Biden’s Jan. 6 speech was a missed opportunity to unite the nation

President Biden gives remarks on Jan. 6
Associated Press/Greg Nash

Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, when a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the building in an attempt to stop Congress’ certification of the 2020 election results affirming Joe Biden as the winner.  

President Biden commemorated the anniversary with a stern speech that condemned the rioters and former President Trump — without using his name — for his actions leading up to, during and following the insurrection.  

To be sure, Biden is right to disparage the violent insurrectionists who stormed our Capitol building one year ago. He is also justified in criticizing Trump and the G.O.P. for trying to rewrite history by downplaying the events of Jan. 6 and continuing to embrace Trump’s “Big Lie” that the election was stolen from him.  

That being said, there was a fine-line that Biden needed to walk during Thursday’s speech — between denouncing the rioters and those who continue wage war on our democratic institutions, while also making a broader call for Americans to unify and move forward together — which I believe he failed to achieve.  

By attacking Trump and the Republican Party in such a backward-looking and partisan way, Biden’s speech will only further alienate those on the other side of the aisle, as well as the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump in 2020.  

To be sure, Trump made a similar mistake that Biden appears to be making in the sense that he failed to look forward, and only sought to harp on the past — focusing only on the 2020 election, not on the problems facing America: the pandemic, the ascendancy of Russia and China, or on an agenda for the future.  

In Biden’s speech on Thursday, without invoking him by name, the president took aim at Trump for spreading “a web of lies” about the election and “watching [the attack] all on television and doing nothing for hours, as police were assaulted.”  

Again, Biden’s condemnations of Trump, the insurrectionists, and complicit Republicans are largely valid. However, attacking Trump and the G.O.P. in this way is counterproductive to achieving the president’s practical and political goals. 

If Biden truly wants to realize his stated goal of unifying the country, he would have been wiser to take a more conciliatory tone, and to make broad references to the need for Americans to reject polarization and divisiveness  — akin to the tenor he took in his inaugural address, in which he called on Americans to “start listening to each other again.” 

“For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward,” Biden said at his inauguration, which occurred just days after the insurrection.  

Contrast those remarks with Biden’s speech on Thursday: “He [Trump] sees his own interest as more important than his country’s interest and America’s interest. And because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution.”  

From a political perspective, the president and his party are struggling immensely to connect with Americans — Biden’s overall job approval sits in the low 40s, and Democrats appear on track to lose control of one or both houses of Congress in the 2022 midterms.  

Thus, Biden did not serve himself or his party politically by using Thursday’s speech to demonize Trump, who received the highest number of votes of any Republican candidate in history in 2020 and continues to dominate the G.O.P.  

Top Republicans were also quick to criticize Biden’s speech as overly divisive. Governor Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) asserted that Thursday’s events were being used to “smear anyone who ever supported Donald Trump,” while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the remarks “brazen politicization.” 

Jan. 6, 2021, was an upsetting and disturbing moment for our country, and all patriotic Americans should rightfully feel saddened and angered by what transpired. It is also important that we hold those responsible accountable, which the bipartisan House select committee is currently working to do.  

At the same time, one year after that fateful day, the country is in need of conciliatory, bipartisan, and forward-looking leadership now more than ever — and in Biden’s speech on Thursday, he missed an opportunity to show Americans that he and his party can provide this kind of leadership.  

Going forward, Biden must heed his own call in his inaugural address to end our “uncivil war.” If not, we will remain divided into two Americas — hating, attacking, and demonizing those who differ from us politically and seeing our government paralyzed by partisan gridlock. Further, Biden and the Democrats will have a rude awakening in the November 2022 midterm elections, and may even see the return of an emboldened Donald Trump on the campaign trail in the run up to 2024.  

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”

Tags Donald Trump Donald Trump Far-right politics in the United States Joe Biden Joe Biden Lindsey Graham Michael Bloomberg Presidency of Donald Trump Presidency of Joe Biden Ron DeSantis trumpism United States Capitol attack

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