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Biden offers defense of democracy in Memorial Day speech

President Biden adjusted a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in Arlington, Va.
President Biden adjusted a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in Arlington, Va.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden delivered a rousing defense of democracy and a plea for unity during remarks to commemorate Memorial Day on Monday at Arlington National Cemetery, saying “democracy is more than a form of government - it is a way of being.”

"Democracy itself is in peril," the president said.

Speaking for roughly 20 minutes, Biden said the American soldiers buried around him, and around the world, gave their lives to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the country's form of government.

"Democracy must be defended at all costs," Biden said. "Democracy, that's the soul of America. And I believe it's a soul worth fighting for. And so do you. A soul worth dying for."

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Biden also referred to the threats to the country's form of government.

"The soul of America is animated by the perennial battle between our worst instincts, which we've seen of late, and our better angels."

He urged patriotism, saying there's currently a struggle, "between 'me first' and 'We the people.' "

The speech came as Republicans in Texas are trying to significantly restrict voting rights and as Republicans in the U.S. Senate used the filibuster to halt an investigation into the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Biden issued a strongly worded statement Saturday condemning the Texas efforts to curtail voting, calling them "an assault on Democracy." He declined to speak with reporters traveling with him over the weekend about the failure of legislation to launch the Jan. 6 probe.

During Monday's speech, Biden again framed the central tension of the times as a battle between democracy and autocracy, calling it the "battle for our time." He's used this argument to push for his $4 trillion in proposed spending, saying that Western democracies must show the world that they can make big investments and overcome gridlock.

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But in this instance, Biden cited the importance of shoring up institutions.

"Folks, we all know it, democracy thrives when the infrastructure of democracy is strong," Biden said.

That "infrastructure," he said, includes ensuring "people have the right to vote freely, fairly and conveniently." He also listed a free press that "pursues the truth" and a legal system that where the "rule of law applies equally and fairly to every citizen."

It was Biden's second Memorial Day address for the weekend, a marker of how significant the holiday is to him.

On Sunday, Biden attended a commemoration held near the Delaware Memorial Bridge in Wilmington, Del.

"As a nation, we must always remember - always remember," Biden said Sunday. "We must remember the price that was paid for our liberties."

During that address, the president said he has and plans to discuss American ideals when meeting with U.S. adversaries. During a recent two-hour conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden said, he made it "clear to him" that America would speak out for human rights.

Looking ahead to his summit later this month with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden promised he would be "making it clear that we will not - we will not stand by and let him abuse those rights."

Last year, as a presidential candidate, Biden also attended the commemoration in Delaware on Memorial Day. It was the first time he'd gone out in public amid the pandemic, and he wore a black mask.

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Though he was ridiculed for doing so by Republicans, the mask became an unofficial symbol of his campaign and his focus on managing the covid pandemic at the center of his agenda.

The weekend has been personal, as well.

Biden's eldest son, Beau, died six years ago Sunday. The president mentioned Beau, and his grief, during his public addresses on Sunday and Monday.

On Sunday, Biden, accompanied by his wife, Jill Biden, and several family members attended an early morning mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Wilmington.

After the service in drizzling rain, Biden and members of his family walked toward Beau’s gravestone.