Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States in an inauguration that felt less like opening a new door and more like closing an old one. It’s not that millions of Americans aren’t overjoyed that Biden is president; it’s that after four years of the Donald Trump presidency, Wednesday’s festivities finally ended a nightmare that seemed to envelop the nation. Its end has given millions the chance to do more than just hope or dream again — it’s given them the chance to breathe again.
That sentiment defined Biden’s inaugural address, a speech that was largely devoid of soaring rhetoric or high-minded sentiments. It was a workmanlike reminder of the challenges that need to be overcome and that national unity will be essential. In its simplicity and reliance on the most basic of American ideals, Biden’s speech struck a tone that befits a man known more for his decency and compassion than his oratory.
When Biden declared, “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. … And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” it might have sounded like the usual platitudes of past inaugurations, but in light of the Trump-inspired mob attack on the Capitol two week ago, it took on a far deeper, emotional resonance. Democracy did in fact prevail against the most serious attack on it in modern American history.
When Biden said, “The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us. On ‘We the People’ who seek a more perfect Union,” he provided a powerful contrast with Trump’s famous declaration “I alone will fix it,” which of course he didn’t even try to do. Embracing the collective “we” is more than just a rhetorical tool — it’s a much-needed corrective.
And when Biden declared that the path to overcoming the immense challenges facing America “requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy, unity,” it was more than just the gauzy language used by generations of politicians; it was a proper diagnosis of America’s path forward.
Biden comes into office dealing not just with the challenges of the raging coronavirus pandemic, which has taken more than 400,000 American lives, and an economic downturn that has left millions of Americans out of work and struggling to pay their bills. He will also preside over a nation that is deeply and, it seems, intractably divided. The vast majority of Republicans polled do not view Biden as the nation’s legitimately elected president. Nearly one in five Republicans supports the insurrectionists who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6; 7 In 10 believe Trump bears little or no fault for the riots. In Congress, a majority of Republican lawmakers voted not to certify Biden’s victory, and there is only faint hope they will embrace his calls for national reconciliation.
But Biden is not wrong when he says that Americans must “see one another. … Show respect to one another,” and stop politics from being “a raging fire, destroying everything in its path.” By making unity such a crucial part of his inaugural message, he is seeking to put Republicans on the defensive. A return to the mindless obstructionism of the Obama years will be seen not as the traditional back and forth of legislative politics but rather what it actually is — mindless obstructionism. After all, when one argues that “we must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue” or argues that “without unity, there is no peace,” the inference is not hard to grasp — the side that continues the “uncivil war” or refuses to unite are akin to the traitorous antagonists of old.
Or perhaps the goal is something different: to remind congressional Democrats that when Republicans return to their obstructionist ways, they are the ones upsetting the unity apple cart and that it is incumbent on Democrats to take the necessary steps to pass legislation that addresses America’s myriad challenges.
I have my doubts that this will succeed. Republicans still have plenty of political incentive to resist the call for unity, particularly since it would largely benefit Biden. Presidential honeymoons usually last about as long as the real ones. Still, Biden’s message was one that Americans needed to hear. After four years of enduring Trump, Americans needed to be reminded — in the plain, simple language of a good and decent man — that there’s a way forward out of this mess and that they can do more than breathe again. They can dream again, too.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.