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    Biden found the through line between two central campaign themes

    On Jan. 20, 2021, Joe Biden delivered his inaugural speech as president no more than 20 feet from where Capitol Police officer Michael Fanone had been dragged and beaten two weeks earlier by a mob desperate to prevent Biden from becoming president.

    His opening words were a cautious celebration of the failure of the Capitol riot to derail the transfer of power.

    “Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded,” he said. “We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

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    He revisited this idea repeatedly over the next three years. He gave a speech in Munich focused on the international tension between democracy and authoritarianism, hardly needing to point out how the United States was similarly divided. He hosted an international summit predicated on bolstering democracy in late 2021; the Russian effort to subdue Ukraine a few months later only reinforced the point. An ad for his reelection bid released in September showed Biden walking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, again framing his role as president in terms of defending democracy.

    This is a sincerely held concern for the president, the idea that Donald Trump and his Republican Party are willing to see democracy erode in service of consolidated right-wing power. It’s also useful, framing his reelection bid around Trump instead of having it be a referendum on himself. But this focus is a bit tenuous, given that “defense of democracy,” however valid, is also an abstraction that people worried about paying bills might not prioritize.

    During his State of the Union address on Thursday, though, Biden expanded the argument in a subtle way that loops in a more visceral and potent motivator for Democratic votes: abortion.

    This speech, too, began with a focus on democracy. He compared the moment to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union, delivered at a time when “freedom and democracy were under assault in the world.”

    “Now it is we who face an unprecedented moment in the history of the Union,” Biden said. But this moment was more fraught than 1941, he added. “Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault here at home as they are today. What makes our moment rare is that freedom and democracy are under attack, both at home and overseas, at the very same time.”

    He transitioned to an exhortation that Congress approve additional support for Ukraine. He then pivoted to Jan. 6, reiterating that “the threat to democracy must be defended” and condemning “lies” casting the rioters as patriots. But don’t miss the junction he inserted at the outset: Democracy is under attack — as is freedom.

    Later in the speech he offered an example, calling for Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, protections against efforts to limit access to voting. He has made the connection between democracy and the ability to vote before, as when he pushed similar legislation during his first year in office. He also went further. Republicans, he said then, “want the ability to reject the final count and ignore the will of the people if their preferred candidate loses.” The freedom to vote — and, therefore, democracy — hobbled.

    During his State of the Union, he pointedly framed the freedom of choice in a similar way.

    “Respect free and fair elections! Restore trust in our institutions!” he said. “And make clear — political violence has absolutely no place … in America. History is watching. And history is watching another assault on freedom.”

    He noted the presence of women in the gallery, including one whose effort to have a child through in vitro fertilization was blocked and another who was forced to leave her state to abort her fatally ill fetus. He condemned state laws or decisions that made these women’s choices more difficult.

    “Many of you in this chamber and my predecessor” — that is, Trump — “are promising to pass a national ban on reproductive freedom,” he said. “My God, what freedoms will you take away next?”

    President Biden criticized efforts to overturn reproductive rights during his 2024 State of the Union address on March 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

    Freedom to choose health care; freedom to choose leadership. Drawing a through line.

    As the speech wound down, he returned to this connection.

    “My lifetime,” he said — trying to turn his age from a perceived weakness into perceived wisdom — “has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy.”

    He talked about his personal history. Then:

    “I see a future where we defend democracy, not diminish it,” he said. “I see a future where we restore the right to choose and protect other freedoms, not take them away.”

    Freedom and democracy, under threat from Trump. A theme since the beginning and expanded to accommodate a new threat — a threat that has proved to be enormously potent for Democratic political success.



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