There was never a doubt President Biden would call for unity at his swearing in — the declaration that “we are the United States of America” has peppered his speeches throughout the long presidential campaign.
“Unity” appeared a dozen times in Wednesday’s 21-minute speech and as the topic of a proclamation for a Day of Unity that the new president signed shortly after he took the oath.
But at an inauguration surrounded by high fences and troops, amid unprecedented levels of security to protect against potential attack by supporters of his defeated predecessor, in the shadow of a Capitol still marred by a deadly riot just two weeks ago, Biden this time coupled those calls with something sterner:
“The recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies — lies told for power and profit,” he said. “Each of us has a duty and a responsibility,” he added, “to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
Biden comes to office facing multiple crises of a severity few presidents have encountered so early in their tenures and with only the narrowest of congressional majorities to back him. His inaugural address offered clues to how he will attempt to build a mandate for carrying out his policies — reaching out to those Americans who did not vote for him, but also drawing a bright line that seeks to separate at least some of those voters from President Trump.
Biden is “temperamentally a man of healing,” said Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz. His ability to express empathy — on display throughout the campaign and highlighted the day before the inaugural with his memorial to those who have died of COVID-19 — created a contrast to Trump that helped propel him to the White House.
But a desire to heal “can lead you down a dangerous path” if that’s all a president offers, Wilentz noted, especially in the face of a “threat to American democracy.” As President Lincoln understood, “there really cannot be reconciliation short of justice and accountability,” he said.
Wednesday’s speech appeared to acknowledge that challenge.
In a first for any inaugural address, Biden openly named “white supremacy” as a threat, along with “domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” He decried the “harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart.”
Biden called for lowering the temperature of the national debate, saying that “politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path” — a line that repudiated the last four years, but may also have served as a warning to the more confrontational voices on the left of his own party.
But he coupled that with saying that “we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
Biden’s tone struck a chord with many of his supporters.
“I feel healed,” said Deborah Driver, a 67-year-old middle-school teacher, who had volunteered for Biden’s campaign and watched the ceremony at home in Fort Washington, Md., while writing lesson plans.
“I just have a sense that the forces of good have been trying to coalesce,” Driver said Wednesday. “Joe’s tone, his sincerity … it was pitch perfect for the pain and anger that a lot of people in this country feel.”
“It’s our democracy,” Driver said, emphasizing the word “our.”
“Everybody has to respect it, whether you’re Black, white, green or otherwise. We’ve got to be united. We’ve got to be Americans.”
Freddie Jenkins, 69, who lives in a historically Black community outside Charleston, S.C., said he’s ready to see the country move past Trump’s inflammatory leadership and the insurrection his supporters staged. He seemed confident Biden could help.
“It’s a form of war when you start doing an insurrection, but it will never happen again,” said Jenkins, who has served in the Army Reserve and the National Guard. “I believe that these QAnon people, these hate groups and neo-Nazis are going back into hiding for a long time before they come back.”
Beyond his own supporters, Biden appeared to be reaching out to at least some Republicans by drawing a line that would “carve out Trump and Trumpism as an exception,” said UC Berkeley political science professor Eric Schickler.
Biden’s ability to get his program through Congress will depend to a large extent on whether Republicans unite in opposition to him, as they largely did with President Obama. He takes office, however, with the opposition badly split because of Trump. That creates a potential opening for the new president — one which he and his party already benefited from in winning two Senate seats in runoff elections in Georgia earlier this month.
With Trump hoping to remain a major force in the party, the speech served to politely, but forcefully widen that division in the opposition’s ranks.
Biden “didn’t draw divisive lines” by dwelling on specifics of policy, Schickler noted. Instead, the implied message was that “we can disagree about policy, but share a broad set of values.”
That message played off the remarks that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), now the Senate Minority Leader, made Tuesday in which he said, referring to the people who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, that “the mob was fed lies” and “were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
“While he works to unite the country, he’s going to go to war with the notion of alternative facts,” said Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based Republican consultant who has been a critic of Trump’s.
The speech signaled “an effort to gently bring as many Americans as possible to the idea of common truths,” Stutzman said, not by shaming them or “demanding that they admit they were wrong, but inviting them to a common shared future.”
That message may also be “very well received by a lot of Republicans,” said GOP consultant Alex Conant, a former top aide to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “It’s not just Democrats who are tired of the divisiveness.”
That said, Conant noted, Biden had the advantage on Inauguration Day of not having to dwell too much on specifics. That’s typical for the day. While some presidents have used inaugural speeches to lay out specific policies — President George W. Bush did so at his second inauguration, for example — most do as Biden did and stick to general themes.
Before the afternoon was out, Biden had begun diving into the more specific details of government, issuing executive orders and legislative proposals, many of which Republicans quickly criticized. The opposition statements stood as a reminder that unity is easier to conjure in a speech than in the reality of a legislative battle.
For Biden, as for those who preceded him, Conant noted, “the inaugural address is typically the easiest part of being president.”