Presidents are eternally linked to their most memorable traces or slogans, phrases that grow to be inseparable from their passage by historical past. Ronald Reagan proclaimed morning in America. Barack Obama promised America hope and alter. Donald Trump pledged to make America nice once more. Our leaders additionally utter phrases they could moderately take again — say, about lip-reading or the that means of “is” — however their go-to traces can seize their message, sign their perspective and even betray their worldview.
Joe Biden has lengthy settled on his most popular pitch. “We live by a battle for the soul of this nation,” he wrote in 2017, after the darkness of Charlottesville. Biden highlighted the battle for that soul once more in his 2020 and 2024 marketing campaign bulletins and has revisited it in a number of speeches. It’s ominous and a bit imprecise — John Anzalone, Biden’s 2020 pollster, complained throughout that race that nobody is aware of what “soul of America” means and that the road “doesn’t transfer the needle.” Nevertheless it does present the rationale for Biden’s candidacy and presidency. Underneath Trump, Biden contends, America was turning into one thing apart from itself.
But there’s one other Biden line — a single phrase, actually — that additionally stands out, and it comes up at any time when this president displays on that American soul, on what the nation is and what it’d grow to be. It’s nonetheless.
“Now we have to point out the world America remains to be a beacon of sunshine,” Biden wrote in that very same post-Charlottesville essay.
“Now we have to show democracy nonetheless works — that our authorities nonetheless works and we will ship for our folks,” he mentioned in a speech to a joint session of Congress in April 2021.
“We’re nonetheless an America that believes in honesty and decency and respect for others, patriotism, liberty, justice for all, hope, potentialities,” the president mentioned in a speech in September at Independence Corridor in Philadelphia, the place he asserted that the foundations of the Republic have been below assault by MAGA forces. “We’re nonetheless, at our core, a democracy.”
There may be an insistent high quality, virtually a stubbornness, to Biden’s “nonetheless.” Its implicit assumption is that many Individuals might not consider within the nation’s professed virtues or belief that they’ll final for much longer, that we should be persuaded of both their worth or their endurance. To say that America is a democracy is to difficulty a press release of perception. To say that we’re nonetheless a democracy is to interact in an argument, to acknowledge — and push again in opposition to — mounting issues on the contrary.
The distinction between Biden saying America remains to be a democracy and Trump vowing to make it nice once more is greater than a quirk of speechwriting. What presidents say — particularly what they develop comfy repeating — can reveal their underlying beliefs and fundamental impulses, shaping their administrations in methods which might be concrete, not simply rhetorical. Biden’s “nonetheless” stresses sturdiness; Trump’s “once more” revels in discontinuity. “Nonetheless” is about holding on to one thing good that could be slipping away; “once more” is about bringing again one thing higher that was wrested away. Each candidates, now in a dead heat within the 2024 presidential race, look to the nation’s previous however by divergent lenses. It’s the distinction between America as an excellent value preserving and an phantasm value summoning.
Biden’s use of “nonetheless” is each soothing and alarming. It connotes permanence however warns of fragility. The message of “nonetheless” is that we stay who we’re, however that this situation isn’t immutable, that America as Biden envisions it exists someplace between actuality and risk. “If we do our obligation in 2022 and past,” Biden mentioned forward of the midterm elections final yr, “then ages nonetheless to come back will say we — all of us right here — we saved the religion. We preserved democracy. We heeded not our worst instincts however our higher angels. And we proved that for all its imperfections, America remains to be the beacon to the world.”
Bear in mind, it’s solely when issues are wretched that presidents attain for Lincoln. In good instances, nobody provides a rattling about our better angels.
Individuals do acknowledge the risk to our system of presidency, however they simply don’t appear that energized by the hazards. A New York Occasions/Siena School ballot final fall found that greater than 70 p.c regarded American democracy as being in danger, however solely 7 p.c thought that was the nation’s most essential downside. Biden’s message calls for that we care. “Democracy is tough work,” the president said at a Summit for Democracy assembly in March.
In that speech, Biden additionally indulged in a little bit of a victory lap. “Right here in the USA, we’ve demonstrated that our democracy can nonetheless do large issues and ship essential progress for working Individuals,” he mentioned, citing decrease prescription-drug prices, new infrastructure investments, electoral reform and his administration’s efforts in opposition to local weather change. It was a solution to Biden’s speech earlier than Congress two years earlier, when he mentioned we needed to show that democracy nonetheless features. “It’s working,” he informed the summit. “It’s working.”
However three months later, after the Supreme Court docket declared affirmative motion in school admissions unconstitutional, the president reiterated his concern that the fundamental American promise of equal alternative stays unfulfilled. “The reality is — everyone knows it,” he stated. “Discrimination nonetheless exists in America. Discrimination nonetheless exists in America. Discrimination nonetheless exists in America.” That third and ultimate nonetheless was particularly vociferous.
At the same time as Biden affirms what he believes we nonetheless are, he additionally reminds us of all he believes we nonetheless should do — his “nonetheless” entails obligation together with reassurance. The president can declare, as he did in 2021, that “it’s by no means ever, been a very good guess to guess in opposition to America, and it nonetheless isn’t,” however the necessity to state it so emphatically acknowledges that the stakes are rising, and that the percentages aren’t bettering.
Over time, Biden has supplied various visions about what America nonetheless means to him. In his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep,” he mirrored on the nation’s skill to encourage the globe after a go to to a refugee camp in Chad. “We typically neglect that America is the one nation on this planet that also shimmers, like that ‘shining metropolis on the hill,’ as a promise of a brighter tomorrow,” he wrote. However in Evan Osnos’s 2020 guide, “Joe Biden: The Life, the Run and What Matters Now,” Biden thought-about a unique imaginative and prescient of what America nonetheless is. “Watching [George] Floyd’s face pinned in opposition to that curb and his nostril being crushed, I imply, the vividness of it was, like, ‘Holy God. That also occurs at the moment?’”
Biden’s “nonetheless” was as soon as a distinction to the plight of different international locations; now it’s about competing visions of our personal.
In Jon Meacham’s 2018 guide, “The Soul of America,” that presidential biographer and Biden wordsmith factors to the “common American inconsistency” of upholding rights and freedoms for some however not others. “The one solution to make sense of this everlasting wrestle,” Meacham concludes, “is to know that it’s simply that: an everlasting wrestle.”
At instances, Biden appears torn over whether or not the wrestle is everlasting or non permanent. In his 2017 essay on the battle for the soul of the nation, he famous that charlatans and political con artists “have lengthy dotted our historical past,” invariably blaming immigrants for our troubles and capitalizing on the hopelessness and despair of struggling communities. However within the video launching his 2020 marketing campaign, he expressed confidence that historical past will deem Trump an “aberrant second” within the nationwide timeline, and provided that Trump was granted eight years within the White Home would he “eternally and essentially” rework the nationwide character. In different phrases, vote for Biden and America would nonetheless be America.
In fact, Biden didn’t say Trump would want eight consecutive years to remake the nation; two nonconsecutive phrases may show much more definitive. That may imply that we tried Trump, tried another, after which determined we wished him again in spite of everything. It could imply we selected Trump, once more.