Forty-eight years after he was first sworn in as a U.S. senator just two weeks after his wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident; 33 years after his first presidential campaign dissolved ignominiously; 12 years after Barack Obama gave him the consolation prize of the vice presidency with the understanding that he’d never run again; and 14 days after the U.S. Capitol was stormed by a mob determined to keep him out of the White House, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. took the oath of office as the 46th U.S. president of the United States.
“This is a great nation. We are good people. And over the centuries, through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we've come so far, but we still have far to go,” Biden said in a speech that was one long ringing plea for national unity.
Few generations in America’s have faced more daunting challenges than those confronting the nation today, Biden said. And he named them: A “once in a century virus” that has claimed as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II; millions of lost jobs; hundreds of thousands of businesses closed; and “a cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making … a cry for survival comes from planet itself … and now a rise of political extremism.”
Overcoming them, said the new president, will take more than words. “It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy, unity. Unity.” Biden recalled that on another January day, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, explaining as he did, “If my name ever goes down into history, it’ll be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
On January 20, 2021, Biden told his countrymen that his whole soul is in this project: “Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”
The year after the Emancipation Proclamation, as President Lincoln ran for reelection, he suggested to voters that denying him a second term in the middle of a war would be akin to trading horses in the middle of a river crossing, a 19th century aphorism later shortened and adopted by Franklin Roosevelt, Biden’s birth president, as “Don’t swap horses in the middle of a stream.”
The analogy is apt for Joe Biden for another reason: The theme of unity wasn’t a passing fancy for him. He ran for president on it -- and it may be why he won. In the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, when it looked as though his campaign had run adrift, Biden stubbornly kept vowing that, as president, he would work with congressional Republicans. Sen. Bernie Sanders and other progressives dismissed Biden as naïve for believing political compromise was still possible, or even desirable. But when the primary season migrated to sunnier climes, Democrats in places such as South Carolina warmed to Biden’s more soothing message.
During the toxic 2020 general election campaign against Donald Trump, who became the first U.S. president in 152 years to snub the inauguration ceremony, Biden doubled down on this theme. He repeatedly vowed to work as hard for Americans who didn’t vote for him as those who did. When this promise generated some sniping from Democrats to his left, Biden doubled down again, repeating the promise in every major speech. It turned out that Biden had his finger on the pulse of the electorate more than his primary opponents, more than an increasingly partisan press, and certainly more than the incumbent president he defeated in November. Joe Biden, the 78-year-old fixture of American politics who now becomes the second Roman Catholic president in U.S. history -- the man who invited Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to join him at an Inauguration Day mass at St. Matthew Cathedral -- was convinced that unity was more than his calling card. It was what a majority of Americans were craving.
“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” he said in Wednesday’s inaugural address. But then he told Americans why it is not.
“Through Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifices, and setbacks, our better angels have always prevailed,” he said, invoking Lincoln for the second time. “History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity,” he continued. “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. … If we do that, I guarantee you, we will not fail. We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we've acted together.”
He then reprised his familiar refrain: "For all those who supported our campaign, I'm humbled by the faith you placed in us. To all those who did not support us, let me say this. Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree, so be it. That's democracy. That's America. The right to dissent peaceably within the guardrails of our republic is perhaps this nation's greatest strength. Yet hear me clearly. Disagreement must not lead to disunion. And I pledge this to you. I will be a president for all Americans. All Americans. And I promise you, I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did."
History also teaches us that few inaugural speeches are memorable. Lincoln’s second such speech, FDR’s first, John F. Kennedy’s only inaugural address stand out. George W. Bush’s 2001 speech was rated as noble and eloquent, even by Democrats. Whether Joe Biden joins this pantheon remains to be seen, but the environment of Wednesday’s ceremony won’t soon be forgotten. Guests wore masks. Hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, of people were in attendance as a ghostly quiet continued to envelop Washington, a surreal scene brought about because of exigencies due to the pandemic and even more so to the security lockdown in the wake of the attack on the Capitol. Future generations will note that many more members of the National Guard saw the 46th president take the oath of office in person than did civilians.
Yet, as both political parties did at their summer political conventions, the inaugural committee managed to pull off a spectacular made-for-television event, and one adhering closely to the unity theme of Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Lady Gaga performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” passionately -- does she sing any other way? Jennifer Lopez punctuated her singing of “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s famous progressive anthem, by shouting in Spanish, “One nation, with liberty and justice for all!” Garth Brooks played against type, but not against the spirit of the day, with a soulful version of “Amazing Grace.” Afterward, the enthusiastic country star gave impromptu hugs to Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush.
As always, there were minor glitches: Justice Sonia Sotomayor inexplicably mispronounced Kamala Harris’ first name. A pool camera every-so-briefly caught Bill Clinton napping during Biden’s speech. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s co-emcee, Sen. Roy Blunt, garbled the title of poet Amanda Gorman. But considering that a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Capitol was in the control of a raging mob while police fought for their lives, well, such little things seemed of little consequence.
In her original poem, “The Hill We Climb,” Amanda Gormon put an exclamation point on Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’s day. “We are striving to form not a perfect union, but a union with purpose,” she said. “So we lift our gaze not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.”