What a glorious, overwhelming relief.
So many times over the past few years, not to mention the past few weeks, the inauguration we saw on Wednesday — uplifting, clear-eyed, solemn, safe — seemed like too much to hope for.
Hope seemed like too much to hope for after these four years of destruction and diminution. Our nation was brought to the brink, the values we profess to share mocked by those who chose power and profit over our common good.
Some of those people sat on the dais on Wednesday. They, and the thousands of troops deployed to protect a Capitol to which a seditious mob laid deadly siege just two weeks ago, made it hard to forget the perils that still confront us.
Yet there, at the center of the pageantry and pain, one of history’s most stubborn optimists laid his hand on a giant Bible and took the presidential oath of office. Joe Biden vowed to lead this broken country not back to where we were, but to somewhere better, the nation’s first ever woman vice president, also its first Black and Indian American one, beside him.
“Don’t tell me things can’t change,” he said. “Here we stand just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground. It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not ever!”
This is how presidents talk, of course. No matter their party, it’s their job, on Inauguration Day especially, to lift us up and urge us forward, to remind us to strive, and to serve causes greater than ourselves.
They are words, but not only words. Not after four years bereft of such loftiness and replete with petty incitements to violence and bigotry.
The bar for presidential behavior has been brought so low, just the normalcy of the inauguration — its music, its comity, its gratitude, its humility — was enough to prompt tears of gratitude. That gratitude is itself an indictment of those who led us so badly for four years that our ambitions shrank, and mere survival was all we dreamed of.
So many of us did not survive. And for them, there were not just words on Wednesday, but also silence — to acknowledge the 400,000 souls lost to the pandemic and the grief of the millions who loved them. It was a long overdue reminder that it is a president’s job to lead us in mourning, too, and to share our pain. Which requires a president capable of feeling that pain.
It also requires humanity. Biden, who has buried a wife and two beloved children, who has seen 78 years’ worth of loss and achievement and weathered them with plenty of tears and unreasonable equanimity, brims with it. That contrast with his predecessor alone will be transformative.
But it’s not enough. This country has been laid low, as decades of injustice and manipulation were carried to their logical conclusion under a president who embraced the worst of us for his own gain. His devaluing of the role of government gave us an administration that abdicated its duty even as a pandemic swept away hundreds of thousands of citizens. Generations of systemic racism — and the long overdue and righteous rebellion against it — brought into the open the white supremacy that fueled the attack on the Capitol. Demonizing immigrants to win votes led to children ripped away from their parents at the border and desperate refugees trapped in inhumane conditions around the world.
And so it was important not just that Biden spoke like a president on Wednesday but that he spoke like a president who truly sees what ails us, and believes we must change, that we all must do more than just return to normal. He named the problems that threaten to undo us: He spoke of climate change, the pandemic, and the economic collapse.
And in what must surely be a first for an inauguration speech, he centered the fight for racial justice and called out the “political extremism, white supremacy, and domestic terrorism” that would keep us from achieving it.
“A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us,” he said. “The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.”
His Cabinet appointments and his first actions as president, including Wednesday’s reversals of some of his predecessor’s inhumane and destructive policies, reflect a determination to move us beyond normal, toward something more like progress.
But those who would thwart that progress won’t simply evaporate now that their most high-profile enabler has left the White House. Making a more just nation requires not just summoning the unity that was so central to Biden’s speech, or the dignity and decency reflected in the day’s proceedings. It requires vigilance and accountability, too. It means holding those who encouraged and abetted the Capitol insurrection responsible, in courtrooms and at ballot boxes. It means calling out those who leverage racism for profit and power. And it means turning out of office those who still want this country to be one in which the prosperity of the few is built on the suffering of the many.
Wednesday showed us what this country could be: “A country that is bruised but whole,” in the words of spectacular young poet Amanda Gorman. Now to the hard work of making it true.