Biden straddles the patriotic and the political in speech at Normandy

President Joe Biden is shown at Pointe du Hoc during commemorations of the 80th anniversary of D-Day in France, on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

POINTE DU HOC, France — President Joe Biden used the backdrop of the beaches at Normandy on Friday to argue that the fight for democracy in Ukraine and elsewhere remains as vital as the day that U.S. troops helped rescue Europe from Hitler’s tyranny.

On a clear and sunny afternoon overlooking Utah and Omaha beaches, the president evoked “the ghosts of Pointe du Hoc,” the Army Rangers who scaled cliffs in the face of withering German fire, to link the struggle for freedom during World War II with the fight for democracy now — both in Ukraine and in the voting booths at home.


“As we gather here today,” he said in a televised speech commemorating the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, “it’s not just to honor those who showed such remarkable bravery that day, June 6, 1944. It’s to listen to the echo of their voices. To hear them. Because they are summoning us.”

“They’re not asking us to scale these cliffs,” Biden added, as he stood on top of a concrete German bunker overlooking the English Channel. “They’re asking us to stay true to what America stands for.”

But the enormity of his challenge was on display earlier Friday. His call for American resolve in defense of democracy came just hours after he felt compelled to apologize to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine for the political stalemate in Washington that delayed critical U.S. military aid for months.

In a meeting in Paris before flying to Normandy, Biden blamed House Republicans for the funding delay, which frustrated Ukrainians and arguably helped President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his forces shift momentum on the battlefield more than two years after its full-scale invasion.

“I apologize for the weeks of not knowing what was going to pass, in terms of funding, because we had trouble getting the bill that we had to pass, that had the money in it,” Biden told Zelenskyy. “Some of our very conservative members were holding it up.”

The president’s address at Pointe du Hoc was his second in two days commemorating the D-Day anniversary and was meant to echo the iconic speech at the same site in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan, who made a similar case for American leadership and democracy on the world stage at a time of isolationist strains at home.

Biden’s phrase “the ghosts of Pointe du Hoc” seemed a conscious allusion to Reagan’s famed line about “the boys of Pointe du Hoc.”

It was an address that straddled the line between an elevated patriotic commemoration and an implicit political speech that contrasted his view of America’s role in the world with that of his Republican challenger, former President Donald Trump. Without naming Trump, Biden suggested that the 225 rangers who stormed the cliffs at Pointe Du Hoc — none of whom are still alive today — would have endorsed his fight against Trump’s politics.

“They fought to vanquish the hateful ideology of the ’30s and ’40s,” Biden said. “Does anyone doubt they would move heaven and earth to vanquish hateful ideologies of today?”

“Does anyone doubt,” he added, “that they would want America to stand up against Putin’s aggression here in Europe today?”

As he wages a campaign against Trump for a second term, Biden’s central message has been to argue that his predecessor is a serious threat to the basic democratic ideals that have been the hallmark of American governments for more than two centuries. And on foreign policy, in contrast to Biden, Trump has expressed friendlier sentiments toward Putin than to Ukrainian or NATO allies.

After six months of lobbying by Biden, Congress finally passed a $61 billion aid package for Ukraine in April and the weapons are now flowing again. On Friday, Biden announced the disbursal of $225 million of aid that he told Zelenskyy was designed to “help you reconstruct the electric grid.”

In fact, he seemed to misspeak. Aides later said the latest funding was a package of munitions that will include air defenses. The weaponry could, among other things, defend energy infrastructure that has been badly degraded by relentless Russian assaults, but not for rebuilding the grid.

Biden promised to continue supporting Ukraine’s war effort, calling Ukraine “the bulwark against the aggression that is taking place. We’re still in. Completely. Thoroughly.”

Zelenskyy thanked the president for a recent decision to allow U.S. arms to be used in limited ways against targets in the Kharkiv area in northeastern Ukraine, saying that American decisions “have had a very positive influence.” But he added that “there are some details on the battlefield that you need to hear from us,” suggesting that he remains frustrated by the restraints still imposed on using American weapons.

The recent reversal in policy about the weapons came after more than two years of limits intended to avoid an escalation with Russia, a nuclear-powered adversary. But Biden loosened the restrictions only enough to authorize strikes against military targets just over the border in northeast Ukraine to defend Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. Long-range strikes deeper into Russia are still banned.

The meeting and Biden’s commitment of support comes at a critical juncture in the war with Russia, as the two allies seek ways to reverse the momentum on the battlefield that has propelled Putin’s forces to greater success this year. Zelenskyy thanked Biden for what he called “significant support” from the United States as his forces battle Russia, and he compared the American effort to the fight against Hitler 80 years ago.

“During World War II, the United States helped to save human lives, to save Europe,” Zelenskyy said. “And we count on your continuing support and standing with us, shoulder to shoulder. Thank you so much.”

Even though it did not meet all of Zelenskyy’s wishes, Biden’s reversal on firing U.S. weapons into Russia — a tactic also endorsed by other NATO countries — provoked a predictably prickly response from Putin, who suggested a tit-for-tat retaliation.

Speaking with reporters in St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin suggested this week that such a move meant that Russia had “the right to send our weapons of the same class to those regions of the world where strikes can be made on sensitive facilities of the countries that do this against Russia.”

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