Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 21 January 2021


Sincerity and truth in a speech for the ages

Joe Biden delivered an inaugural address for the ages. His speech on the steps of the US Capitol on Thursday was delivered with conviction and purpose, and a clear message: his presidency will be one of healing and unity.

No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has taken the oath of office facing a more difficult set of challenges. The division among Americans echoes what Abraham Lincoln faced when he became president. Biden drew inspiration from both with a message of action, resolve and conciliation.

It was a day of “history and hope of renewal and resolve” for America, Biden said. He asked citizens to look into his heart to trust him at this “time of testing” and join with him to deal with “cascading crises” — a deadly pandemic, a wrecked economy, racial division, climate change and a ruptured polity.

“The answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you or worship the way you do, or don’t get their news from the same sources you do,” he said. “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

The man matched the moment. The speech reflected the times. The words gave voice to the enduring American mission to form a more perfect union. This is the story of Biden’s life, marked by resilience in response to tragedy, and finding purpose again and again. It was, above all, a message of reassurance to Americans.

Biden, only the second Catholic president after John F Kennedy, cited Saint Augustine’s belief that people are “defined by the common objects of their love”. He asked Americans to fulfil their duty to honour their constitution and defend their nation. He said: “My whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”

It was a nod to Kennedy’s famous exhortation to “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”. Kennedy had summoned Biden to public service 60 years ago. Now Biden asked Americans not only to serve but to save their country.

He asked Americans to have faith that the centre ground of politics will hold. Biden has always been a moderate who has tried to bridge the political divide. It was encouraging to see Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama on the inaugural dais. It was reassuring to see Biden warmly welcomed by Republican leaders and outgoing vice-president Mike Pence. It symbolised how country matters more than party or personality.

Biden told Americans they were “a good people” dedicated to “a great nation”. But he asked them to come together. “If we are this way, our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future. And we can still disagree.” He told them to defend truth and defeat lies. In a phrase that will long be remembered, he said: “Disagreement must not lead to disunion.”

Joe Biden delivers his speech to a socially distanced audience in front of the US Capitol. Picture: AFP
Joe Biden delivers his speech to a socially distanced audience in front of the US Capitol. Picture: AFP

The contrast with Donald Trump, who slinked out of Washington DC four hours earlier after pardoning a bunch of shonks and shysters, was total. Trump departed in disgrace. He is the first president to refuse to attend the inauguration of their successor in 152 years. Unsurprisingly, Trump ended his single term as the most unpopular president in opinion polling history. This first, and probably only, Biden inaugural address at 21 minutes was the average length. George Washington’s 1793 address, the shortest, was over in two minutes. William Henry Harrison’s 1841 address took one hour and 45 minutes to read. (Standing in the cold for so long, he caught pneumonia and died a month later.)

Biden did not lay out a detailed program or overload his speech with references to the past. He reaffirmed American principles and his core priorities. The language was precise. While Biden lacks the oratorical skills of Obama, Clinton or Ronald Reagan, he made up for it with authenticity. While there were memorable phrases, it was a sober speech befitting a president leading a riven nation.

Wall Street Journal21:12

Joe Biden Inaugural Address: ‘Without Unity There Is No Peace’

In his inaugural address as the nation's 46th commander in chief, President Joe Biden called for unity as the path forward for the country. "To restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words,” he said. “It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity.” Photo: Getty Images

This presidential inauguration, the 59th, was like no other. Following the insurrection at the Capitol, incited by Trump, Washington DC is in lockdown. US troops guard the streets. The Capitol, the Mall and monuments are prohibited zones. Flags, rather than people, filled the Mall. Lights, memorialising those killed by COVID-19, illuminated the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Presidential inaugurations have always invented new traditions. Calvin Coolidge’s was the first broadcast on radio (1925). Harry Truman’s was the first on television (1949). Reagan’s was the first on the Capitol’s west front (1981). Clinton’s was the first streamed on the internet (1997). This year, there was no grand parade or fancy balls. Due to the pandemic and the threat of violence, celebrations took place on television and online.

There are always inaugural firsts. Biden is the oldest president at 78. His cabinet will be more diverse and with more women than any other. There was another milestone: the first woman Vice-President and of black and South Asian heritage, Kamala Harris, sworn-in by the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor.

The purpose of an inauguration, ever since Washington first took the presidential oath at Federal Hall in New York City in 1789, is to exemplify America’s democratic principles. These beliefs, as Biden said, were under siege a fortnight ago. The images of the Capitol being ransacked in an attempt to overturn the election will live in infamy.

That is why the inauguration of the 46th President is more than just a new administration coming to office and a new resident in the White House. It symbolises a country in transition. It celebrates a democratic tradition. And it personifies the enduring values of the great republic and the peaceful transfer of power.

But the real work begins now.

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