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Opinion Biden explains why we cannot move on from Jan. 6

President Biden speaks on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Reuters)
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President Biden on Thursday, the first anniversary of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol instigated by his predecessor, reminded the nation of the horror of the insurrection while making clear the violence was only the final act in a failed coup attempt, not its entirety. More important, he reiterated a call to move away from the MAGA movement’s cult of violence, lies and authoritarianism.

As White House press secretary Jen Psaki previewed on Wednesday, Biden’s speech intended to “speak to the work we still need to do to secure and strengthen our democracy and our institutions to reject the hatred and lies we saw on January 6 and to unite our country.” She also said he would not be shy about pointing the finger directly at former president Donald Trump, who had “singular responsibility ... for the chaos and carnage that we saw.”

How did Biden do? His speech was among his strongest to date in tone, delivery and substance. It placed him, as he put it, “in the breach” to protect democracy. Biden put aside the notion that ignoring his predecessor was a way to deny Trump attention. Instead, he was more blunt than ever. Trump was a “loser” and a “defeated former president” who could not accept that he lost, Biden said. He faulted the former president for spreading a “web of lies” and correctly traced the attempt to overthrow democracy to his efforts even before the election to undermine its legitimacy.

That Biden was compelled to ask his fellow Americans to close their eyes and recall the events of Jan. 6 is a measure of how far the GOP has gone in lying and distorting history. Similarly, it was commentary on the extent of the "big lie" that Biden had to take the time to reiterate that courts rejected every claim of fraud, that every audit confirmed the election results and that every winning Republican accepted the legitimacy of their own elections (despite appearing on the same ballot as Trump). In a simple but effective phrase, he said, “You can’t love your country only when you win.”

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Biden, in his most compelling language, vigorously defended voters as the defenders of democracy. The former president and those who stormed the Capitol, however, were its attackers, having "held a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy.”

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Biden also prodded Republicans to stop enabling the former president and his lies. “They seem no longer to want to be the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan, the Bushes,” he noted, even as he extended a hand to work with them to solve the country’s problems.

Biden’s emphatic stance that he will not interfere with prosecutorial decisions meant he had to highlight the defeated Trump’s responsibility for the events that unfolded without appearing to direct the Justice Department to go after Trump. He did so by avoiding legal terminology and focusing on truth-telling, not legal allegations.

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He also raised the discussion to a more philosophical level, asking, “Are we going to be a nation that accepts political violence as a norm? Are we going to be a nation where we allow partisan election officials to overturn the legally expressed will of the people?” And he was frank in posing the choice between truth and lies. “The way forward is to recognize the truth and to live by it,” he said.

Biden is not regarded as an adept speaker, but this speech was everything that presidential oratory should be: focused, resolute, unstinting in candor and high-minded. The question remains whether it will be sufficient to remind Americans that we truly are in a battle between truth and lies, democracy and rule of the mob. But no one can fault Biden as shirking his obligation as president to defend the Constitution.