When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said, “We’re about to hear from the president,” I reflexively hit the mute button before realizing I don’t need to do that anymore. It was Inauguration Day and, for the first time since 2017, I listened to what the president of the United States had to say.
These past four years have been like living with a rat in the house. Even though the verminous creature is gone, it’ll take a while to stop flinching at every odd sound or fleeting shadow.
I suspect that will continue to be the case for many as the nation makes the mental transition from the former occupant of the White House to President Biden and his administration. (Part of my own process includes avoiding, as much as possible, using the name of the previous president.)
Now after years of rage, there’s just enough daylight for a few tears of joy, a sliver of hope.
When the Obama years ended and the worst presidency in American history began, darkness crashed down. Cruelty replaced decency. Incompetence overshadowed experience. Progress, however halting, was eroded by an appetite for destruction, hate, and xenophobia.
With Biden in office, I again feel an emotional whiplash. Yet unlike four years ago, I can also see some light. We’ve gone from an administration steeped in white supremacy to a president who, in his first speech, called out “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism” as destructive forces “that we must confront and we will defeat.”
No other president had ever used his inaugural speech to speak out loud about the greatest impediments to true democracy. Not surprisingly, some Republicans are already whining.
On Fox News, Senator Rand Paul said, “If you read [Biden’s] speech and listen to it carefully, much of it is thinly veiled innuendo calling us white supremacists, calling us racists, calling us every name in the book, calling us people who don’t tell the truth.”
It wasn’t thinly veiled, and it sounds as if Paul, who lied about a “stolen” election, is suffering some whiplash himself. He doesn’t mind being a liar or a white supremacist, but calling him what he is seems more than he can stand. And he’s not the only one. If they want to cry, the new president should give them plenty to cry about.
In his first hours, Biden signed 17 executive orders, including ending the majority-Muslim travel ban; stopping the border wall and protecting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program, known as DACA; extending a national moratorium on evictions and foreclosures; preventing LGBTQ workplace discrimination; and reviewing actions within federal agencies to ensure racial equity.
There were also smaller, but no less meaningful, actions: After a four-year hiatus, the White House website relaunched La Casa Blanca, its Spanish version. And a contact information section now allows people to choose their pronouns. Millions again could feel something officially denied them in recent years: a sense of belonging.
Of course, I recognize that if flood waters recede from 12 to 10 feet, that’s progress but it’s still a flood. The Biden administration is not an instant elixir for all that ails this nation. Thousands are still dying every day from COVID-19, which has claimed more than 410,000 American lives, and there’s no existing national vaccine distribution program. Record numbers of people remain unemployed. Our nation is in emotional and mental ruin.
And we have probably not heard the last from the white supremacists who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. If we care about unity, those who planned, incited, and perpetrated this assault on democracy must be held accountable. That must be part of Biden’s plan to repair America.
In this country, we are as resilient as we are fragile, and hope is tricky, but it’s as vital as our blood, and it abides when spirit is stronger than bones. As Amanda Gorman, the riveting young Black poet, recited in her inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb,” “Even as we hurt, we hoped.”
Since 2017, and especially in the past two months, I’ve often thought of the Langston Hughes poem “Democracy”:
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Perhaps today begins that long elusive tomorrow. Without question, we will hurt again. This is not the end of our sorrows. Yet for now, I’ll forgo the mute button, listen to what the president has to say, and hold fast to the idea that hope, however slight and cautious, is still hope.