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Biden's greatest task: remind us what it means to be an American

Biden has yeoman’s work to do in his coming State of the Union speech.
Photo illustration: A blue and red lens flare above an image of Joe Biden speaking.
MSNBC / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

As President Joe Biden prepares to give his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, America and the globe are facing a lengthy list of pressing issues — from inflation to geopolitical concerns related to the Ukraine crisis to all of us still dealing with a global pandemic and democracy and voting rights being under attack from a rising national autocratic movement. So, where does an embattled president begin?

The most fundamental root of this problem is a loss of the common good, an emphasis too often put on the “me,” and not on the “we.”

The answer seems to lie in the confluence of two events on March 1: the aforementioned presidential State of the Union and the Texas primaries, which will be the first election since Republican state leaders put in place restrictions on access to voting and will serve as a broad test for the direction of the Republican Party after Trump lost the 2020 election.

Yes, the U.S. and the Biden administration are facing a broad array of crucial concerns, but none loom larger than the forces of autocracy pushing against the powers of democracy here in America and around the world, including Russia's attack on Ukraine, with too many celebrating autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin, and those here attacking voting rights. And the most fundamental root of this problem is a loss of the common good, an emphasis too often put on the “me,” and not on the “we.”

This is where I recommend Biden concentrate his efforts in the State of the Union address. Don’t dwell on a laundry list of policy accomplishments or policy goals ahead as most presidents in the modern age have done. Begin to build the case for a 21st century American narrative laid on a foundation of the common good and humility. Show why it is the "we" which has made America great. Explain that it is communities coming together that has showed the best of ourselves and advanced our humanity more than anything else — like folks did in Texas during the electric grid failure or foundations and organizations stepping up in aftermath of natural disasters or faith groups stepping up to assist the homeless, hungry and sick. Explain that all of our essential freedoms are protected and advanced by connecting and enlarging our definition of "we." And if we really believe that the "we" is crucial to our well-being, then let’s ensure all eligible citizens have easy access to the polls regardless of who they are or where they live.

In Texas’ primary election Tuesday, impediments put in place — whose purpose had nothing to do with voter security — have caused approximately one-third of all absentee ballots to be rejected. This has overwhelmingly affected the elderly and frail, who have little capacity to go in person to the polls. At a time when expanding the vote should be everyone's goal, not to mention the advances in technology in every area of our lives that make it safer and easier to conduct our personal business, the Texas GOP is showing it wants to step backward. Their “me,” serving only crass partisan purposes, is more important than our “we.”

March 1 will give us a real-time indicator of the fundamentals of the GOP separate from Trump.

The Texas GOP primary and races up and down the ballot on Tuesday (and then in the run-offs in May) will be another step in more clearly showing the direction that the Republican Party is taking toward autocracy. Yes, former President Donald Trump has endorsed a plethora of candidates here in Texas in the primary, but that isn’t the most important indicator. Many in the GOP have adopted his big lie, his conspiracy theories, and his praise of autocrat Putin regardless of Trump’s willingness to give an endorsement. A few GOP candidates do acknowledge that Biden won the election and that Trump’s path is detrimental to our democratic republic. But Tuesday will give us a real-time indicator of the fundamentals of the GOP separate from Trump.

This is the line Biden must draw in his State of the Union address. In our country and in the world, the forces of autocracy are rising in the most significant way since World War II, and democracies are in danger of suffering tragic harms, if history is any predictor. This is why the fight in Ukraine is important to us all. This is why voting rights in Texas should be important to every American, no matter where you live. This is why we must clearly watch the GOP results in Texas, knowing a defeat of Trump in a previous election doesn’t put a stop to rising autocracy in future ones.

Maybe Biden should take a cue from one GOP president when he said at Gettysburg:  “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Biden has yeoman’s work to do in his coming speech, but the most essential part of it is a clear and strong renewal of what it means to be an American. The lessons of the Texas primaries are likely to show that if attacks on voting rights are left unchecked, citizens will be disenfranchised and we won't deliver universal suffrage. And if the rise of autocracy continues to escalate in the GOP primaries, the virus of autocracy will infect other states, and beyond.