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Opinion Biden is disgracing the institution of the prime-time presidential address

President Biden speaks in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., about his crime-prevention initiative, the Safer America Plan, Aug. 30. (Hannah Beier/Bloomberg)
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President Biden will deliver a nationally televised prime-time address Thursday on “the continued battle for the soul of the nation” and arguing that the country’s democratic values will be at stake during the midterm elections.

If Biden wanted to give a prime-time address to explain his up to $1 trillion student debt forgiveness plan, that would be one thing. But just nine weeks before midterm elections, Biden wants to use a prime-time presidential address to deliver a blatantly political campaign speech attacking the Republican Party — and television networks are going to give him with free airtime to deliver it?

As a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, I helped write numerous presidential prime-time addresses to the nation. Every single one of them was to discuss either military action, a national tragedy or a major policy initiative. Bush delivered prime-time addresses on the 9/11 attacks; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the broader war on terrorism; the capture of Saddam Hussein; the loss of the space shuttle Columbia; Hurricane Katrina; immigration reform; the appointment Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.; and the 2008 financial crisis.

Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, delivered prime-time addresses on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; his plans to end combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif.,; the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt; government shutdowns; the death of Osama bin Laden; the Boston Marathon bombing; and military strikes in Syria and Iraq.

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Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, delivered prime-time addresses to discuss his economic programs; military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan, Serbia, and Somalia; the refugee crisis in Haiti; his middle-class bill of rights; his plan to balance the federal budget; peace agreements in Bosnia and Kosovo; and his grand jury testimony in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Clinton’s predecessor, George H.W. Bush, delivered prime-time addresses on his national drug control strategy; his invasion of Panama; the deployment of U.S. military forces to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf War; the federal budget; a nuclear arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union; and a balanced-budget amendment.

His predecessor, Ronald Reagan, delivered prime-time addresses on the economy; his 1981 tax cut plan; the air traffic controllers strike; the martial law crackdown in Poland; Middle East peace; deployment of a multinational force to Beirut; his plans to address unemployment and inflation; nuclear deterrence with the Soviet Union; the Strategic Defense Initiative; the Soviet attack on a Korean airliner; the invasion of Grenada; his summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, Iceland and Washington; the space shuttle Challenger explosion; airstrikes against Libya; aid to the Nicaraguan contras; and the Iran-contra scandal. Reagan did announce his plans to seek reelection in a prime-time address from the Oval Office, but that was 10 months before the election — and he spent the entire speech discussing his first-term accomplishments and did not even mention the opposition party once.

Most recently, Donald Trump delivered addresses during his presidency on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan; border security; and the coronavirus pandemic. (He did deliver his Republican National Convention acceptance speech from the Truman balcony — which was controversial — but his convention address, like those of all presidential candidates, would have been given prime-time coverage no matter where it was delivered.)

What this means is that Biden is the only president in more than four decades to ask the major news networks to preempt their prime-time programming just weeks before an election and broadcast a campaign speech whose stated purpose is to attack the opposition party.

For the sitting president to commandeer the institution of a prime-time presidential address — one that has been employed by his predecessors to comfort us in tragedy, announce military action and make the case for policy initiatives of great consequence — and use it to for partisan attacks is not a legitimate use of such a forum.

There’s simply no excuse for networks to give Biden free airtime for this speech — much less to do so without giving Republicans equal time to respond. If Biden wants to deliver a prime-time campaign ad attacking Republicans, he should have to pay for it.