Until the last ten minutes or so, I thought Biden’s speech was mostly a missed opportunity. Perhaps not from the perspective of partisanship, but from the perspective of what he claims to be one of the President’s function: to unify the country. For the last ten minutes, he reflected on the meaning of January 6, 2021 and discussed ways to overcome it; those last ten minutes should have extended across what would have been a shorter but more effective speech. The difficulty is, however, that those reflections came only after a speech that would have made much more sense on January 20, 2021 than it does now. The President used this occasion and his office to re-litigate the events of that day. Instead of trying to use his appearance as President in a presidential setting and occasion, he instead became a partisan. He appears to have thought that recalling the events of that day would also recall the mandate that brought him into office in the first place: to not be Donald Trump. And, by recalling that mandate he might reverse the dip in approval ratings he has suffered over the last month. By recalling and reliving the bitterness of the partisan divide and the atrocities committed by Trump and some of his supporters on this day, he could reignite the support that brought him into office. Those former supporters who now disapprove of him might come back into the fold because they will recall how bad the opposition is.
From both the perspective of the presidential function and even from Biden’s own self-interest, choosing the path he did seems like a missed opportunity. Except perhaps to provide more fuel for the partisanship that helped him win the election, it’s hard to see what he accomplished by re-litigating the events of that day. Everyone who agrees with him about it have already heard everything he said this morning; those who disagree with him already will not be convinced by a narrative of events that is exactly like the narrative we would have heard on January 20, 2021. Instead, he might have used this day to attempt to put the past behind us and promise a new unity around democracy. Without excusing Trump or his supporters, he might have extended an olive branch to those Republicans who voted for Trump but were unsettled by January 6th. He could have recovered his mandate not by returning to the fire and brimstone of last year but by pointing to more unity in the future. This would have fulfilled what he says is the function of the Presidency while also advancing his own self-interest. He could have leveraged the authority of the office to recover the unity-promoting part of his mandate. Rather than sounding like a partisan, he could have sounded like a President. And, by sounding like a President, he might have advanced his own self-interest.