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Not just a laundry list: Biden defines the era's 'central challenge'

Biden doesn't just want to govern for the sake of progressive priorities; he wants to govern to defend democracy and discredit authoritarianism.
Image: Vice president Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi applaud as President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on April 28, 2021.
Vice president Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi applaud as President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on April 28, 2021.Melina Mara / AFP - Getty Images

Presidential addresses before joint sessions of Congress tend to have two parts: incumbent chief executives boast about what they've done, while presenting a vision of what they want to do next. As President Joe Biden made clear last night, he had plenty to say on both fronts, though it was the Democrat's broader message of the future that proved especially significant.

Before assessing the forest, consider the trees. Plenty of observers characterized Biden's remarks as a "laundry list" of progressive priorities, and it's easy to understand why: the president's policy to-do list isn't short, and he implored Congress to follow his lead on a wide range of issues. From climate to health care, voting rights to immigration, child care to gun violence, education to tax policy, elder care to criminal justice issues, Biden intends to overhaul the public sector's role in American public life.

The president presented these ideas, not as a bold transformation, but as common-sense measures that are obviously necessary to make a material difference in American families' lives. Such rhetoric appears to infuriate Republicans, though there's evidence that voters think Biden's right.

But last night's address, with varying degrees of subtlety, included a principled, overarching concern that took on a greater significance than any one policy priority: Biden doesn't just want to champion the needs of the middle class, he also feels the need to champion democracy itself.

After four years of an American president whose overt hostility toward democracy tested the nation's foundations, and against a backdrop in which authoritarian powers seek to undermine the appeal of self-governance around the globe, Biden repeatedly used his address to defend our system of government -- and urging members of Congress to help him prove democracy's merits.

Plenty of politicians talk about "getting tough" with China, but the president last night framed the international competition in a unique way:

"When [Chinese President Xi Jinping] called congratulate, we had a two-hour discussion. He's deadly earnest on becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world. He and others, autocrats, think that democracy can't compete in the 21st century with autocracies, because it takes too long to get consensus."

To that end, Biden spent a surprising amount of his speech championing democracy -- a word he used 17 times over the course of his address -- because he clearly sees the system of government as facing unique threats, both abroad and in the United States.

Describing the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, for example, the president described the riot as "desecrating our democracy," before adding, "The insurrection was an existential crisis, a test of whether our democracy could survive."

In his next breath, Biden presented the challenge:

"The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent, as old as our republic, still vital today? Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us — created equal in the image of God — have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect and possibility? Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart? America's adversaries, the autocrats of the world, are betting we can't. And I promise you, they're betting we can't. They believe we are too full of anger and division and rage. They look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy. But they are wrong. You know it, I know it. But we have to prove them wrong. We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works, and we can deliver for our people."

He went to say, "The comment I hear most of all from [world leaders]? They say: 'We see America's back, but for how long? But for how long?' My fellow Americans, we have to show not just that we're back, but that we're back to stay, and that we aren't going to go alone."

As the president's address neared its conclusion, Biden said "the central challenge" of our is time is to prove that "democracy is durable and strong. Autocrats will not win the future. We will."

Biden doesn't just want to govern for the sake of progressive priorities; he wants to govern to discredit authoritarianism. It's a message no modern American president has delivered, because no modern American president has had to.