The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden embraces symbolism, but substance on some issues proves more difficult

President Biden silently prays during a moment of silence during commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre on June 1 in Tulsa. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

TULSA — President Biden launched his 2020 campaign with a video response to the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, recounting the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who descended on the city, their "crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging, and bearing the fangs of racism."

Later in that campaign, Biden delivered remarks at Gettysburg, using the historic Civil War battlefield to drive home “the cost of division” and imploring: “We must come together as a nation.”

And last week, Biden visited Tulsa to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the racial violence that left 35 blocks of the city’s “Black Wall Street” burned to the ground and as many as 300 Black Americans dead, declaring: “This was not a riot, this was a massacre.”

“For much too long the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness,” Biden said, explaining his decision to visit Tulsa. “But just because history is silent, it doesn’t mean that it did not take place. And while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing.”

Biden came to office with an abiding belief in the potency of symbols and in the ability of a president’s utterances to influence not just policy but the course of a nation, according to current and former aides and speechwriters. The conviction, they said, is enduring for Biden — especially on the topic of race — even as he grapples in real time with the limits of ambitious symbolism and rhetoric.

“The president looks at some of these places of great historic importance and significance as really being part of the fabric of America, and when he goes to speak there, he really believes he is speaking to the core of the nation’s values — frequently, who we are, and always, who are we going to be,” said Mike Donilon, a senior Biden adviser.

But Biden’s early months in office also have revealed the difficulties in matching symbolism with substance. On issues of racial justice — which he identified as one of the four major crises he would prioritize — Biden has few tangible accomplishments to point to aside from a handful of executive orders, as well as legislation combating Asian American hate crimes.

Biden’s major racial justice priorities — protecting voting rights and addressing systemic racism in policing — have stalled amid legislative gridlock in Congress, leaving some activists frustrated that Biden doesn’t have more tangible successes.

“With those words come a responsibility to take action and to form policy and to ensure that those policies are implemented in a way that lands with the types of outcomes that we’ve been talking about,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the progressive Working Families Party. “There is a point where the rhetoric is not backed up, and that’s the risk that that administration runs, and why it's so critical that they demonstrate some urgency.”

Many presidents have sought to deploy symbolism to help elevate their values and goals, but Biden aides and advisers suggest the current president is particularly attuned to its potential benefits.

“Presidents have an immense symbolic power in choosing the venues in which they invest their scant time,” Jon Meacham, a historian who occasionally advises Biden and who was mentioned in Biden’s Tulsa speech, wrote in an email. “Lincoln at Gettysburg; Truman addressing the NAACP at the Lincoln Memorial; Reagan at the Berlin Wall; Bush 43 at the National Islamic Center after 9/11: These are all examples of a president’s using a specific location to underscore and amplify the message he wants to send.

“Biden gets this viscerally,” Meacham continued, “which is why he went to Gettysburg to talk about division and Warm Springs to talk about healing. Do words and settings change everything? Of course not. But they can help.”

Last week in Tulsa, Biden described a “through-line” that ran from what happened 100 years ago to “what you saw in Charlottesville four years ago” to the Jan. 6 insurrection five months ago.

“Look around at the various hate crimes against Asian Americans and Jewish Americans,” Biden said. “Hate that never goes away, hate only hides.”

At Tulsa event, Biden announces that Harris will lead push for voting protections

Biden announced that Vice President Harris would the lead his administration’s effort to protect voting rights and unveiled a new series of policies meant to narrow the wealth gap between Black and White Americans, promising to “increase the share of the dollars the federal government spends to small disadvantaged businesses, including Black and brown small businesses.”

But the two voting bills that Harris is shepherding face an uncertain future in Congress amid overwhelming Republican opposition. The logjam has prompted many Democratic lawmakers and activists to call for the elimination of the filibuster, a Senate procedure that requires 60 votes for most bills and which Biden has been hesitant to change.

“These are frequently ongoing battles and challenges, and he looks at this as just a relentless and ongoing effort,” Donilon said when asked about the gap between Biden’s rhetoric and his specific accomplishments.

Ben Rhodes, a former speechwriter and deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, said that soaring rhetoric against symbolic backdrops comes with some risk and often presents “a unique challenge.”

“Your words inevitably tend to exceed the expectations of what the political system can produce, but I think that’s necessary,” he said. “You have to set some direction, you have to strategically exceed people’s expectations — otherwise there’s never any pressure to do anything.”

But Rhodes, who served in a dual role of policymaking and speechwriting during the Obama administration, also said he found that “the speeches end up enduring more than the policies, in a way.”

He pointed to Obama’s decision to begin singing “Amazing Grace” after he gave the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., who was among nine killed when a White man opened fire on the Black congregation. The entire church joined Obama in singing, and the moment became one of the most iconic of his presidency.

“On the one hand, Obama speaks at Charleston and we still can’t pass gun violence reforms,” Rhodes said. “On the other hand, Obama speaks at Charleston and it’s part of what became a broader movement about removing Confederate symbols and acknowledging white supremacy and advancing this broader reckoning.”

Biden also has tried to use the bully pulpit to nudge the nation toward progress. Succeeding President Donald Trump — a leader who often inflamed racial tensions — Biden has been intentional about the places and people he has elevated.

He delivered a prime-time address from the Cross Hall of the White House after a jury found Derek Chauvin, a White Minneapolis police officer, guilty of killing George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. He then brought Floyd’s family to the White House to discuss police reform.

Biden often has spoken of his belief in the power of a president’s words and actions, and frequently rebuked Trump for his caustic language and elevation of conspiracy theorists and fringe groups.

“The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is,” Biden said in January after the insurrection at the Capitol. “At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.”

His Oval Office decorations also serve as a symbolic rebuke of Trump. Biden took down Trump’s portrait of Andrew Jackson — who oversaw an Indian removal policy that led to the“Trail of Tears” — and prominently features one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He added busts of Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt, and hung a portrait of Benjamin Franklin to represent his commitment to following science after assailing Trump for his pandemic response.

During his campaign, Biden regularly leaned on historic events rife with symbolism to form the core of his message. He launched his bid with a video about the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, delivering a searing criticism of Trump’s response to the violence in which he claimed “both sides” were to blame.

During the general election, Biden made more overt references to history as he honed his message. He traveled to Gettysburg last October to call for national unity, drawing parallels between the Civil War and describing the nation as a “house divided.”

Later that month, he visited Warm Springs, Ga. — where Roosevelt had often retreated seeking relief from the polio that left him partly paralyzed — as he emphasized his message of unity.

Biden struggles to define his ‘unity’ promise for a divided nation

“This place, Warm Springs, is a reminder that though broken, each of us can be healed,” Biden said. “That as a people and a country, we can overcome this devastating virus. That we can heal a suffering world. And yes, we can restore our soul and save our country.”

Celinda Lake, a longtime Biden pollster, said his speeches at historical landmarks were especially successful in appealing to older voters and uniting multiple generations behind a common message. That skill, she said, is particularly important for issues of racial justice, where Biden may find more resistance to his calls for sweeping change.

“These symbols, particularly Gettysburg and Warm Springs, they are iconic moments for older voters,” she said. “He’s really able to bracket generations in that way and bring people along.”

Biden’s approach stands in stark contrast with Trump, who embraced a very different set of symbols to rally his base and convey his values to supporters. Trump could be almost campy in his overt displays of symbolism, hugging an American flag — literally — or holding a Bible aloft outside St. John’s Church across from the White House after police used tear gas to clear a path for him through the protesters.

In other moments, Trump shirked the symbolic duties of the presidency, often unable or unwilling to rise to the role of consoler-in-chief.

Trump’s own visit to Tulsa last June for a campaign rally proved divisive and controversial. Trump originally scheduled his rally for Juneteenth, seemingly unaware of the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States and its significance to Black Americans. He also held the rally in the early months of the deadly pandemic, prompting a national outcry and ultimately resulting in a sparsely attended event.

By contrast, current and former Biden aides say the president has long drawn on the nation’s history, a subject he has always been interested in, to push for change.

“When he's giving these major speeches, he’s always been rooted in history,” said Matt Teper, who served as Biden's chief speechwriter during the early years of his vice presidency. “He always wants to go back, find the right quote, the right person, the right idea from the past that brings us forward into the present.”

Parker reported from Washington.