Thankfully, such violence was not repeated Wednesday. But it was something Biden couldn’t ignore. And in his speech, he called for an end to the “uncivil war” that has plagued American politics of late, calling for conciliation and understanding.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” Biden said. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes — as my mom would say, ‘Just for a moment, stand in their shoes.’ ”
Biden repeatedly called for unity, but he also cast particular parts of the resistance to his presidency as enemies of democracy and our founding principles.
“We face an attack on our democracy and on the truth,” Biden said at another point, notably mentioning this alongside the threat posed by the coronavirus.
He added at another point, “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.” Also, “There is truth and there are lies — lies told for power and for profit.”
2. A marked contrast to Trump’s inaugural
Any incoming president can’t help but be compared with the president they’re replacing, and Biden’s inauguration provided a marked contrast to his predecessor.
Trump’s signature speeches in 2016 and 2017 — at the Republican National Convention and his inauguration — painted a dark picture of America, most with the phrase “American carnage” from his first speech as president. It was an America that Trump said was in need of his leadership because it was in such dire straits, even as Trump characteristically hyperbolized the details, such as the true threat of violent crime, historically speaking.
In contrast, Biden’s speech painted our democracy not as in jeopardy from such violence but resilient in the face of it.
“Here we stand just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground,” Biden said. “It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not ever.”
Biden frequently noted the challenges the country faces, as Trump sought to do, but he did so with a much more uplifting tone, even suggesting that the country had already overcome one of its darkest days — again, apparently referring to the events of two weeks ago.
“Together we shall write an American story of hope, not fear. Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness,” Biden said. “A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness. May this be the story that guides us, the story that inspires us and the story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history; we met the moment; democracy and hope, truth and justice did not die on our watch but thrived; that America secured liberty at home and stood once again as a beacon to the world.”
In his comments about what happened two weeks ago, Biden made a point to emphasize unity, but he also suggested that the threat to democracy Trump lit won’t soon be extinguished — an acknowledgment that this is something both he and the country will have to deal with moving forward.
3. A call for 'boldness’ from a pragmatist
Biden emerged as the pragmatic pick in a Democratic presidential primary field full of mostly more-liberal candidates. Democrats apparently decided he was the best vessel through which to defeat Trump. And most of Biden’s Cabinet picks have been in keeping with his political modus operandi.
Biden got a sudden boost after his election, thanks to Democrats taking control of the Senate in a pair of runoffs in Georgia, with Vice President Harris as the tie-breaking vote. But the Senate remains split, 50 to 50, and the House is about as close as it’s been in two decades. A big question is how big Biden goes with his agenda.
Whatever his plans, he argued in his speech for big, rather than incremental, change.
“Now we’re going to be tested,” Biden said. “Are we going to step up? All of us? It’s time for boldness, for there is so much to do. And this is certain: I promise you, we will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era. Will we rise to the occasion, is the question. Will we master this rare and difficult hour?”
The question, as with any speech, is how much this is rhetoric and how much action is behind it — along with how Biden defines “boldness.” No president is going to take office promising to take half-measures or to bow to their opponents. That would be a poor negotiating stance.
But Biden has also been pursuing the presidency for the better part of four decades, having run his first campaign in 1988, and he now has his hands on it. How he chooses to use that power — and the cooperation he gets from Congress — are yet to be determined.
4. A message to other countries
One of the key messages of Biden’s speech was directed not at Americans, but those abroad who might have thought this country lost its way. Polls showed views of the United States sunk to new lows on Trump’s watch, even as he promised to make our country great — and respected — again.
But Biden signaled to other countries that the work of rebuilding trust and alliances would begin now — and suggested that recent events show the United States’ resilience in the face of such challenges.
“So here’s my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested, and we’ve come out stronger for it,” Biden said, building on themes addressed above. “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again — not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.”
In a clear break from the previous administration, he added: “And we’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. We’ll be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security.”
The message seemed to be: This was a blip, and you can trust us to work with you again.