In Lost Creek, Kentucky, Joe Biden promised flood victims Monday that their shattered lives will be restored — a message of optimism he hopes to beam right through a divided America three months before elections that will decide the fate of his presidency.
A disaster zone, where floods have killed at least 37 people, might seem an odd place for optimism.
The presidential motorcade rolled past scenes of savage natural violence — trees torn to pieces, yellow school buses tossed like toys, and fragments of people’s houses and belongings festooning the banks of a minor creek that had transformed into a sort of tsunami.
But after visiting victims, including one family whose mobile home had floated clean off its foundations before being wrecked up the street, the Democrat said the natural calamity was a moment to recall deep bonds.
“Everyone has an obligation to help,” Biden said. “I promise you, we’re staying, the federal government, along with the state and county and the city, we’re staying until everybody’s back to where they were. Not a joke.”
Championing unity in an era when Democrats and Republicans are barely able to talk might also seem like fantasy.
But Biden is on a roll.
If he was being written off as a lame duck only a few weeks ago, the 79-year-old is now celebrating a string of successes, including likely passage of the biggest climate change bill in US history and an extraordinary intelligence operation culminating in the killing of the last top Al-Qaeda leader involved in 9/11.
His administration has even delivered several landmark bills, including on infrastructure spending and gun ownership reforms, that won Republican support — something earlier considered all but impossible.
And the Democrat is clearly bursting to get back into the country after spending nearly two weeks in isolation due to Covid-19 and a rebound infection.
With November midterms rapidly approaching and Republicans, who are threatening to scuttle what’s left of Biden’s first term, forecast to take control of Congress, the sense of urgency is growing.
– Empathy, unity –
So in Lost Creek, Biden did one thing he has long been known for doing well: he comforted the grieving. A man with a long history of his own family tragedies, Biden rarely seems more at ease than with fellow sufferers.
He hugged adults, high-fived a toddler, and joked with a small boy whose home had been smashed that he would become president himself one day.
Then in a speech delivered in searing heat, with sweat gathering through his blue shirt, Biden broadened to a political message he wants the entire angry — many say broken — country to hear.
Recounting how one of the survivors had modestly told him that “Kentuckians don’t want to ask for too much,” he insisted that Americans across the 50 states should not even wait to be asked.
“They’re Americans,” he said of the stricken locals. “This happened in America, it’s an American problem. We’re all Americans.”
“So, I don’t want any Kentuckian telling me, ‘You don’t have to do this for me,'” he said. “Oh yeah we do. You’re an American citizen. We never give up, we never stop, we never bow, we never bend — we just go forward.”
This was the centrist, unity platform that got Biden elected to replace Donald Trump after just one term. It’s a message he hopes voters will embrace again in the midterms, maybe even saving Democrats’ control of Congress.
Kentucky’s Governor Andy Beshear echoed Biden, saying the tragedy has seen the people of his state “lean on one another in times of need — neither red nor blue, Democratic or Republican.”
Beshear may be a rare Democratic official in the heavily Republican state, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2020.
But Kentucky’s veteran Republican congressman Hal Rogers, who also attended the disaster zone visit, warmly praised Biden, calling him someone “doing what he can to ease the pain.”
Is the rest of America listening?
With Biden’s approval ratings stuck below 40 percent, it doesn’t seem so.
“The fact is we’ve been divided for a long time,” Biden responded, when asked by AFP why his message hasn’t got through.
Then, the eternal optimist, he added: “I think you’re going to see a lot of change.”