So that’s what a normal presidential speech sounds like.
President Joe Biden took the oath of office Wednesday and delivered a standard political speech filled with platitudes about truth, justice, and the American way that have taken on renewed resonance in the wake of Donald Trump’s four-year assault on democracy that culminated in a physical attack on the U.S. Capitol itself.
“Democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” Biden declared. “So now on this hallowed ground where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power.”
It was a stark tonal shift from former President Trump, whose inaugural speech promised to end an era of “American carnage”—and whose four years in the White House delivered just the opposite.
Biden’s speech was practically the only normal thing about this Inauguration Day. The inauguration ceremony was held on the very steps where an angry pro-Trump mob breached the Capitol just two weeks ago. For the first time in a century and a half, the outgoing president refused to attend. The coronavirus and heightened threats of violence meant there was no crowd of average Americans spread across the National Mall. The dignitaries present were masked and spread out at socially distanced seats to keep the inauguration from becoming a superspreader event.
Almost 25,000 troops were on hand to ensure a “peaceful transition” of power. National Guard troops were activated around the country to ensure against right-wing extremist attacks.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal”
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal. We can do this, if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts,” Biden said in a plea for unity for a nation divided.
Biden faces a tall task. His concrete goal of 100 million COVID-19 vaccines in the first 100 days of his presidency could prove difficult following the Trump administration’s disastrous initial distribution rollout. The current COVID rate is near the highest it’s been, and there’s evidence that new strains of the coronavirus are leading to a spike in infections.
Biden’s campaign pledge to “restore the soul” of America could prove an even tougher goal: Three-quarters of Trump’s supporters believe his lie that Biden stole the election, and 71 percent of Americans in a recent CBS/YouGov survey said that democracy and the rule of law are threatened.
And while Democrats have won control of Washington, their majorities are about as small as can be. The Senate is split 50-50, while Democrats have just a few seats’ cushion in the House.
While Biden’s address preached unity, he made clear that didn’t mean appeasing the enemies of democracy. Biden specifically called out white supremacy by name, and drew a direct line between the falsehood-laden right-wing echo chamber that Trump has trumpeted and the January 6 attacks on Congress.
“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth, and there are lies. Lies told for power, and for profit. We need to have a sense of duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution to protect our nation, to defend the truth, to defeat the lies,” he said.
With a nation as polarized as it’s been in at least a half-century and a large chunk of America believing Trump’s lies that Biden stole the election, that may be his toughest challenge.