Shame on Biden for his Atlanta remarks — but are we surprised?

For about a week now, since he recklessly linked Republicans who oppose his proposed voting rights legislation to racists and segregationists, many people have been asking, “What happened to Joe Biden? He’s not the same Joe Biden we’ve known for so many years.” I’m asking a different question: Why are so many people so surprised? 

Speaking to a friendly crowd in Atlanta, he essentially said that you’re either with him on voting rights or you’re a bigot.

Every official in this country has a choice, President Biden said. “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. [Martin Luther] 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”? 

Let’s remember that George Wallace was the Alabama governor who said, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” and who stood in the schoolhouse door in 1963 to prevent black students from integrating the University of Alabama. 

And that Bull Connor was the Birmingham, Ala., commissioner of public safety, who sicced snarling police dogs on peaceful, mainly Black civil rights protestors and who used fire hoses to blast demonstrators across sidewalks and into gutters.

And that Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederate States, a slave owner whose troops fought to preserve slavery.  

These are the people Joe Biden compares to Republicans who oppose a progressive plan to overhaul voting procedures in America. How tone deaf do you have to be to go down that dark road?  

The next day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) responded, also wondering what happened to Joe Biden. Biden’s speech was “profoundly unpresidential,” he said. It was “deliberately divisive” and “designed to pull our country further apart.”

He went on to say, “Twelve months ago, this president said that ‘disagreement must not lead to disunion.’ But yesterday, he invoked the bloody disunion of the Civil War to demonize Americans who disagree with him. He compared a bipartisan majority of senators to literal traitors.” 

Then he said: “I have known, liked and personally respected Joe Biden for many years. I did not recognize the man at the podium yesterday.” 

I’m not at all sure what the mystery is. Joe Biden has been a politician just about his whole life.  And politicians, when they’re desperate, when they’re in trouble with the voters, will say just about anything to keep themselves relevant and above water.

You might recall that Biden, as vice president during the 2012 presidential campaign, told a largely Black Danville, Va., audience that Mitt Romney and the Republican Party would “put you all back in chains.”

Biden, the lifelong pol, is Mr. Congeniality when that works for him and Mr. Take-No-Prisoners when it suits his political purposes — as it did in Atlanta last week.  

I can’t help but wonder if Joe Biden forgot why he was elected president. It wasn’t because voters thought he was some brilliant statesman or that he is a visionary with great ideas. No, they voted for him because he wasn’t Bernie Sanders, and he wasn’t Donald Trump.

Biden is president today because he said he would bring Americans together, that he would unite the country. He’s president today because Americans thought he’d lower the temperature after four years of Donald Trump.

President Biden has had more than a few low points during his first year in office. He unrealistically promised to “shut down the virus.” There was the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.  But what he said in Atlanta may have been his lowest point yet.  

They were the words of a politician whose poll numbers have been heading south for a while now. His approval rating dropped to 33 percent, according to a new poll by Quinnipiac University — the lowest number during his one year in office.

So, his political team, desperate to inject some life into his presidency, came up with an idea: Have the president make voting rights his latest big issue and paint his Republican opponents as undemocratic politicians who are trying to disenfranchise voters, mainly minority voters. From there it’s only a few short steps to comparing those Republican opponents to racists.

But even though Biden didn’t write that speech, the stench and the shame are all over him for agreeing to read the words the people who orchestrate his every move put in front of him. His political handlers concocted the idea, hoping it would make Biden look strong for a change — and to appease the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that is losing faith in a president they see as too moderate and too weak to stand up to the other side.   

Who knows if Joe Biden really believes what he said about Republicans? Who knows if he really believes that they’re comparable to a bunch of racists and segregationists? But it doesn’t matter what he secretly believes. What matters is what he said out loud. And what matters is that he didn’t firmly say, “No! I will not disgrace my office by comparing my political opponents to the likes of George Wallace and Bull Conner and Jefferson Davis.” That would have been worthy of the man who ran to unite the country. What he did instead was unworthy of this or any other president of the United States. 

As for his political team, they may have been trying to shore up the Democratic base. But whether they unified the base or not, there’s a good chance they unified the rest of the country — against Joe Biden.

They’ll pay a price for their cynicism. November is just over the horizon.  

Bernard Goldberg is an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award-winning writer and journalist. He was a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” for 22 years and previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and as an analyst for Fox News. He is the author of five books and publishes exclusive weekly columns, audio commentaries and Q&As on his Patreon page. Follow him on Twitter @BernardGoldberg.

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