In his speech from the Capitol’s Statuary Hall on Thursday, advisers said, the President intends to touch upon his deeply personal views of the assault on democracy and the attack on the hallowed Capitol building, where he spent nearly four decades during his time as a senator.
Biden worked over the holidays to write and refine an address that will be bluntly honest about the motivations and consequences of the riot, along with the threats to American democracy that still persist. It’s a topic that drives Biden, according to officials, but one that hasn’t played a central role in his public agenda. He has left investigating the riot to Congress and made clear he won’t interject into the Justice Department’s prosecution of its perpetrators.
Still, the January 6 riot has doggedly shadowed Biden’s first year in office. The insurrection was unsuccessful in preventing him from becoming president, but it has instead become a persistent reminder of the divisions he once promised to heal and the fraught political environment in which he governs.
Biden has made attempts to bridge those divisions by doing what he can to move on. Even as many Democrats warn of troubling steps taken around the country that could potentially undermine future elections — including installing loyalists to Donald Trump on election boards and changing local voting laws — the President spent his first year in office prioritizing other legislative battles, including Covid relief money, an infrastructure bill and a large social and climate spending package that is still pending.
Mindful of not allowing Trump to hijack his presidency, Biden has made it a habit not to mention his predecessor by name, though he still does sometimes. He recently claimed, “I don’t think about the former President.”
Yet Trump’s influence has persisted, including in Congress where January 6 has become an enduring test of loyalty to the former President. While Trump canceled a news conference scheduled for Thursday at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, he continues to spread false information about the election at rallies and during media appearances.
‘We have much to do’
One year ago on that January afternoon, Biden was two weeks away from being sworn in as president and was scheduled to give a speech on the economy. Those remarks were delayed for more than two hours as a paralyzed nation viewed the violence with horror and disbelief.
That day, Biden told one of his closest aides that his transition to power — and likely his presidency — had just become markedly more difficult.
It was a rare exception during his two months as president-elect when Biden directly raised Trump’s name during a public speech, demanding he call off his loyal followers.
Fourteen days later in his inaugural address, delivered from the very spot of the rampage, Biden sought to use the deadly riot as a teachable moment for the nation, striking an optimistic note that a divided nation could come together.
“We have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility,” Biden said. “Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal.”
On that day, memories of the Capitol breach were still fresh among the lawmakers and other officials who gathered on West Front. At the time, nerves in Washington were raw from the violence, razor-topped fencing surrounded the Capitol complex and 25,000 National Guardsmen were patrolling the city as fears of more violence persisted.
Since that moment, though, the lie undermining Biden’s victory over Trump has grown beyond any expectation. The anniversary speech that Biden is set to deliver on Thursday is shaping up to be far more pointed.
“President Biden will lay out the significance of what happened at the Capitol and the singular responsibility President Trump has for the chaos and carnage that we saw,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “And he will forcibly push back on the lie spread by the former President and attempt to mislead the American people and his own supporters as well as distract from his role and what happened.”
A day that won’t go away
As Biden nears the one-year mark of his presidency, the change in tone underscores one of the biggest surprises of the office: Trump, whom he defeated 306 to 232 electoral votes, looms far larger than the predecessor of any modern-day president.
The opening weeks of Biden’s presidency shared a spotlight with Trump’s second impeachment trial in the Senate, where the Republican was ultimately acquitted after Democrats accused him of inciting the riot at the Capitol.
In other ways, January 6 has continued to arise at regular intervals. The event has seeped into his diplomatic conversations. Biden has cited fellow world leaders who he says ask him regularly whether American democracy will survive its current strains: “Is America going to be all right?” he claims his counterparts ask him at foreign summits and over the phone.
When lawmakers were in the process of forming a committee to investigate the attack in the spring, Biden voiced support for the efforts but otherwise sought to put distance between himself and the process, insisting the decisions on the panel’s makeup and mission were best left to members of Congress.
Last month, he said former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows was “worthy of being held in contempt” for similarly failing to appear for a deposition.
Democrats are looking to use the January 6 anniversary as a launching point to advance voting rights legislation, which has been stalled for the past year. Activists are pushing for Biden to reorient his strategy in the new year to pass something by the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in mid-January. Doing so would likely require altering Senate rules to overcome Republican opposition.
White House officials say Biden will touch on voting rights in his speech Thursday, but intends to address the topic in a far more substantive way next week during a trip to Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights movement. He and Vice President Kamala Harris are set to visit Georgia on Tuesday.