There would be no ritual lunch with congressional leaders in the Capitol, no full-blown inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, no evening of boozy, claustrophobic black-tie balls.
And yet, somehow, what Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., the 46th president of the United States, managed to offer was the prospect of a return to normalcy.
In an inaugural address that lasted barely 20 minutes, Biden did not seek to soar. That would have been wrong, given the darkness of the moment at which he placed his left hand on a Bible that has been in his family since 1893.
There was no note of triumph, save the new president’s declaration that “we’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
His tone could hardly have been more different from the overheated invocation of “American carnage” that Donald Trump delivered on that same spot four years before.
“We’ll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities, much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain,” the new president promised the country.
Biden’s was a message of hope and unity, suffused with loss. And it was pretty close to perfect.
Had this been a different, less fraught time, there might have been a more exuberant celebration of the fact that history was being made with the swearing-in of Kamala D. Harris as the first woman, the first Black person, the first person of South Asian descent to hold the nation’s second-highest office.
Instead, Harris’s emergence onto the inaugural platform had a more solemn undertone. She was escorted by Eugene Goodman, the heroic Capitol Police officer who two weeks before diverted a mob that might have attacked the Senate chamber while senators were there.
The violence was incited by a lie, fomented by Trump and top GOP officials, that the 2020 election had been stolen from him. Though there is no credible evidence that there was widespread fraud, Trump’s poisonous effort to undermine the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency has taken root with a surprisingly large share of Americans, including a majority of Republicans.
Trump skipped the inauguration, the first sitting president in more than a century to do so. On his way out of town Wednesday morning, Trump said he wished “the new administration great luck and great success.” But Trump could not seem to bring himself to say Biden’s name.
Still, Biden’s other living presidential predecessors — save one, Jimmy Carter, whose health is too precarious — were all present, both at the inauguration and at a ceremony afterward at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns. The unmistakable message: Trump, and all he represented these past four years, was an aberration.
Significant, too, were the gracious words that Republican congressional leaders, many of whom had been complicit in Trump’s falsehoods about the election, offered to Biden. This was after Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and outgoing vice president Mike Pence skipped Trump’s departure ceremony.
Whether Biden can deliver his ambitious promise to bring the country together and restore its soul will hinge on whether what we saw was just an Inauguration Day mirage, or the start of something new.
“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real, but I also know they are not new,” he acknowledged. “Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial, and victory is never assured.”
It was a useful reminder: Even in the darkest and most abnormal of times, there can be a path forward. And this a country that has never yet failed to find it.