On Monday afternoon, I stood on the cold and blustery South Lawn of the White House, where President Biden and 800 guests were celebrating the signing of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.
It was a quintessential autumn experience, complete with the sweet smell of rotting leaves and the faint smell, imagined or real, of burning firewood from somewhere in the distance.
As I stood there watching the sunset with my hands in my overcoat pockets trying to keep warm, I saw something I'd never seen there before: a family reunion (of sorts).
Every other reporter had departed and only a few photographers and technicians remained, gathering up their equipment from the recently concluded public event. That's when I watched the unguarded moment where a man let his hair down (what's left of it anyway) and enjoyed the company of friends and family. That's the only way to describe Joe Biden as he spent time with members of Congress while they congratulated him on the most significant achievement of his presidency so far.
RELATED: Why is Biden failing? His tightly controlled relationship to the media might be worse than Trump's
I've never seen a president look that unguarded and happy in office. Presidents are always guarded — even seemingly in moments of joy or sadness. Each move in the public eye is usually choreographed, planned and controlled, and with Biden more so than with many others. But not on Monday. Instead of the public Biden, I caught a glimpse of how he acts in private.
I was privy to this rare sighting because I was stubborn enough to stick around on the South Lawn as long as he did. Perhaps I should've left after the official ceremony was over. Everyone else in the press corps did. But no one shooed me away. Biden stayed for half an hour after the end of the ceremony, not wearing an overcoat and apparently enduring the weather better than those younger than himself, including me. He took selfies with old and new friends from government. Most were congressional friends. Some were from state and local governments. Some were labor leaders. But make no mistake; President Joe Biden looked like he was at a family reunion. He was with his people. He smiled easily, socialized freely and looked like a man who hadn't a care in the world. Quite frankly I was stunned.
Originally I decided to wait him out because there continue to be questions about the president's health. He has been seen coughing, and has stumbled on occasion. His appearance in a recent CNN town hall with Anderson Cooper drew criticism and concern — it appeared Cooper had to guide the president back on topic as Biden meandered. Some said he looked befuddled. I saw none of that Monday. The president looked as spry and as energetic as he was when I first covered him in a press scrum nearly 30 years ago. Being among his congressional family apparently gave him strength.
In his public speech on Monday, Biden never wavered and seemed filled with vitality as he explained the significance of signing the infrastructure bill. "The bill I'm about to sign into law is proof that despite the cynics, Democrats and Republicans can come together and deliver results," he said. Then he showed his mastery of politics by reminding everyone that the Republicans didn't get everything they wanted and neither did the Democrats — but they worked together to achieve tangible results. "Folks, too often in Washington the reason we didn't get things done is because we insisted on getting everything we want — everything. With this law, we focus on getting things done. I ran for president because the only way to move this country forward, in my view, was through compromise and consensus. That's how the system works. That's American democracy. We compromised. We reached a consensus. That's necessary."
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
Some 50 years from now, Biden explained, people would point to this moment and say it was when America rose to the challenge of the 21st century. Retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who spoke prior to Biden, gave Donald Trump some credit for mentioning infrastructure as an issue. But he gave Biden full credit for getting the job done and said that bipartisanship should be "rewarded, not attacked," reminding us that we have to "work together on big issues."
Just about an hour and a half earlier, White House press secretary Jen Psaki in her daily briefing acknowledged that the president's popularity had fallen recently as Biden continues to deal with problems like inflation. She also noted that the president's policies remain extremely popular among voters. Psaki blamed some of Biden's falling popularity on the pandemic. "There's a fatigue from COVID. We see that in poll after poll . . . People are sick and tired of COVID and the impacts on the economy. We understand that; we're tired of it too. That's why the No. 1 priority continues to be getting COVID under control," she said.
But that doesn't explain the weak poll numbers. Some believe that Biden's often misunderstood quest for bipartisanship and finding common ground is a weakness, and therefore a big part of the problem. The White House tried to clean that up this week, putting Biden and every other senior member of the administration on the road to preach the significance of the bipartisan infrastructure deal and to push his Build Back Better agenda, which is currently stuck in Congress.
But there are other problems. This week, Anne Applebaum wrote in The Atlantic about the problems of modern autocracies. She said they are supported by "sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services … and professional propagandists."
This also helps explain why Biden's poll numbers are falling. Some may suggest this is an indication that Biden is out of touch, while others may say (as his carefree attitude on the South Lawn might imply) that he knows something the rest of us do not. Applebaum, however, touched on an important problem: the continued promotion of autocracy and the way pundits, the media and members of the public too easily accept a false equivalency between Biden and the autocrats.
We all know the biggest promoter of autocratic fascism. It is Donald Trump. While Biden is promoting bipartisanship and unity, Trump is selling T-shirts that say "Let's Go Brandon," a none-too-subtle code for "F**k Joe Biden." He suggested last week that he had no problem with the Jan. 6 mob calling for the hanging of Mike Pence, his vice president at the time. He claims liberals are presiding over the "disintegration of our country." When Trump isn't debasing the presidency and the country trying to sell us autographed photos, footballs, T-shirts, hats, Christmas cards and ornaments, he's still trying to sell us on how crappy our country is and how the Democrats and the press are the enemy of the people.
Trump tells us life in America is horrible — but neglects to take any responsibility for that, even though he was president for four years. He might have better success telling us how great life is because he was president — but he could never say that because his stock in trade is fear, division, rancor, anger and hatred.
A new poll from The Economist and YouGov reports that 28 percent of Republican voters believe the delusion that Trump will be "reinstated" as president by the end of the year — so he has no reason to accept reality. His message reaches millions of people who gladly support his depraved lunacy with contributions to fund his lavish lifestyle.
Then there are Trump's cancerous second bananas. At nearly the same time Biden was preaching bipartisanship at the White House, authorities took former Trump adviser Steve Bannon into custody for defying a congressional subpoena, as the investigation into the insurrection and attempted coup on Jan. 6 continues. A defiant Bannon didn't cheer unity or celebrate bipartisanship. He vowed revenge and division — again, saying, "We're taking down the Biden regime." He's doubling down on his long-running attempt to burn it all to the ground, which was exactly what he said he wanted to do when he hitched his wagon to the flaming mess that is Donald Trump.
Earlier this week, it was former national security adviser Mike Flynn who got his turn to tell us what we face. Reportedly, Flynn was part of an effort to get the Pentagon to overturn the 2020 election. He also took a stand against everyone in this country who doesn't believe in his personal brand of God. "If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God," he told a crowd of cheering supporters.
How is it we do not clearly see the binary choice facing us? A plethora of former Republicans have warned us, including but not limited to the Lincoln Project, former Sen. Jeff Flake and former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, who has observed that Trump enables and encourages people to become the worst versions of themselves. Still there are pundits, lawyers, publicists and reporters who — as Applebaum suggests — willingly spread the lies and propaganda.
All the punditry and reporting relies on shallow cynicism. We sneer at politicians while contemptuously thinking they are all equally crooked liars and at the same time sucking up to them for access. We don't trust them and we don't trust ourselves, because we know how corruptible and contemptible most media companies are.
And here is a president claiming eternal optimism. What's his Pollyanna game? He speaks of working together and then actually tries to do it. Meanwhile, the GOP wants to expel those in their party who worked with the Democrats. Why? We're not enemies. We're all Americans — or so our forefathers taught us.
If there is an ounce of that sentiment left in us, then the choice is easy to make.
In his famous speech on June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln made it clear: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." He was alluding to scripture, where the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being from Satan because he cast out devils. The irony of that will probably be lost on most evangelicals who support Trump.
Biden remains optimistic that "we can deliver real results for real people," and that compromise can lead to solutions. "There is no limit to what our nation can do," he said. "And there is no one thing that I know more than this: It's never, ever been a good bet to bet against the American people. Never, never, never."
How can you seriously compare that statement to a man who wants to sell you T-shirts while telling you your brother, sister, friend or neighbor is an enemy just because they do not agree with you? Why do we in the press continue to act as if these are two ideas worthy of equal consideration?
You can certainly criticize Biden's actions or policies without claiming he's in any way equivalent to the autocratic fascists who believe in one religion, disavow science, suppress votes, embrace racism and misogyny and call anyone who doesn't agree with them "the enemy." In fact it is normal to do so.
There is a lot wrong with the Biden administration. His staff is too protective of him. He doesn't often explain himself adequately and he hides behind a bravado of optimism while playing his cards close to the vest. His administration often screws up its messaging. He hasn't had an open press conference at the White House since taking office. (His one press conference was limited to a handful of reporters because of COVID restrictions, and really doesn't count). He hasn't adequately explained how he will deal with inflation, the new space race, oil prices or China. His exit from Afghanistan was, at best, awkward.
But these are criticisms of a man who deeply respects our democratic institutions — and who held the largest event I've ever attended on the South Lawn to celebrate the accomplishments of a bipartisan Congress. We must stop pretending that we are merely watching two political parties that understand and care about democracy arguing about how to obtain our mutual goals.
All things are not equal. You cannot compare a man who brings two parties together on the South Lawn and preaches inclusion to a party that wants to turn the republic into ashes.
This country cannot be one religion. It cannot be about one-party rule. It cannot condone voter suppression, racism or misogyny. It cannot criminalize a woman's right to choose. It cannot disparage those who are marginalized and it cannot take joy in hypocrisy, rage and pain.
Everything we face was seen in two distinct events Monday: Joe Biden preaching unity at the White House and Steve Bannon preaching treason while being taken into custody.
Many still want the noble experiment of democracy to succeed. They want the United States to be the citadel on the hill and provide a path to self-government and freedom that the rest of the world can emulate and embrace.
Joe Biden, with his many flaws, shares those ideals. Trump, and the rest of the rats left on the sinking GOP ship, don't make the cut.
More from Brian Karem on the troubles and travails of the Biden White House: