Joe Biden Reclaims America’s Democracy Narrative

In his address to a joint session of Congress, President Joe Biden recaptured the US Capitol from its recent, surreal history.



Lisa Van Dusen

April 28, 2021

After 36 years as a US Senator from Delaware, eight years as vice president, four years as yet another aghast private citizen and 99 days as president of the United States, Joe Biden attended his first presidential address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night as the guy making the speech.

Not in the 10th row, not in the big chair behind the guy making the speech. But standing at the lectern most recently occupied — as in a sight gag cameo from a 90s comedy — by Donald J. Trump.

“The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,” Biden said, flanked in a historic first by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris and describing the stew of wicked problems on his plate before delivering a defence of democratic government, 43 utterances of the word “jobs”, per the AP, and an exhortation to unity that was optimistic and determined, somehow both intimate and epic.

“America is ready for takeoff. We are working again. Dreaming again. Discovering again. Leading the world again. We have shown each other and the world: There is no quit in America,” Biden said. “One hundred days ago, America’s house was on fire. We had to act.”

Between the battle being waged against a deadly global pandemic, the fight to prevent it from decimating major economies and the concurrent fight to protect democracy from a different sort of contagion, Biden’s speech was less like a State of the Union (those happen in January starting in year two of a presidential term) than a statement of principles and to-do list from a president who has already over-delivered on his vaccinations vows, reversed dozens of his predecessor’s most hair-brained orders and received near-unanimous praise for his first 100 days in office.

The extraordinary nature of the moment was driven home by the smaller, socially distanced audience that stood in for the usual full House for joint sessions. But the far stranger contextual element was the unspoken fact that Joe Biden’s predecessor had acted as a force multiplier for both current contagions, and as an instigator of the rampage on January 6th that saw the rostrum where Biden stood Wednesday night overrun by thugs.

“We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works — and can deliver for the people,” Biden said, in a statement that will be treated as a gauntlet in some quarters, foreign and domestic.

The most immediate thing Biden has done for democracy is, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson put it on Monday, is that he’s restored the White House as a source of sanity instead of lunacy. “In fact, one of the most significant impacts of the return to sane Oval Office behavior is that we can actually talk about policy again,” writes Robinson.

There’s about as much chance of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen staging a ‘We’re in the money’ Scrooge McDuck pho-op with her economist husband, George Akerlof, as there is of Secretary of State Antony Blinken showing up at the next G7, virtual or not, in a MAGA hat.

Biden has replaced craven self-service with public service in the senior White House, state department and other key roles that represent a government to its constituents every day. There’s about as much chance of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen staging a “We’re in the money” Scrooge McDuck pho-op with her economist husband, George Akerlof, as there is of Secretary of State Antony Blinken showing up at the next G7, virtual or not, in a MAGA hat. Americans and the rest of us no longer worry about what’s happening behind the scenes in Washington just because what’s happening publicly is so outrageous that we assume it surely can’t be good.

For Canada, the best indicator of the night-and-day state of bilateral relations under Biden may be not the tasteful lack of Twitter trolling but what surely must be a surge in cross-border email volume between and addresses and calls between Foggy Bottom and Fort Pearson. Biden’s “Buy American” policy, reiterated in his speech, is not to be confused with his predecessor’s “America First” isolationism. It’s about the domestic economy, revitalizing politically targeted unions and protecting workers whose wages have stagnated over years. “Trickle-down economics has never worked,” Biden said in his speech. “It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out.” As former diplomat Colin Robertson wrote recently in Policy on this subject, “If all politics is local, so is trade.”

For the world, Biden’s promise of protecting and restoring democracy is crucial. On Wednesday night, he brought that agenda, and sanity, back to a ritual that everyone could recognize again. With or without masks.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor and deputy publisher of Policy Magazine. She was Washington columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP National in New York and UPI in Washington.