Enough. Do Something.

The 17-minute speech was peak oratorical Biden.

A presidential eulogy in Uvalde TX seemed obligatory, but Biden refrained. He travelled there last Sunday (May 29) with the First Lady and met with families of the victims without giving a speech as he had in Buffalo twelve days earlier. His one public comment in Uvalde replied to a chant of “Do something” that arose from a crowd outside the church where he attended a service. “We will,” he said.

In lieu of another eulogy the president chose to deliver a prime-time address. More multiple shootings, including a well-covered one in Tulsa OK, occurred in the four-day  interim.

This seventeen-minute speech was peak oratorical Biden. He started on time with a measured walk along a red carpet lined with memorial candles. In a greeting-less opening he compared the battlefields where soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery had fallen with the “killing fields” across America. This set up a stunning statistic delivered minutes later: that more American children have died by gunfire in the last twenty years than on-duty police officers and active-duty military combined.

Avoiding one of his speaking habits, the President made no references to his own family tragedies; he mentioned his late son Beau but in the context of a Delaware red-flag law enacted while he was the state’s Attorney General. Biden said “do something” eight times and “enough” eleven times. He did not shout, another habit shorn. He relayed a fresh anecdote from his visit to Uvalde: 

And as we left the church, a grandmother who had just lost her granddaughter passed me a handwritten letter. It read, quote: “Erase the invisible line that is dividing our nation. Come up with a solution and fix what’s broken and make the changes that are necessary to prevent this happening again.”

Biden was swift and contained batting down Republican/gun lobby talking points. His money graf:

There have always been limitations on what weapons you can own in America. For example, machine guns have been federally regulated for nearly 90 years, and this is still a free country. This isn’t about taking away anyone’s rights. It’s about protecting children. It’s about protecting families. It’s about protecting whole communities. It’s about protecting our freedoms to go to school, to a grocery store, to a church, without being shot and killed.

Biden also reminded the audience that mental health, another don’t-say-guns talking point of the opposition, had been a pillar of his “unity agenda” in his 2022 State of the Union Address.

Best of all, this speech battened on exquisite political timing. It was delivered the same night the House Judiciary Committee approved a gun reform bill, while talks among  Senators of both parties continued, and in advance of the full Senate returning next week. The present tense of the legislative process Biden sought to hasten was nestled in a smart narrative frame: it stretched back twenty-three years to the Columbine CO school massacre and forward in a tacitly projected deadline for the Senate to act: the 17 days of scheduled funerals remaining in Uvalde.

The president’s ask of Congress (of Republican Senators, really) was layered to foster negotiation. The main item was restoration of the ban on assault weapons, expanded to include ammunition magazines. But, said Biden, if that was not feasible then several other by now familiar but no less urgent measures were in order. And behind that agenda stands public opinion:

if Congress fails, I believe this time a majority of the American people won’t give up either. I believe the majority of you will act to turn your outrage into making this issue central to your vote.

That may not be a credible threat, as they say in the negotiations world. Biden acknowledged as much. But it is the proper threat for a president to make in a representative democracy.

Although this speech was not a eulogy, Biden did close with scripture. He quoted Psalm 91, noting it was regularly “sung in my church.” His religiosity has always been authentic.

Joe Biden is notoriously garrulous and prone to error and discombobulation. None of that was present on this night. His speech will become retrospectively historic should, in fact, the Congress pass gun safety legislation. That’s somewhat of a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. But regardless of what follows the speech was a rhetorical success.

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