The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden is inviting us to argue about freedom. We should.

President Biden acknowledges the crowd during an event in Washington on April 25. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

When President Biden announced in a video last week that he was seeking reelection, he opened the possibility that the 2024 campaign will involve a genuine — perhaps even searching — philosophical debate over the meaning of freedom.

If this seems outlandishly optimistic or highbrow, please hold your skepticism for at least a few paragraphs and bear in mind that voters will still be offered plenty enough of the normal fodder of electioneering, including the divisive harangues and personal attacks.

Biden’s video opened with the word “freedom,” used it four more times and threw in a mention of “bedrock freedoms” for good measure. During a 90-second campaign ad that followed, the word was mentioned six times. In addition, the video declared: “Joe Biden has made defending our basic freedoms the cause of his presidency.”

You can get a feel for where Biden is going when he explains what “basic freedoms” he has in mind: “The freedom for women to make their own health-care decisions, the freedom for our children to be safe from gun violence, the freedom to vote and have your vote counted. For seniors to live with dignity, and to give every American the freedom that comes with a fair shot at building a good life.”

Freedom, of course, is as American a word as you can imagine, and Biden is certainly not the first Democrat to run with it. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in one of his most important speeches, committed himself to “the four freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

But for much of the past half-century, freedom has largely been a Republican battle cry. Democrats and progressives have been much more inclined to talk about justice, equality, democracy, fairness or community.

In the GOP’s telling, freedom is largely defined by hands-off government when it comes to business regulation and low taxes. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, the political founders of contemporary conservatism, were the poets of this sort of liberty. A campaign biography of Goldwater, the defeated 1964 Republican nominee who was also a proud Air Force pilot, carried the jaunty subtitle: “Freedom is his Flight Plan.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is preparing to run for president and made a name for himself by trashing health restrictions during the pandemic, thinks he can ride the old definition to the White House. His recent book is titled: “The Courage to Be Free.”

But Biden is getting at a deep contradiction in the conservative view of freedom. Consider that DeSantis supports sharp restrictions on abortion, has backed a process through which books can be removed from school libraries, and signed laws narrowing what can be taught about the United States’ racial history and restricting teaching about LGBTQ issues.

He also used government power to retaliate against Disney for the company’s opposition to his policies on gay and lesbian rights. The move has split conservatives, many of whom are uneasy with the invocation of public authority against a corporation for resisting a politician’s preferences.

Biden is doing something else as well, and here he may owe a debt to one of his opponents in the 2020 Democratic primaries who is now his transportation secretary. When Pete Buttigieg announced his candidacy in April 2019, one of his central themes was the need for progressives to reclaim the idea of freedom, “something that our conservative friends have come to think of as their own.”

“Let me tell you,” Buttigieg said then, “freedom doesn’t belong to one political party.” He went on to argue that health care, consumer protection, racial justice, and LGBTQ, labor and women’s rights were all about freedom. His definition: “The chance to live a life of your choosing, in keeping with your values: that is freedom in its richest sense.”

I chatted with Buttigieg about freedom last week, and though he did not want to get into the campaign or Biden’s video out of respect for the Hatch Act, he was happy to relate the concept to his own work and the administration’s.

“You are freer to pursue a life of your choosing if you're literally physically freer to move about to where you need to go,” he said. “We've always associated the idea of freedom with physical movement. Right. I mean, what's the opposite of freedom? It's confinement.”

Then he got to the core philosophical point inherent in Biden’s argument. “Freedom isn’t just about freedom from. It’s freedom to,” he said, noting that while it’s important to protect people from “government overreach,” government can also enhance the “freedom to live the way you want to live by providing basic services and resources.”

And he couldn’t resist adding: “You can be for liberty, or you can be for banning books. You cannot be for both.”

Sure, there will be plenty of talk about the economy, Donald Trump and Biden’s record. But my aspiration is for a campaign in which we challenge our politicians and each other to think hard about what freedom really means.