The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden charged the people of this republic with fixing it. So the people need to grow up.

Edwina Rose holds a flag as she prays during the inauguration ceremony for President Biden on Wednesday.
Edwina Rose holds a flag as she prays during the inauguration ceremony for President Biden on Wednesday. (Paula Bronstein/For The Washington Post)

Standing where his predecessor decried what he subsequently delivered — “American carnage” — Joe Biden on Wednesday promised a recuperative presidency. His call for Americans to heed the better angels of their nature — “each of us has a duty and responsibility” — recalled an admonition 160 years ago. In 1861, when seven of the 34 states had already voted for secession, the 16th president said in his inaugural address that the nation’s fate was “in your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine.” Today, too, ultimate responsibility for the republic’s trajectory resides in the citizenry.

Biden’s responsibility involves restoration of institutional norms and equilibrium. Five days before becoming president, he spoke five blunt words that would have been discordant in an inaugural address but that the entire nation needs to take to heart. Commenting on Republican members of Congress who refused to wear masks while crowded into protected rooms during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Biden said: “It’s time to grow up.”

Grown-up American politics requires voters, as well as those they elect, to have the patience to respect constitutional processes. So, some words Biden spoke six weeks ago were heartening. Speaking truth to power is universally praised and occasionally practiced. On Dec. 8, however, in a meeting with supporters, Biden did something even rarer: He spoke truth about power.

In his inaugural address to the nation on Jan. 20, President Biden called for “uniting to fight the foes we face." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

He rejected pleas that he pursue broad swaths of his domestic agenda by aggressive use of what presidents of both parties have wielded beyond constitutional propriety — executive orders. There might soon be many of those issued to undo some Trump measures: Policies that impatient, careless presidents implement by decrees are written on water. But there will not be the blizzard of executive fiats that progressives desire.

“There’s some things that I’m going to be able to do by executive order,” Biden said, “and I’m not going to hesitate to do it, but . . . I am not going to violate the Constitution. Executive authority that my progressive friends talk about” — e.g., banning assault weapons — “is way beyond the bounds.” Fifteen days later, resisting pressure to unilaterally erase billions of dollars of student debt, he said, “I’ve spent most of my career arguing against the imperial presidency.”

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Progressives yearning for New Deal 2.0 will notice that Biden did not speak as Franklin Roosevelt did in his first inaugural address about perhaps seeking “broad Executive power” as great as he would need “if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Biden’s grown-up respect for institutional proprieties might be infectious, encouraging temperateness among his dissatisfied countrymen, 74 million of whom voted for four more years of infantilism.

The U.S. is more politically polarized than ever. The Post’s Kate Woodsome asks experts what drives political sectarianism — and what we can do about it. (Video: The Washington Post)

Among the legislators in attendance on Wednesday was Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who four days earlier had published in the Atlantic a call for Republicans to choose adulthood. Their House caucus now includes Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was one of those who would not wear a mask when closely confined on Jan. 6. She welcomed the previous presidency as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out.” She has vowed to try to impeach Biden on Thursday. Another first-term representative, Greene’s Republican colleague from Colorado, the pistol-packing Lauren Boebert, recently posted a long video of herself preening about how admirable she is because she carries her Glock on Capitol Hill.

Why are strange people proliferating? And why did 450,461 of our dissatisfied fellow countrymen vote to transform these two into lawmakers?

One reason, Sasse said, is “America’s junk-food media diet,” the “underlying economics” of which involve “dialing up the rhetoric” to increase “clicks, eyeballs, and revenue.” Another reason is “institutional collapse” as “the digital revolution erodes geographic communities in favor of placeless ones. Many people who yell at strangers on Twitter don’t know their own local officials or even their neighbors across the street.” And the susceptibility of a significant portion of the citizenry to irrational rage reflects “the failure of our traditional political institutions and our traditional media to function as spaces for genuine political conversation,” creating “a vacuum now filled by the social-media giants.”

Biden’s address, the essence of which was the admonition to “stop the shouting and lower the temperature” and end the “exhausting outrage,” had the unadorned rhetoric of a teacher telling disorderly pupils to sit down and buckle down. In tone, it was pitch-perfect for intimating to his dissatisfied fellow countrymen that they should not be self-satisfied. In their hands, not his, is the responsibility for mending the social fabric that they have played a large part in fraying.

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Michele L. Norris: America is fragile this Inauguration Day. Our power rests in the ability to pick ourselves up.

Jeff Flake: What the Biden era will feel like, six months in

David Von Drehle: History shows there’s no right way to swear in a president. Just get it done.

Eugene Robinson: Trump leaves a scorched landscape. But Biden brings hope at last.

Alyssa Rosenberg: Joe Biden shows America what it means to have a real president again