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‘I'm Tired of Being Quiet’: Biden in Georgia
A man of the Senate, on the ‘weaponization’ of Senate rules, starting with the filibuster. A look at a speech that was effectively Part 2 of the presentation Biden made at the Capitol six days ago.
I’ll do this as straightforward speech-annotation, following a similar item about Joe Biden’s speech at the Capitol last week. Yesterday’s speech in Georgia can be seen as a logical extension of that January 6 Capitol address, and as a rhetorical and emotional step beyond it.
As in the previous case, I’ve avoided seeing press commentary about the speech. My guess is that reaction skipped quickly past what Biden said toward “how will this play?”, “did Biden go too far?”, and probably “Dems in disarray.” I’ll check later on.
For now my attention is on the way Biden chose to make his argument, and what it reveals about his understanding of this moment, of his office, of his tools of communication, and of the options available to him.
I thought it was another very good speech: artfully crafted, effectively delivered, and controlled rather than reckless in the criticisms and challenges it made.
Let’s go to the text. I am working from the White House “as delivered” transcript, and the C-Span video. As before, I will note in italics parts I’d like to call attention to. I’ll add comments after them [in brackets and bold]. Where I’ve had to omit paragraphs, because of space limits, I’ve used ellipses …
Joe Biden Remarks on Protecting the Right to Vote, Atlanta, January 11, 2022
THE PRESIDENT: In our lives and the lives of our nation — the life of our nation, there are moments so stark that they divide all that came before from everything that followed.
They stop time. They rip away the trivial from the essential. And they force us to confront hard truths about ourselves, about our institutions, and about our democracy. [The speech begins with a big claim, laid out in language that is powerful because it is plain. In the previous speech, as in many earlier ones, Biden had conveyed this same idea with the puffed-up phrase “inflection point in history.” “They stop time,” in its starkness, is a huge improvement.
“Hard truths about ourselves” also sets Biden up for a classic presidential role in times-of-trouble: that of delivering news people don’t want to hear but need to know. Finally about this setup: Biden says that the hard truths will concern the same triad — “ourselves,” “our institutions,” “our democracy” — that he wove through as subjects of the Capitol speech.]
In the words of Scripture, they remind us to “hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate.” [My view on Bible quotes: In a speech this august, you pretty much have to put some in. Even if, as with this passage, they’re not really on your point.]
Last week, [Vice] President Harris [The “Vice” insert is shown on the White House transcript. To its credit, this White House is publishing what Biden actually said on stage, with corrections and reminders of what he “meant” to say (in the prepared text) where needed. This is better and more transparent than the two alternatives: 1) releasing the prepared text and ignoring “as delivered” differences; or 2) stealthily editing out any real-time glitches like this.] and I stood in the United States Capitol to observe one of those “before and after” moments in American history: January 6th insurrection on the citadel of our democracy. [The previous speech wasn’t as clear in this “before and after” imagery. Biden is really going with it here.]
Today, we come to Atlanta — the cradle of civil rights — to make clear what must come after that dreadful day when a dagger was literally held at the throat of American democracy. [“Dagger at the throat of democracy” was a striking and repeated image in the January 6 speech. It’s notable that Biden simply says the words again, rather than flagging them, as you can imagine happening in some pedant’s presentation: “On that dreadful day when, as I have put it, a dagger was held…” By just using them once more, he makes them like a musical refrain, which the listener may recognize and that can unobtrusively tie the two speeches together.]
We stand on the grounds that connect Clark Atlanta — Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and near Spelman College — the home of generations of advocates, activists, educators and preachers; young people, just like the students here, who have done so much to build a better America (Applause.) [This paragraph and the next two serve the basic function of connecting the audience—these people, in this place, at this time—to the message of the speech. And, as the saying goes, the claims Biden makes have the additional virtue of being true. Atlanta has played an outsized role in the history of civil rights and voting rights. So of course have the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis, and others he names.]
We visited the sacred Ebenezer Baptist Church and paused to prayed at the crypt [an additionally elegiac word to choose, versus “grave” or “tomb”] of Dr. and Mrs. King, and spent time with their family. And here in the district — as was pointed out — represented and reflected the life of beloved friend, John Lewis. [The White House transcript does not add a missing “our” or “my” before “beloved,” indicating that “beloved friend” on its own was intentional. That’s to the good, because it serves almost as a title, and is more elegant, embracing, and even Biblical this way.]
In their lifetimes, time stopped [They are going with this imagery and idea, which is effective. Plus the connection to the hideous literalness of time stopping for those little girls.] when a bomb blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and murdered four little girls.
They[Time] stopped [The strikeoutis from the White House transcript. Again it emphasizes the refrain that ties together this part of the speech.] when John and many others seeking justice were beaten and bloodied while crossing the bridge at Selma named after the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
They stopped — time stopped, and they forced the country to confront the hard truths and to act [Note the reappearance of these phrases and ideas: time stopped, and hard truths. I like the unobtrusive connecting role they’re playing. It’s like careful mortise-and-tenon carpentry, holding a structure together while almost invisible itself.] — to act to keep the promise of America alive: the promise that holds that we’re all created equal but, more importantly, deserve to be treated equally. [Virtually every time he spoke, Barack Obama emphasized the “becoming”-ness of America, closing the gap between its ideals and its realities. Biden dug in to that theme in the previous speech, for instance with his comments about the imperfections of America’s founders, and is doing so again here.] And from those moments of darkness and despair came light and hope.
Democrats, Republicans, and independents worked to pass the historic Civil Rights Act and the voting rights legislation. [Setting up what will be the main argument in the center of the speech: that the Republican party hadn’t always been a dead-set opponent of voting-rights bills. This reaches its crescendo with “even Strom Thurmond!” below.] And each successive generation continued that ongoing work.
But then the violent mob of January 6th, 2021, empowered and encouraged by a defeated former president, sought to win through violence what he had lost at the ballot box, to impose the will of the mob, to overturn a free and fair election, and, for the first time — the first time in American history, they — to stop the peaceful transfer of power. [This phrase is weighted in two ways. First, nearly every president had emphasized “peaceful transition” in a first-inaugural address. “Nearly” means all presidents except #45. Second, the institutions of American democracy, including peaceful transfer of power, were the main theme of Biden’s January 6 address.]
They failed. They failed. [These same four words, with the same deliberate emphasis, were in the previous speech.] (Applause.) But democracy’s — but democracy’s visi- — victory was not certain, nor is democracy’s future. [The endless struggle of America, its endless becoming, the arc of history, and so on. I am not a student of Biden’s rhetoric through his vice-presidential years and before. But even in comparison with his Inaugural Address, less than one year ago, the Joe Biden of these past few weeks has a much steelier, hard-road-ahead tone.
Check out, at the end of this post, some of the counterpart “I pledge to you…” passages from Biden’s Inaugural address.1 In that speech, he committed himself to “unity.” Now his commitment is to the ongoing, uncertain struggle for the American future.]
That’s why we’re here today to stand against the forces in America that value power over principle, forces that attempted a coup — a coup against the legally expressed will of the American people — by sowing doubt, inventing charges of fraud, and seeking to steal the 2020 election from the people. [“Dagger to the throat” appeared in the January 6 speech. I believe the word “coup” did not.]
They want chaos to reign. We want the people to rule. [Refrain from Jan 6 speech.] (Applause.)
But let me be clear: This is not about me or Vice President Harris or our party; it’s about all of us. It’s about the people. It’s about America.
Hear me plainly: The battle for the soul of America is not over. [I’ll stop making this point, but one last time: It’s significant when a president says not simply “America is great” but “America can become great” or “can achieve its best.” For some other time, a taxonomy of past speeches that effectively used this “long struggle ahead” imagery. The most poetically concise is the Gettysburg Address: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, by modern standards practically a haiku (barely 700 words), is considered the finest presidential expression of embattled, idealistic resolve.]
We must stand strong and stand together to make sure January 6th marks not the end of democracy but the beginning of a renaissance of our democracy. (Applause.) [Reminder: a speech in time of trouble has to acknowledge problems but also offer hope.]
You know, for the right to vote and to have that vote counted is democracy’s threshold liberty. Without it, nothing is possible, but with it, anything is possible.
But while the denial of fair and free elections is un-democratic, it is not unprecedented. [The contrast-and-pairing of these two “un-” words may look awkward on the page but worked in the delivery.]
Black Americans were denied full citizenship and voting rights until 1965. Women were denied the right to vote until just 100 years ago. The United States Supreme Court, in recent years, has weakened the Voting Rights Act. [Barack Obama called out the disastrous Citizens United ruling in his 2010 State of the Union address. This led to Samuel Alito of the Supreme Court showily shaking his head and mouthing Not true!, on camera from his seat facing Obama. Joe Biden is not explicitly calling out the equally harmful Shelby County ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts. But everyone in public life knows what he is talking about.] And now the defeated [see emphasis in previous speech on “failed,” “loser,” “defeated”] former president and his supporters use the Big Lie about the 2020 election to fuel torrent and torment and anti-voting laws — new laws designed to suppress your vote, to subvert our elections.
Here in Georgia, for years, you’ve done the hard work of democracy: registering voters, educating voters, getting voters to the polls. You’ve built a broad coalition of voters: Black, white, Latino, Asian American, urban, suburban, rural, working class, and middle class.
And it’s worked: You’ve changed the state by bringing more people, legally, to the polls. (Applause.) That’s how you won the historic elections of Senator Raphael Warnock and Senator Jon Ossoff. (Applause.)
You did it — you did it the right way, the democratic way. [Imperfections of the English language: On the page, it is evident that Biden means small-d democratic, rather than capital-D Democratic. But you can’t tell the difference when listening. You can imagine this line being taken out of context, as party-politicizing the voting process. The solution is to write in protections against possible ambiguity. “You did it the right way, our established American democratic way.” “… the right way, the participatory-democracy way.” “… the right way, the way built on faith in the American people and American democracy.” Etc.]
And what’s been the reaction of Republicans in Georgia? Choose the wrong way, the undemocratic way. [For this setup, by contrast, the English language works fine.] To them, too many people voting in a democracy is a problem. So they’re putting up obstacles…
The same way, I might add, in the 2020 Election, President Trump voted from behind the desk in the White House — in Florida. [This name did not appear in the January 6 speech, nor elsewhere in this one.]
Dropping your ballots off to secure drop boxes — it’s safe, it’s convenient, and you get more people to vote. So they’re limiting the number of drop boxes and the hours you can use them.
Taking away the options has a predictable effect: longer lines at the polls, lines that can last for hours. You’ve seen it with your own eyes. People get tired and they get hungry. [A direct reference to recent Georgia election laws, and an indirect one to a strong line in the speech immediately before his, by Kamala Harris. She said: “There is nothing normal about a law that makes it illegal to pass out water and food to people standing in long voting lines.”]
When the Bible teaches us to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, [a Biblical reference that is on point!] the new Georgia law actually makes it illegal — think of this — I mean, it’s 2020, and now ’22, going into that election — it makes it illegal to bring your neighbors, your fellow voters food or water while they wait in line to vote. What in the hell — heck are we talking about? (Laughter and applause.)
I mean, think about it. (Applause.) That’s not America. [Many people in the audience are undoubtedly thinking, “Well actually…” Or, “You may think it’s not America, but it’s what Georgia is about to become.” The way to work around this is to anticipate the hesitation and address it. “This is not America—or it must not be.” Or, “It’s not the America we want to build,” “It’s not the America that the people we honor today fought to create,” Etc.] That’s what it looks like when they suppress the right to vote.
And here’s how they plan to subvert the election: [On Jan 6, Biden talked about “subverting the Constitution.” Now an echo of the term with a more immediate object.] The Georgia Republican Party, the state legislature has now given itself the power to make it easier for partisan actors — their cronies — to remove local election officials.
Think about that. What happened in the last election? The former president and allies pursued, threatened, and intimidated state and local election officials.
Election workers — ordinary citizens — were subject to death threats, menacing phone calls, people stalking them in their homes. [Big theme of the Jan 6 speech was that in the defense of democracy, the real heroes were “ordinary citizens” doing their jobs. Mainly police officers and Congressional staffers in the previous speech, and election officials in this one.]
Remember what the defeated former president said to the highest-ranking election official — a Republican — in this state? He said, quote, “I just want to find 11,780 votes.”
Pray God. (Laughter.) He didn’t say that part. (Laughter.) [All this ad libbed.]
He didn’t say, “Count the votes.” He said, “find votes” that he needed to win.
He failed because of the courageous officials —Democrats, Republicans — who did their duty and upheld the law. [You can tell that Biden is happiest when he can make a “Democrats and Republicans working together” point.] (Applause.)…
It’s not just here in Georgia. [Laying out the fact-basis on voting rights bill here.] Last year alone, 19 states not proposed but enacted 34 laws attacking voting rights. There were nearly 400 additional bills Republican members of state legislatures tried to pass. And now, Republican legislators in several states have already announced plans to escalate the onslaught this year.
Their endgame? To turn the will of the voters into a mere suggestion — something states can respect or ignore.
Jim Crow 2.0 [Biden has used the term “Jim Crow” before, about newly restrictive voting laws. As best I know, this is his first use of “Jim Crow 2.0”.] is about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion. It’s no longer about who gets to vote; it’s about making it harder to vote. It’s about who gets to count the vote and whether your vote counts at all….
That’s the kind of power you see in totalitarian states, not in democracies.
We must be vigilant…
And today, we call on Congress to get done what history will judge: [Introducing the central theme of the rest of the speech: People are choosing their role in history. More on that below. ] Pass the Freedom to Vote Act. (Applause.) Pass it now — (applause) — which would prevent voter suppression so that here in Georgia there’s full access to voting by mail, there are enough drop boxes during enough hours so that you can bring food and water as well to people waiting in line.
The Freedom to Vote Act takes on election subversion to protect nonpartisan
electors[election] officials, who are doing their job, from intimidation and interference.
It would get dark money out of politics, create fairer district maps and ending partisan gerrymandering. (Applause.)
Look, it’s also time to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. (Applause.)
I’ve been having these quiet conversations with the members of Congress for the last two months. I’m tired of being quiet! [No more Mr. Nice Guy.] (Applause.)…
The Vice President and I have supported voting rights bills since day one of this administration. But each and every time, Senate Republicans have blocked the way. Republicans oppose even debating the issue. You hear me? [The two salient points in the paragraphs that follow: Biden is specifically calling out Republican obstruction, and he is—finally—talking directly about the filibuster.]
I’ve been around the Senate a long time. I was Vice President for eight years. I’ve never seen a circumstance where not one single Republican has a voice that’s ready to speak for justice now.
When I was a senator, including when I headed up the Judiciary Committee, I helped reauthorize the Voting [Rights] Act three times. We held hearings. We debated. We voted. I was able to extend the Voting Rights Act for 25 years.
In 2006, the Voting Rights Act passed 390 to 33 in the House of Representatives and 98 to 0 in the Senate with votes from 16 current sitting Republicans in this United States Senate. Sixteen of them voted to extend it. [Mitch McConnell was one of those 16; he praised the Voting Rights Act in 2006 as “a good piece of legislation that has served an important purpose over many years.” Biden knows that calling out flip-flops from McConnell and others is unlikely to change anyone’s behavior or vote. Just as it makes no difference now to point out that most GOP leaders denounced Donald Trump before he took control of their party. But it’s a step for Biden even to note the change.]
The last year I was chairman, as some of my friends sitting down here will tell you, Strom Thurmond voted to extend the Voting Rights Act. Strom Thurmond.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Wow. [Wow]
THE PRESIDENT: You can say that again: “Wow.” You have no idea how damn ha- — how darn hard I worked on that one. (Laughter and applause.)
But, folks, then it was signed into law, the last time, by President George W. Bush.
You know, when we got voting rights extended in the 1980s, as I’ve said, even Thurmond supported it. Think about that. The man who led the longest filibu- — one of the longest filibusters in history in the United States Senate in 1957 against the
Voting Rights Act[Civil Rights Act]. The man who led and sided with the old Southern Bulls in the United States Senate to perpetuate segregation in this nation. Even Strom Thurmond came to support voting rights. [This paragraph well delivered, with rising emphasis toward Even. Strom. Thurmond.]
But Republicans today can’t and won’t. Not a single Republican has displayed the courage to stand up to a defeated president to protect America’s right to vote. Not one. Not one. [Last four words delivered with combination of wonderment and rue.]
We have 50-50 in the United States Senate. That means we have 51 presidents. (Laughter.) You all think I’m kidding. (Laughter.)
I’ve been pretty good at working with senators my whole career. But, man, when you got 51 presidents, it gets harder. Any one can change the outcome.
Sadly, the United States Senate — designed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body — has been rendered a shell of its former self. It gives me no satisfaction in saying that, as an institutionalist, as a man who was honored to serve in the Senate. [Biden served in the Senate from age 30 to age 66, and then as Obama’s VP he was President of the Senate through age 74. These two sentences reflect a hard realization on his part.]
But as an institutionalist, I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills, debate them, vote.
Let the majority prevail. (Applause.) And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this. (Applause.) [Good. For more details, see this.]
You know, last year, if I’m not mistaken, the filibuster was used 154 times. The filibuster has been used to generate compromise in the past and promote some bipartisanship. But it’s also been used to obstruct — including and especially obstruct civil rights and voting rights.
And when it was used, senators traditionally used to have to stand and speak at their desks for however long it took, and sometimes it took hours. And when they sat down, if no one immediately stood up, anyone could call for a vote or the debate ended. [This section is on the so-called “talking filibuster.” It is one of many long-overdue reforms.]
But that doesn’t happen today. Senators no longer even have to speak one word. The filibuster is not used by Republicans to bring the Senate together but to pull it further apart.
The filibuster has been weaponized and abused. [Not aware that Biden has used this term before, about the filibuster. It’s the appropriate term, and this whole passage reflects a journey by Biden.]
While the state legislatures’ assault on voting rights is simple — all you need in your House and Senate is a pure majority — in the United States Senate, it takes a supermajority: 60 votes, even to get a vote — instead of 50 — to protect the right to vote.
State legislatures can pass anti-voting laws with simple majorities. If they can do that, then the United States Senate should be able to protect voting rights by a simple majority. (Applause.)
Today I’m making it clear: To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, [good] whichever way they need to be changed — (applause) — to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights. (Applause.)
When it comes to protecting majority rule in America, the majority should rule in the United States Senate. [A labored rhetorical device, a la “let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” But a fundamental point.]
I make this announcement with careful deliberation, recognizing the fundamental right to vote is the right from which all other rights flow.
And I make it with an appeal to my Republican colleagues, to those Republicans who believe in the rule of law: Restore the bipartisan tradition of voting rights. [We’ll see who rises to this appeal. Odds are: no one. But Biden did the right thing in making it.]
The people who restored it, who abided by it in the past were Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush. They all supported the Voting Rights Act.
Don’t let [“let,” as if still in question] the Republican Party morph into something else. Restore the institution of the Senate the way it was designed to be.
Senate rules were just changed to raise the debt ceiling so we wouldn’t renege on our debt for the first time in our history and prevent an economic crisis. That was done by a simple majority.
As Senator Warnock said a few weeks ago in a powerful speech: If we change the rules to protect the full faith and credit of the United States, we should be able to change the rules to protect the heart and soul of our democracy. (Applause.) He was right…
The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation’s history.
We will choose — the issue is: Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadows, justice over injustice?
I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend the right to vote, our democracy against all enemies — foreign and, yes, domestic. (Applause.) [You can imagine the first few sentences being delivered with dramatic emphasis to separate them. Instead Biden put them together into one rapid sentence—but one that built to stress on that final word, domestic.]
And the question is: Where will the institution of the United States Senate stand? Every senator — Democrat, Republican, and independent — will have to declare where they stand, not just for the moment, but for the ages. [In the 2016 campaign, I did a daily “Trump Time Capsule” series, asking when GOP figures would decide that their place in history mattered more than their favor in Trump’s eyes. There is little evidence that reflections on the long view has swayed many of them. But I think it’s valuable for Biden to lay down the marker.]
Will you stand against voter suppression? Yes or no? That’s the question they’ll answer. Will you stand against election subversion? Yes or no? Will you stand for democracy? Yes or no?
And here’s one thing every senator and every American should remember: History has never been kind to those who have sided with voter suppression over voters’ rights. [I agree with him. But the thought running through many officials’ minds is: Victors write the history. And for now, victors within their party are those who stand with Trump.] And it will be even less kind for those who side with election subversion.
So, I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered? [See above. And for the U.S. as a whole, it’s a plus that the oldest-ever president is thinking in these terms: What can he do, that will matter?]
At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be the si- — on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?
This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy. (Applause.)
And if you do that, you will not be alone. [Well, that’s the problem. Members of the GOP know that Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger are close to alone.] That’s because the struggle to protect voting rights has never been borne by one group alone…
After nearly 250 years since our founding, that singular idea [“Freedom”] still echoes. But it’s up to all of us to make sure it never fades, especially the students here — your generation that just started voting — as there are those who are trying to take away that vi- — vote you just started to be able to exercise.
But the giants we honor today were your age when they made clear who we must be as a nation. Not a joke. Think about it. In the early ’60s, they were sitting where you’re sitting. They were you. [It is incredible how young the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were. Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize when he was 35. He did not live to age 40. John Lewis was 25 when was beaten on the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma. It’s always good to remind young people about what other youths have done.] And like them, you give me much hope for the future.
Before and after in our lives — and in the life of the nation — democracy is who we are, who we must be — now and forever. So, let’s stand in this breach together. Let’s love good, establish justice in the gate. [Looping back to the first Biblical reference.]
And remember, as I said, there is one — this is one of those defining moments in American history: Each of those who vote will be remembered by class after class, in the ’50s and ’60s — the 2050s and ’60s. Each one of the members of the Senate is going to be judged by history on where they stood before the vote and where they stood after the vote. [What Biden says is true. And for now, it seems to count for nothing. I say this, having made a similar point a million times from 2015 onward. Let’s see whether an aged president saying this, to his contemporaries also thinking about their place in history, will make any difference.]
There’s no escape. [True. But relevant to those prepared to filibuster a voting-rights bill?] So, let’s get back to work….
May God bless you all. And may God protect the sacred right to vote. (Applause.) [As a technical point, credit to Biden for making the endings of presidential speeches appropriate to their subject and format. As discussed here. As a civic point, it’s good to see a leader who has thought about how history will assess what he stands for and takes risks for, in these times.]
Thanks for following along. I expect that this is it for notations, at least until Biden’s State of the Union speech, planned for March 1.
This is the relevant passage from Biden’s inaugural address. It was a more innocent time:
“In another January in Washington, on New Year’s Day 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“When he put pen to paper, the President said, “If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.”
“My whole soul is in it.
“Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this:
“Bringing America together.
“Uniting our people.
“And uniting our nation.
“I ask every American to join me in this cause.
“Uniting to fight the common foes we face:
“Anger, resentment, hatred.
“Extremism, lawlessness, violence.
“Disease, joblessness, hopelessness.
“With unity we can do great things. Important things.”