President Joe Biden spoke in Buffalo on Tuesday after visiting the families of victims of a racist mass shooting in a supermarket there 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 and well delivered, and hitting on the necessary themes of combating hatred and defending democracy. And beyond the important topic, it also demonstrated a lot about representation and presidenting.
What was striking about the speech was how Bidenesque it was, combining all of his leading traits as a public figure. Biden displayed the empathy that was a central part of his campaign — how losing loved ones is something he understands from repeated personal experience. It’s worth noting, by the way, that Biden is hardly unique among presidents in having lost family members; that it has become so much a part of his political persona is in part about the tragedies he’s endured, but it’s also a choice he’s made to base much of his representational style on empathy.
Biden also deployed, as usual, his Scranton-ness — specifically comparing Buffalo to the working-class hometown of his Pennsylvania youth. Biden evokes Scranton, his parents and his roots not to contrast them to other places or backgrounds, but as an inclusive form of “one of us” representation. Biden doesn’t treat Scranton or comparable places as “real” America in opposition to alien-seeming cities and regions, or his Roman Catholic religion or Irish ethnic roots as more American than others. Instead, he treats himself and Scranton as typical of all Americans, from all sorts of 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 empathy president or a one-of-us president. He’s also the guy who shoots off his mouth too often — 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 very much in evidence on Tuesday. He didn’t shy away from calling the massacre in Buffalo 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 and 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, horror-filled challenge was simply that Americans have seen too many presidential speeches after gun violence of all kinds and after violence sparked by ethnic bigotry. How would this speech stand on its own? How would it not seem like just another link in a chain of nice words that produced no tangible results?
And then: How could Biden make clear that attacks like the Buffalo massacre are attacks on democracy, and that they are tightly connected not just to bigoted speech but to broader attacks on US democracy — without giving a partisan speech that would not only sound inappropriate, but more importantly be ineffective?
For Biden, his empathy and Scranton-ness set the stage for the bluntness that allowed him to make that case. 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 attack on the US Capitol by invaders bent on overturning the 2020 election to the way that white supremacy is 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 US president to come out and say it.
That doesn’t mean that the speech is going to cause people to turn away from irresponsible politicians and TV hosts who go around spouting bigoted conspiracy theories, much less convince those who are harming the nation by doing so to cut it out. 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 do his best to defend democratic ideals. It simply is part of the head-of-state responsibilities of the presidency, responsibilities that can harm or enhance the president’s influence. On Tuesday, Biden fulfilled those duties well.