What Joe Biden's “I Need You Speech” Says to Canadians About Democracy and Citizenship

Following US President Joe Biden's national address last Thursday, Scott Wilson of the Washington Post Tweeted that, in his view, Biden's 'I Need You' speech was “the most memorable and unusual appeal in prime-time presidential speech making.” We'd add that the message is as relevant to Canadians – or Europeans or Australians – as to Americans. Here's why. Curing Illness vs. Preventing Illness The pandemic is a public enemy that modern health systems were never designed to fight. Conventional healthcare reacts to illness by providing treatments to cure it.When Biden says, “I need you,” he is saying that, until the public is vaccinated, the pandemic requires a proactive approach that can prevent the virus from spreading and limit the impact of variants.[caption id="attachment_546649" align="alignnone" width="440"] “I promise I will do everything in my power [to] beat this virus, but I need you, the American people. I need you. I need every American to do their part. And that's not hyperbole. I need you.”[/caption]Curing an illness and preventing it thus are different things. The former requires institutions and expertise; it involves doctors, hospitals, medicine, and equipment.To prevent illness, however, the community – businesses, civil society, and citizens – must mobilize in ways that will stop the virus from spreading. This means changing how people conduct their day-to-day affairs, from where they can eat to when they can visit with friends or hug their grandchildren.Prevention thus extends government policy into citizens' private lives – and that's an issue. Citizens have rights and democratic governments can only go so far in forcing them to change how they choose to live their private lives.As we saw with the controversy over wearing masks and shutting down businesses, many people feel that government has been overstepping its bounds.In fact, democracies have only one way to square this circle and Biden puts his finger on it: they must assume that citizens have a responsibility to help solve critical issues like the pandemic. In this view, if government provides a reasonable plan, citizens should rise to the occasion and help make it work.This casts the social contract between citizens and government in a new light – one of partnership and collaboration. As the president says, “I need you…” Prevention is the Key to Solving Other Issues Prevention is not just about the pandemic. It has been talked about for decades, but the pandemic has thrust it to the fore and, in the process, demonstrated why it is so important for the future. It is essential for solving a range of other pressing issues, such as racism and climate change.Success on these files requires a proactive approach that can change the entrenched social behaviours that feed these issues, from mass participation in systemic inequalities to our over-reliance on carbon.Government's usual approach on this is to inform people about the need for change. The assumption is that, when presented with the facts, people will make the rational choice.Unfortunately, experience shows that while this kind of “awareness-raising” avoid the thorny question of personal freedom, it is an unreliable way to change entrenched behaviour. Governments spent decades trying to inform people about the risks of smoking, but with limited success. Why?Because smoking was a big part of people's lifestyle and learning about the risks was not enough to overcome their emotional attachment to it. The same holds for racism and the use of fossil fuels.As we have argued elsewhere, changes like these require adjustment at an emotional as well as an intellectual level, and that calls for a process that engages the public's emotional intelligence. Investigating how government can lead this kind of proactive change may be the most important public policy issue coming out of the pandemic. A National Conversation? Canadians need to consolidate and build on this experience, and a national conversation could help. If so, conventional methods such as a Royal Commission or a blue-ribbon panel would not be the right vehicle.Although the pandemic has lots of lessons that these processes could helpfully investigate, this discussion is about realigning the relationship between citizens and their government. A panel of “eminent Canadians” selected by the prime minister would fail to connect with many Canadians and its findings would be too easily dismissed.This process should be a dialogue with Parliament that, ideally, would be led by a non-partisan committee of the House of Commons. Unfortunately, the temptation on both sides of the House to use the process for partisan gain is likely too great to resist. The process would almost certainly end in acrimony and division.There might however be a fit with the Senate. That institution is struggling to find its way toward a new, post-partisan role in Parliament. It has a history of undertaking thorough and thoughtful studies. It has the time and, on this issue, increasingly it has the right people.Many new senators have considerable experience with community initiatives. They understand the importance of mobilizing communities around shared goals and of the challenges this poses. Why not ask them to lead this conversation with Canadians?


Biden's “I Need You” speech has been favourably compared to President Kennedy's “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech. Both are about citizenship. But unlike Kennedy, Biden's message is not just about service to country. It is about what citizens and government can achieve by working together.Perhaps that is the difference between 20th and 21st century democracies.Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.