Joe Biden didn’t have to do a lot with his inaugural address Wednesday, just deliver a concise, clear speech that somehow knit together the soul of a deeply fractured nation; offer healing and comfort to the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose lives have been ripped apart by the COVID-19 pandemic, and sketch out a vision for the next four years that spoke to both Main Street and Wall Street.
In other words, no pressure.
But Biden, a politician with the soul of a parish priest, pulled it off, delivering a speech that appealed to the nation’s better angels, while never shying away from the titanic challenge of healing the gaping wound that his predecessor ripped in our body politic with four years of gaslighting, sledgehammer attacks on our institutions, and a social media presence where he was America’s schoolyard bully.
But where his predecessor nursed grievance and exacerbated division, Biden on Wednesday sought reconciliation and, perhaps, even a kind of forgiveness.
“And so today, at this time, in this place, let us start afresh. All of us. Let us listen to one another. Hear one another. See one another,” he said in remarks that stretched an economical 20 minutes. “Show respect to one another. Politics need not be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured.”
He didn’t mention Donald Trump by name. He didn’t have to.
Trump, the first president to skip an inauguration in 152 years, skulked out of Washington hours before Biden took to the stage at the U.S. Capitol. He left the city in much the same way he entered it, in a funk of self-aggrandizement and a barrage of self-serving falsehoods.
That graceless exit saw Trump try to deflect attention away from the defining facts of his legacy: More than 400,000 Americans dead from a pandemic he was too disinterested in to stop and the attempted coup d’etat he incited just two weeks before, leaving him the only chief executive in American history to be impeached twice by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Biden’s prayerful address, prefaced Tuesday night by a ceremony on the National Mall honoring the pandemic’s victims that was, by turns, beautiful, painful, and consoling, strained for connection for the American public. It was a reflection of a veteran pol who’s known for lingering for hours along a rope line, as he pulls out the life story from a stranger he’d met only moments earlier.
“We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs,” he said at one point. “We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome this deadly virus. We can reward work, rebuild the middle class and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice. We can make America once again the leading force for good in the world.”
The contrast with Trump’s dystopian “American Carnage” address, delivered four years, and several lifetimes ago, on the same spot, could not have been more stark.
And because he was where he was, in a capital city turned into an armed camp by Trump’s Coup Klutz Clowns, Biden acknowledged the violence that rocked the Capitol on Jan. 6, referring to the “riotous mob” who “thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people.”
They failed, Biden stressed, and then dared us to rise above it.
“To overcome these challenges, 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.”
That’s no small feat. And Biden clearly knew it. Tens of millions of Americans, egged on by Trump, still believe the fiction that his election was fraudulent. Reaching them could be impossible. Nonetheless, he offered a hand.
“To all those who did not support us, take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy, that’s America,” he said. “I will be a president for all Americans. I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me, as those who did.”
True, words will only get Biden part of the way. On Thursday he’ll wake up to a Washington where his party controls the House, is tied in the Senate, and where one of Trump’s chief enablers, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., already is throwing roadblocks in the new administration’s way.
That reality was further hammered home by a fundraising email the Republican National Committee sent out Wednesday a mere 28 minutes after Biden began his remarks.
“While the Left promises to implement their Big Government Socialist Agenda, the Republican Party will need to come together and work even harder if we’re going to continue putting America first,” the RNC breathlessly warned, apparently unaware of the GOP’s complicity in blowing up deficits and running up debt over the last four years.
But that’s the work to come.
On Wednesday, Biden reminded us of who we were, fellow Americans who are there for each other at a time of trial; who we can be again at our best, a people who “open our souls instead of hardening our hearts,” and warning that “we will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.”
And as if he were leaving mass, he sent the crowd forth: “So, with purpose and resolve, we turn to the tasks of our time, sustained by faith, driven by conviction, and devoted to one another and the country we love with all our hearts.”
It was benediction from a politician with the soul of a parish priest. It is also the challenge of our times.