what they grow comfortable repeating can reveal their underlying beliefs and basic impulses, shaping their administrations in ways that are concrete, not just rhetorical. Biden’s “still” stresses durability; Trump’s “again” revels in discontinuity. “Still” is about holding on to something good that may be slipping away; “again” is about bringing back something better that was wrested away. Both candidates, now in a dead heat in the 2024 presidential race, look to the nation’s past but through divergent lenses. It’s the difference between America as an ideal worth preserving and an illusion worth summoning.
The word “still” used by Biden is both comforting and unsettling. While implying permanence, it also foreshadows fragility. The word “still” conveys the idea that while we remain who we are, this state is not unchangeable and that the country that Vice President Biden sees exists somewhere in the middle of fact and possibility. Prior to the 2018 midterm elections, Biden stated, “If we do our duty in 2022 and beyond, then ages yet to come will say we all here we kept the faith. We kept democracy alive. We trusted our higher selves rather than our instincts. And we demonstrated that, despite its flaws, America remains the world’s lighthouse.
Remember, presidents only turn to Lincoln when conditions are dire. the wonderful moments, no one gives a damn about our better angels.
Americans do recognize the threat to our system of government, but they just don’t seem that energized by the dangers. A New York Times/Siena College poll last fall found that more than 70 percent regarded American democracy as being at risk, but only 7 percent thought that was the nation’s most important problem. Biden’s message demands that we care. “Democracy is hard work,” the president said at a Summit for Democracy meeting in March.
In that speech, Biden also indulged in a bit of a victory lap. “Here in the United States, we’ve demonstrated that our democracy can still do big things and deliver important progress for working Americans,” he said, citing lower prescription-drug costs, new infrastructure investments, electoral reform and his administration’s efforts against climate change. It was an answer to Biden’s speech before Congress two years earlier, when he said we had to prove that democracy still functions. “It’s working,” he told the summit. “It’s working.”
But three months later, after the Supreme Court declared affirmative action in college admissions unconstitutional, the president reiterated his concern that the basic American promise of equal opportunity remains unfulfilled. “The truth is we all know it,” he stated. “Discrimination still exists in America. Discrimination still exists in America. Discrimination still exists in America.” That third and final still was especially vociferous.
Even as Biden affirms what he believes we still are, he also reminds us of all he believes we still must do his “still” entails duty along with reassurance. The president can declare, as he did in 2021, that “it’s never ever, been a good bet to bet against America, and it still isn’t,” but the need to state it so emphatically acknowledges that the stakes are rising, and that the odds are not improving.
Biden has presented several perspectives on what America still means to him throughout the years. After visiting a refugee camp in Chad, he mused on the country’s capacity to inspire the world in his memoir “Promises to Keep,” published in 2007. “We sometimes forget that America is the one country in the world that still shimmers, like that ‘shining city on the hill,’ as a promise of a brighter tomorrow,” he wrote. But in 2020 book “Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now,” written by Evan Osnos, Biden took into consideration an alternative interpretation of what America still is. “I mean, the vividness of it was, like, ‘Holy God.’ Watching [George] Floyd’s face pushed against that curb and his nose getting crushed. Does that still occur today?
Biden’s “still” was once a contrast to the plight of other countries; now it is about competing visions of our own.
In Jon Meacham’s 2018 book, “The Soul of America,” that presidential biographer and Biden wordsmith points to the “universal American inconsistency” of upholding rights and freedoms for some but not others. “The only way to make sense of this eternal struggle,” Meacham concludes, “is to understand that it is just that: an eternal struggle.”
At times, Biden seems torn over whether the struggle is eternal or temporary. In his 2017 essay on the battle for the soul of the nation, he noted that charlatans and political con artists “have long dotted our history,” invariably blaming immigrants for our troubles and capitalizing on the hopelessness and despair of struggling communities. But in the video launching his 2020 campaign, he expressed confidence that history will deem Trump an “aberrant moment” in the national timeline, and only if Trump was granted eight years in the White House would he “forever and fundamentally” transform the national character. In other words, vote for Biden and America would still be America.
Of course, Biden didn’t say that Trump would require eight consecutive years in office to fundamentally alter the country; two nonconsecutive terms might be even more decisive. That would imply that we tested Trump and an alternative, and that we won’t choose one of them again and make the same error in the future.