The Speech No President Should Have to Give

Joe Biden’s duty made it necessary.

Joe Biden giving his "Soul of the Nation" speech on September 1, 2022
Joe Biden giving his "Soul of the Nation" speech on September 1, 2022 (Jim Watson / AFP / Getty)

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We’re all parsing The Speech, Joe Biden’s “Soul of the Nation” address about the growing anti-constitutionalism of Republican extremism. But we should first consider how hard it is to evaluate a speech that no president should have to give.

Before we turn to Biden, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

A Sad Duty

Joe Biden told us last night that American democracy is under attack. He did so in plain language and left no doubt about either the dire nature, or the source, of the threat. Most important, he named names—including, finally, Donald Trump. The president took a political risk and spoke the hard truth: that a significant number of citizens of the United States of America, concentrated in the rotted-out shell of the Republican Party, have become extremists who are engaged in anti-constitutional opposition to our system of government.

Whenever a president gives a speech, pundits, analysts, and citizens all jump to grade the exercise. Was it a great speech or just a good speech? Did it hit the right marks? Did it serve the right constituency? Did it help or hurt his party?

This speech, however, defies such analysis. (I have some serious complaints about the optics and staging. I’ll get to those.) Instead, we should be deeply troubled that Joe Biden had to give this speech at all.

And make no mistake: He had to give it. His duty demanded it. As Biden rightly said, the American democracy faces an “ongoing attack” from what he termed “MAGA Republicans” who do not respect the Constitution, the rule of law, the will of the people, or the results of free elections. No president could remain silent under such circumstances.

Indeed, I’m not sure it was strong enough. I bristled a bit when the president spoke of the reasonable Republicans with whom he could work. (“Joe Manchin?” I wondered.) Who are these Republicans? Where are they? If you’re going to give a speech about how millions of people now live, as Biden said, in the “shadow of lies,” and you think there are also reasonable people among them, you should encourage them to come into the open and fight alongside you.

As someone who once wrote speeches for a few politicians, I would also take points off here and there for a loss of focus. I’m sure it was important to some staffers to get in digs about prescription drugs, guns, and clean energy, but whoever took the final pass on the draft should have gotten out the red pen. This wasn’t the time.

Mostly what I felt watching the president was both sympathy and a kind of horror that he was having to say any of this at all. And so I simply cannot judge it as anything but a sad duty, the same kind of speech a president must give in the face of a national tragedy. These are not speeches anyone wants to write or give. Nonetheless, if I had to pick out a line that will resonate in history, I think—or I hope—that it will be Biden’s reminder that democracy requires sensible, tolerant, and mature human beings in order to work:

Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election: Either they win or they were cheated … You can’t love your country only when you win.

It really is that simple.

Substance aside, if there’s one place this speech was a bungle, it was in the staging. Optics matter; bathing the president in red so that he looked like His Infernal Eminence, Joseph Biden, Lord of the Underworld, was a bad idea. The podium looked like it was set up for a reading from the Necronomicon. Biden, using light as a metaphor, should have been standing in actual light.

I have also taken a galactic amount of steam on social media for being among those who objected to the placement of two Marines in semidarkness behind Biden. People on Twitter flooded me with pictures of presidents and military people, proving only that no one understood the problem. Yes, presidents routinely use military people as backdrops, something I rarely like seeing. It is almost always, however, at the White House, or on military bases, in front of military audiences, at military-themed events, and so on. Giving a speech about democracy in downtown Philadelphia and bringing your own Marines is not something I recall ever seeing. Frankly, staging Marines as if they are the president’s Praetorian Guards is the sort of thing Trump would love.

In any case, Biden did what he had to do. We have reached a watershed in American politics. The president of the United States has told us directly that our system of government is under attack. What happens next is, in every way, up to us.


Today’s News
  1. U.S. job growth slowed in August but remained generally strong, according to the latest jobs report from the Labor Department.
  2. Russia is postponing the reopening of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline—one of Europe’s main gas-supply pathways. The country said it discovered an issue during maintenance.
  3. A detailed inventory from the Mar-a-Lago search, released today, revealed that classified documents were mixed with personal items in storage boxes, and that officials found empty folders that had contained classified documents.


Evening Read
Head with chat bubble shaped as another head
(The Atlantic)

You’ve Probably Seen Yourself in Your Memories

By Jacob Stern

Pick a memory. It could be as recent as breakfast or as distant as your first day of kindergarten. What matters is that you can really visualize it. Hold the image in your mind.

Now consider: Do you see the scene through your own eyes, as you did at the time? Or do you see yourself in it, as if you’re watching a character in a movie? Do you see it, in other words, from a first-person or a third-person perspective? Usually, we associate this kind of distinction with storytelling and fiction-writing. But like a story, every visual memory has its own implicit vantage point. All seeing is seeing from somewhere. And sometimes, in memories, that somewhere is not where you actually were at the time.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
A baby's hand holds an adult's thumb
(Obie Oberholzer / Redux)

Read. A writer and parent suggests five books that are helping her raise children in a broken world. And there’s still time to pick something up from our summer reading guide, which has a book for every mood.

If you’ve been trying to read lately but nothing’s sticking, we suggest turning to this list of 12 books to help you love reading again.

Watch. In theaters, Three Thousand Years of Longing showcases the whimsical, intellectual chemistry of its stars.

At home there’s Benediction, available to stream on multiple platforms, a biography of a famed poet by an empathetic filmmaker. (Or check out the rest of the options on our list of the 10 must-watch indie films of the summer.)

Looking to start a TV show? Rutherford Falls, on Peacock, is a buoyant comedy about a small town struggling to honor Native rights and traditions. (And be sure to read our full list of underseen TV shows you should watch.)

Play our daily crossword.


A while back, I wrote about my late-night television addiction, and specifically about the wonderful and weird network known as MeTV. Unfortunately, I can no longer get MeTV—rest assured, I’m working on it—so I thought I’d offer two offbeat movie recommendations for those of you who are insomniacs like me. Both of them are 1980s gems that take place in the middle of the night: Into the Night, directed by John Landis, and After Hours, a Martin Scorsese picture. I drove a taxi in graduate school, and what I love about both movies is how they capture the way a city, after the bars close, has a different personality. And they’re both fun. Both of them were flops when they were released within months of each other in 1985 but have since found their cult audiences over the years.

Their plots, oddly enough, are similar: Young men (Jeff Goldblum in Los Angeles, Griffin Dunne in New York), restless late at night, venture into the city, stray too far from home, and get mixed up with beautiful but possibly unstable women (Michelle Pfeiffer and Rosanna Arquette, respectively). Dark comedy, violence, and general paranoia ensue. To say more would be to give away too much, but watch for a cameo by David Bowie in L.A. and a kooky turn by Verna Bloom in New York.

The Daily is off for Labor Day, but I’ll be back with you on Tuesday. Enjoy your weekend.

– Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.