Biden stuck up for democracy in Buffalo
President Joe Biden spoke in Buffalo on Tuesday after visiting the families of victims of a racist mass shooting in a supermarket on Saturday. It was a speech that’s likely to get lost in the current-events shuffle, but it shouldn’t. It was a good one — well written, well delivered — that hit the necessary themes of combating hatred and defending democracy. It also addressed a lot about representation and presidenting.
The speech was strikingly 'Bidenesque' and combined his leading traits as a public figure. Biden displayed the empathy that was a central part of his campaign; losing loved ones is something he understands from personal experience. It’s worth noting that Biden is hardly unique among presidents in having lost family members. It has become a large part of his political persona not only because of the tragedies he’s endured, but also because he has chosen to base much of his representational style on empathy.
Biden also deployed, as usual, his Scranton-ness, specifically comparing Buffalo to his working-class Pennsylvania hometown. Biden mentions Scranton, his parents, and his roots not to compare them to other places or backgrounds, but as an inclusive form of 'one-of-us' representation. Biden doesn’t treat Scranton or similar places as 'real' America in opposition to alien-seeming cities and regions, nor his Roman Catholic religion and Irish ancestry as more 'American' than others. Instead, he treats himself and Scranton as typical of all Americans from superficially different but ultimately similar places. The point isn’t whether that’s good or bad; it’s just how Biden casts himself and his nation, which leads him to talk about murder victims and the families who survive them as "us," not "them."
But Biden isn’t just an empathetic president or a 'one-of-us' president. He’s also the president who can’t always stick to diplomatic words when blunt ones are available. See, for example, some of the raw things he’s said about Russian President Vladimir Putin over the last two months.
Biden’s bluntness was evident on Tuesday. He didn’t shy away from labeling the massacre in Buffalo as domestic terrorism, or from saying that the killer was steeped in racism and guided by a conspiracy theory involving the replacement of White Americans with dark-skinned immigrants that is orchestrated by shadowy elites, often Jews. He labeled it a manifestation of “white supremacy.”
All of this helped Biden overcome the two biggest challenges the speech faced. The first, somewhat horrifying challenge was simply that Americans have heard too many presidential speeches following gun violence and violence sparked by bigotry. How would this speech stand out? How would it avoid being another link in a chain of nice words, thoughts, and prayers that produced no tangible results?
How could Biden make clear that attacks like the Buffalo massacre are attacks on democracy — that they are tightly connected not just to bigoted speech, but to broader attacks on U.S. democracy — without giving a partisan speech that would sound inappropriate and ineffective?
For Biden, his empathy and Scranton-ness set the stage for the bluntness that allowed him to overcome these challenges. How? By audaciously quoting foreign leaders who might ask him: “What in God's name happened on Jan. 6? What happened in Buffalo?”
Biden wasn’t asking listeners to believe that any foreign leader has specifically asked about Buffalo. Instead, he was tying the Jan. 6, 2021, attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol to the way that white supremacy is also an attack on democracy, and therefore on all Americans. That it happens to be accurate takes nothing away from how astonishing it is for a U.S. president to come out and admit it.
That doesn’t mean that the speech is going to cause people to reject irresponsible politicians and TV hosts who spout bigoted conspiracy theories, much less convince those who are doing so to stop. Speeches don’t have that power. Presidents don’t have that power. But every little bit helps.
Besides, it’s Biden’s responsibility as President to defend democratic ideals. It's simply part of the head-of-state responsibilities — responsibilities that can injure or enhance the president’s influence. On Tuesday, Biden successfully fulfilled those duties.