A forgettable speech may be just what the country needs
It was impossible to hear Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address without comparing it to Donald Trump’s. Four years ago, Trump blamed the “American carnage” that propelled his rise to power on a feckless and out of touch elite who had collaborated with nefarious outsiders to rob the middle class of its wealth and status. Trump’s speech was brief (16 minutes long), direct, uncompromising, and unforgettable. It left the political world in shock. George W. Bush spoke for many when he was overheard saying, “That was some weird s—t.” The Trump inaugural foretold a presidency like no other.
President Biden’s inaugural could not have been more different. He is Trump’s opposite not only in ideology but also in background and style. Trump was the only president not to have previous government or military experience. Biden served for almost 50 years in Congress and the West Wing. Trump used social media as a weapon in his politics of polarization and confrontation. Biden has gone out of his way to ignore Twitter, and has relied primarily on traditional media to convey his message.
Trump sought to disrupt the norms of Washington because he and his supporters believed those norms had become a cover for American decline. Biden wants to restore the norms, and to lower the political temperature, because he believes, correctly in my view, that civility and proceduralism stand between America and the abyss. Every aspect of Biden’s inaugural—its structure, its bipartisanship, its quotations, its length—furthered his aim of realigning the office of the presidency with its traditions of institutional decorum.
The speech itself was not memorable. But this prosaic quality was in its own way reassuring. After all, most inaugurals are forgotten. (Can you quote a line from either of Bill Clinton’s, or from either of Barack Obama’s?) Biden’s delivery was much stronger than his text. He recapitulated the themes of his campaign, explained how he believes the nation faces crises of public health, economics, racism, and climate, called for national unity, and pledged to serve all of the people. His peroration was inspiring: “With purpose and resolve, we turn to the task of our time, sustained by faith, driven by conviction, and devoted to one another and the country we love with all our hearts.” Overall, however, you came away with the sense that Biden’s presidency will be defined more by actions than by words.
What stood out most about the entire day was its religious spirit. Biden began the morning with a bipartisan Mass. The benedictions before and after the inaugural program were moving. Garth Brooks offered an incredible rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Biden asked all Americans to participate in a moment of silent prayer. He cited Scripture. And in one of the most interesting passages of his address, he invoked Saint Augustine’s description of a people as “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.”
For Biden, these common objects are values: “Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, and, yes, the truth.” Few would argue with this list. But its very universality raises the question of what separates Americans from other peoples, elsewhere, who also love opportunity and security and liberty. It’s easy to come up with a more particularistic catalogue of the common objects of our national love: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the national motto and symbol, the flag, the Founders, Lincoln, the Capitol building, the land itself. And this difference between transcendental aspirations and concrete loyalties may be one way of thinking about the gulf that separates left from right.
One danger for Biden is that the electorate will come to view his call for unity as a mask for a partisan liberal agenda. There was little policy in the Inaugural Address, but the executive orders he will sign this afternoon and evening, and the legislation he is proposing to Congress, do not herald a future where the parties are reconciled to one another. His presidency might proceed along two tracks, with Biden standing as a symbol of comity and consensus while his administration sustains and expands the Democratic coalition. Biden might want to pay particular attention to a recent Washington Post /ABC News poll showing that 55 percent of independents have “just some” or “no confidence” in his decision-making abilities. Letting Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have their way will not shrink that number.
For now, the ceremony is over. Joe Biden is left with two jobs: End this pandemic and restore faith in America’s constitutional order. His Inaugural Address was a fair start. But speeches won’t be enough. In his videotaped farewell address, President Trump wished his successor luck. President Biden will need it.