WASHINGTON — President Biden ran on a message of unifying a divided country, and in his inaugural address Wednesday, he asked for help.
Issuing a sober call for action at the site of an insurrection, Biden challenged Americans to join him in that daunting undertaking.
“On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation,” he said in his 20-minute speech. “And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”
The new president laid out the challenges facing the country in stark terms — from white supremacy and political disinformation, to a once-in-a-century pandemic, to devastating job losses.
But Biden didn’t claim he could solve all of those problems, unlike his predecessor, who once declared, “I alone can fix it.” There was no unveiling of sweeping proposals to address them. Instead, Biden called on Americans to come together and act — ending an “uncivil war” of red against blue, urban against rural.
“My fellow Americans, we have to be different than this,” Biden said. “America has to be better than this.”
He added later: “Now we’re going to be tested. Are we going to step up? All of us?”
Biden’s call for Americans to listen to each other, reject lies, and unify to confront the massive challenges facing the country echoed the words of one of his political heroes. “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” John F. Kennedy said at his inauguration in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, challenging Americans to engage in public service.
But unlike Kennedy’s soaring address, Biden’s more workaday speech used plain language, at times resembling a brisk and sober pep talk from an uncle.
“And so today, at this time in this place, let’s start afresh, all of us,” Biden said. “Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another.” He hammered the message home, using the word “unity” nine times over the course of the speech.
The ceremony underscored many of the severe challenges the 78-year-old Biden faces as president, problems he outlined in unflinching detail in his speech.
Biden spoke facing a National Mall filled with American flags instead of thousands of cheering fans, due to the ongoing pandemic, which has taken 400,000 American lives. And he swore his oath under the watchful gaze of thousands of National Guard troops, who have turned the Capitol into a heavily armed fortress following the Jan. 6 attack on the building by Trump supporters.
But the ceremony, and Biden’s speech, reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to democracy even after it was severely tested by an outgoing president who attempted to overturn the election results. The sight of three former presidents from both parties mingling on the platform, and the many bipartisan rituals of the day, struck a sharp contrast with the partisan violence that took place in the same place there exactly two weeks earlier. And history was made on that platform, as Kamala Harris became the first woman, the first Black person, and the first South Asian person to become vice president.
“We’ve learned again that democracy is precious,” Biden said, sounding a triumphant note. “Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
Biden, who was elected on a moderate message of unity and decency, said he knew that some think the idea of unifying at this moment seems like a “foolish fantasy.” But he reminded Americans that they have risen to even bigger challenges in the past.
“Through civil war, the Great Depression, world war, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks, our better angels have always prevailed,” Biden said. “In each of these moments, enough of us, enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward.” He urged Americans to “open our souls” and repair divisions this time, as well.
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which left five people dead, hung over the inauguration ceremony like a cloud, as speaker after speaker specifically mentioned the threat to democracy and to the peaceful transfer of power that the country faced.
Donald Trump did not attend, marking the first time since the 1800s that an outgoing president snubbed the event. Millions of voters, egged on by Trump and many Republican lawmakers, still do not believe Biden won the election legitimately, representing a formidable challenge to his administration.
The precariousness of the past few weeks made this Inauguration Day one of the most important in American history, and gave its pageantry a new significance.
“It was the most meaningful and simply important inaugural address certainly in my lifetime and probably since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933,” said Patrick Maney, a presidential historian at Boston College. “He rose to the occasion today.”
The Capitol gleaming behind him, Biden sent a message to the rioters who sought to disenfranchise millions of voters. “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,” he said. “It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not ever.”
But to those who did not vote for him for president, Biden reached out a hand — and asked them to give him a chance.
“I will be a president for all Americans,” he said. “And I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.”
He also called for lowering the political temperature, regardless of party. “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path,” he said to the lawmakers gathered around him. ”Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
The first test of Biden’s unity message will be in Congress, which is narrowly under Democratic control and where most legislation will require GOP support to pass. Several Republican lawmakers who attended the ceremony praised Biden’s speech and calls for unity, including a few who supported Trump’s attempts to cling to power after he lost.
“I thought it was very strong and, and very much needed,” said Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, a Republican who rejected Trump’s false fraud claims. “We as a nation come together if we are told the truth. And if we have leaders who stand for enduring American principles.”
But Romney also said he was not interested in passing a new round of COVID-19 relief in the “immediate future,” previewing the trouble Biden may find in convincing even friendly moderate Republicans to support his agenda.
When he reached the White House on Wednesday, Biden bypassed Congress altogether with a blizzard of executive actions, many undoing Trump’s moves. He recommitted the United States to the Paris climate agreement, halted the Keystone XL pipeline, canceled Trump’s travel ban mainly targeting Muslim-majority countries, and stopped all funding for the border wall.
“There’s no time to start like today,” he told reporters in the Oval Office as he made his way through the stack of orders. “I’m going to start by keeping the promises I made to the American people.”