This was not a speech designed to lay out policy priorities or establish any new theory of governance or global order. It was a call to action, with instructions for the American people far more detailed than John F. Kennedy’s request to “ask what you can do for your country” or Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s warning about the dangers of “fear itself.”
Implicit in the 21-minute oration was Biden’s recognition of his own limits in the face of political furies that have grown heated enough to cost human life. He stood before his country as a new president in need of assistance. The necessary goal, Biden argued, was not agreement, but agreeability. He did not expect all to unite, just more than had in recent weeks and years.
“Enough of us, enough of us have to come together to carry all of us forward,” he said. “We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace — only bitterness and fury. No progress — only exhausting outrage. No nation — only a state of chaos.”
Biden did not directly mention his predecessor, President Donald Trump, who devoted a lot of time after his defeat claiming falsely that the election was stolen and pursuing a failed effort to retain power. But much of the new president’s message was clearly shaped by the attack on Congress that was instigated by Trump’s claims and laid bare more than at any point in modern history the fragility of American democracy.
Perhaps not since Abraham Lincoln in 1861 had a president so directly aimed his inaugural address at the peril of internal political divides. “We are not enemies. We must not be enemies,” Lincoln had pleaded at the end of that speech. Fort Sumter fell within weeks, launching the Civil War.
Nearly 160 years later, Biden went so far as to repeatedly reference that most deadly national stain, calling the current predicament an “uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal.” He too demanded a return from the brink before it was too late.
The current divides are less intractable than the question of slavery but far more numerous: A digital information economy that has split the country into isolated channels of outrage and grievance. A public debate no longer tied to reality. A festering economic crisis built atop three decades of growing income inequality. A pandemic that killed 400,000 Americans in less than a year. Seething fury at ongoing racial injustice that has run up against a backlash to the increasing racial, ethnic and gender diversity of American power.
“Obviously unity is not up to him alone,” said Cody Keenan, a speechwriting director for President Barack Obama who lauded Biden’s address as setting the tone for the coming debate. “He is going to have to give a joint-session address to Congress in a month, and half the chamber just voted to overturn his election.”
For two years, Biden has benefited from a rarity in recent politics, an unwavering and clearly defined goal and purpose. He has sought, through his campaign and now his presidency, to put a bookend not just on Trump but on the changes that Trumpism has wrought over the past four years to governing norms.
“I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time,” Biden promised at the start of his campaign, long before the pandemic, when few could have envisioned Trump encouraging an insurrection at the Capitol.
In foreign affairs, Biden appears confident that he will be able to unilaterally fulfill his promise of undoing Trump’s footprint.
“Here’s my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested, and we’ve come out stronger for it,” Biden said. “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.”
But on the domestic front, Biden spoke with less certainty, repeatedly appealing to his audience. He will begin to govern with the slimmest majorities in the House and Senate. His presidential megaphone will struggle to reach the social media feeds, cable news broadcasts and talk radio stations that are the domain of his opponents.
“I promise you: We will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era,” he said.
That hope of less divisiveness, more than any policy goal or global vision, has fueled Biden’s presidential campaign and election victory. It was different in kind from the far more ambitious hope for change that drove Obama, who had been elected on the promise of pushing the country beyond its history of racial division, endless war and fading economic fortunes.
Obama himself had been wary of those expectations and chose to respond in his first inaugural address with a dire outlook meant to temper them.
“The challenges we face are real,” Obama said. “They are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily.”
Trump followed Obama selling yet another version of hope, this one anchored in the promise of disruption and destruction. In a brief and defiant inaugural speech, which Trump delivered in a light rain that he later denied, Trump had called out the former presidents and lawmakers who surrounded him as threats to the union.
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” Trump had said, setting the tone for his presidency. “The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country.”
As with Biden, the central tension in Trump’s speech was internal, with rival tribes competing for resources. But rather than soothe, Trump intended to inflame and conquer.
“Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs,” Trump said, calling the consequence “American carnage.”
Four years later, the one-term president, who left town before the ceremony began, imbued nearly every sentence Biden spoke.
When Biden spoke of politics as a “raging fire, destroying everything in its path,” he was referencing his predecessor, just as he was when he mentioned “the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
He was speaking directly to Trump’s most fervent supporters in Congress when he declared the “duty and responsibility” of “leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
The challenges Biden and the nation face were embedded in those words. The vision of national unity that he laid out did not forgive past actions or gloss over deep differences that remain, including the lack of a shared understanding about the outcome of the most recent election, which Trump has fomented over the past two months.
But Biden’s optimism extended to his own confidence in the presidential bully pulpit to at least inject some new spirits into the national information stream.
“That is part of what the president has evolved into — a father figure, or maybe in the future, a mother figure,” said presidential historian Craig Shirley, who was critical of the speech’s lack of vision elsewhere. “As far as policy or as far as any soaring rhetoric, it was thin gruel,” he said.
For Democrats, some unknown part of the Republican Party and untold other Americans, the hope is that the gruel will be enough to at least begin the sort of healing that Biden long ago made his political brand.
“ ‘Will we rise to the occasion?’ is the question,” Biden said. “Will we master this rare and difficult hour? Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world to our children? I believe we must.”
No one, not even Biden, is certain the country will.