When he ran for president, Joe Biden frequently claimed that he was engaged in a “battle for the soul of America.” His campaign advertisements often invoked the “soul of America.” The soul-talk was relentless enough that even his allies on the left found it irksome. “The problem with his presidential metaphysics is that it demands so little of us,” wrote John Patrick Leary in Mother Jones. He noted that what Biden in effect was saying was: “To restore the soul of the nation, vote for the former vice president.”
This didn’t stop Biden from invoking the country’s soul, however. When he won the election, he vowed in his victory speech to “restore the soul of America.” He also claimed he would “restore the soul” of the country in his Inaugural address. Biden repeated the soul talk in a Memorial Day speech in May.
The soul was so frequent a topic of Biden’s public speeches that the New York Times devoted an entire story to it. Discussing it with presidential speechwriter Jon Meacham, the Times noted, “When Mr. Biden says this is a battle for the soul of the nation, he is not using it religiously but as a synonym for character, said the presidential historian Jon Meacham, who has spoken often with Mr. Biden about the soul.” Meacham noted that Biden used the word to signal “a restoration of a politics that is more familiar and not so agitating.” Voters “just want somebody to run the damn thing with a modicum of efficiency and sanity,” Meacham said.
And yet, besides the fact that one usually discusses the soul with one’s priest, not one’s speechwriter, the president has not proven capable of fulfilling Meacham’s claim that Biden would “run the damn thing” (meaning the United States) with a modicum of efficiency and sanity.
Just last Friday, the news included stories that the Biden administration had killed an innocent Afghan family in a drone strike; had its plan for COVID booster shots nixed by the Food and Drug Administration; failed to stem the ongoing crisis at the southern border; and angered France to the point where the country recalled its ambassador to the United States.
As well, Americans remain concerned about the country’s economic prospects, the ongoing pandemic, and the disastrous withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, where an untold number of American citizens, green card holders, and Afghan visa-holders eligible to immigrate are still trapped under Taliban rule. Biden promised Americans an end to the existential crises he claims Trump caused; instead, he’s proven the truth of Ambrose Bierce’s description of conservatives and liberals in his Devil’s Dictionary: “A conservative is a statesman who is enamored of existing evils; as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.”
Perhaps to distract from these harsh realities, the New York Times re-upped the soul talk, this time in an interview over the weekend with First Lady Jill Biden. “Eight months into Mr. Biden’s presidency, both husband and wife are finding that winning the ‘battle for the soul of the nation’ is perhaps his most elusive campaign promise,” the Times notes. “In Washington, an outrage-driven approach to politics has replaced Mr. Biden’s rose-colored belief that bipartisan deal making can be an art form. As he tries to prove that this is still possible, his wife is not a bystander.”
In addition to predictable puffery about the First Lady, the Times story paints the Biden administration as unfairly under attack, with Joe Biden bewildered that Americans aren’t buying what he’s selling: “Despite pleas from the Bidens for Americans to overcome their differences during a devastating pandemic, there is evidence everywhere that the country is no more united than it was when Mr. Biden took office,” the story notes.
Given that those pleas for unity often take the form of Biden criticizing Republican governors for their COVID policies (while ignoring the higher death tolls in states run by Democratic governors) or blaming his disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal on his predecessor (and, worse, on Afghans themselves), is it any surprise that the country isn’t brimming with Biden-sponsored soulfulness?
Presidents have long invoked spiritual metaphors to elevate the secular (and often profane) world of politics. But Biden’s efforts thus far are both quantitatively and qualitatively different. Biden is invoking the language of the soul while mismanaging basic governance, then acting aggrieved when his soul-talk can’t paper over his functional failures.
In a recent interview with husband-and-wife political philosophers Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey, Barton Swaim of the Wall Street Journal describes a concern the Storeys have spent their career exploring, which might be called the crisis of the liberal soul. “The loss of forms in modern democratic societies, the Storeys contend, cultivates a kind of chronic restlessness and anxiety. Without forms—without conventions and attendant expectations, without institutional connections defining our relationships—‘every decision becomes an existential crisis,’ Mrs. Storey says. ‘You’re a free-floating atom. You have to guess what the proper response is to any circumstance.’”
The Biden administration seems to be doing just that sort of guesswork a lot lately. And Biden seems to think that deploying soul talk is enough to soothe Americans’ anxieties about the country’s direction and challenges. But a nation’s soul, if it has one, is determined by the character of its people and their faith in its institutions, not the policies and rhetoric of elected officials like Joe Biden. In other words, if a politician is asking you to entrust your soul to his care, and you believe him, you’ve already lost it.