The inauguration of President Biden took place without his predecessor and the usual throngs of supporters, who were symbolically replaced by 200,000 flags and literally by 26,000 National Guard troops meant to thwart any further violence. Writing in the Washington Post, columnist Max Boot suggested that Joe Biden’s inaugural address was a “return to normalcy”. Of course, it all depends on what is meant by “normalcy.”
The inaugural address that normally follows the presidential oath plays a crucial function in the ritual transfer of power in the United States. As authors Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson have shown, the function of a good inaugural speech is twofold: first, to unify the people after the political divisions of a difficult campaign and second, to remind the citizens of their identity as a people, of their shared history and common destiny – in other words, why the nation is relevant.
Unity through civil religion
Joe Biden’s speech was “normal” insofar as its main theme was clearly unity. It stood in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s “American carnage” address, which pitted the establishment against “the people” and mentioned the government only in negative terms. While Trump made no mention of citizenship or collective responsibility, Joe Biden was particularly remarkable for his intentional use of collective words and expressions related to governing, democracy and the responsibility of citizens.
To unite the people, Biden tried to re-sacralize the tenets of the American civil religion. For instance, the Capitol, sometimes called “the temple of American Democracy,” was referred to as “this hallowed ground” and the new president reminded his audience that a “riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, and to drive us from this sacred ground.” He recited the first words of the preamble of the US Constitution, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union,” noting the “resilience” of this founding document which he linked to “the strength of our nation.”
Even more extensively than other presidents, Biden invoked the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, whose soul he connected to his own and to the nation’s. It seems all the more appropriate to summon such a saintly historical figure at time of “uncivil war.”
The priest-in-chief: faith more than hope
To try to bring the people together, Joe Biden took on the traditional role of the national priest-in-chief to a greater extent than his predecessors. As a data analysis by the Washington Post showed, the inaugural address contained more words related to religion than any inaugural speech since Dwight Eisenhower.
Biden led the nation in a moment of silent prayer in honor of the victims of the pandemic, invoked Saint Augustine and cited the scriptures. Still, his address was less about religion and more about faith. The new president quoted Psalm 30 as he called on the powers of faith and reason to show a “unifying way” in troubled times.
This is very different from Donald Trump’s vision of a deity that protects America to make it all-powerful and “totally unstoppable”. Just as Biden did during his successful presidential campaign, he expresses his religious belief not in political terms but in emotional and personal terms, including through his own grief, to build an empathetic bond with the American people.
His-story of America
An important way to unify the people is to re-tell them the story of the nation. He used the word story 10 times, recalling the past (“the call of history”) while focusing on the action of the present to shape the future for “our children’s children”:
“The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us.”
“And when we do, we will write the next chapter in the American story.”
“It’s a story that might sound something like a song that means a lot to me. The story that inspires us.”
“Let us add our own work and prayers to the unfolding story of our nation.”
“And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear.”
“An American story of decency and dignity. Of love and of healing. Of greatness and of goodness.”
“May this be the story that guides us. The story that inspires us. The story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history.”
America’s story has always been a story of heroism: how the nation overcame ordeals in the past such as “the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, and 9/11 through struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks” and how its “better angels” have always prevailed. Evoking the past victories assures Americans that their nation has a future. But in order to be heroic, the present must also be exceptional:
“Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found the time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now.”
Those difficulties are normally identified as external threats. Since Trump’s presidency, they have been more likely to be seen as domestic and internal. Joe Biden continues this theme, but unlike Donald Trump, he does not label political opponents as enemies but rather violent ideologies (extremism, white supremacy), actions (lawlessness, violence), emotions (anger, resentment, hatred) and scourges (disease, joblessness, hopelessness, growing inequality, systemic racism and the pandemic), all of which can lead to “disunion and uncivil war.”
In fact, a much smaller part of his speech referred to issues abroad compared to his last two predecessors. Singling out his predecessor, Biden directly tied the attack on democracy to the attack on truth, talking about the “lies told for power and profit” and calling all American citizens to fight “to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
But it is also an optimistic story. Biden underscores the hope for change by recalling the political struggles of minorities, evoking Martin Luther King or the past struggles of women that led to today’s election of Kamala Harris, not only the first female vice president, but also the first of color.
The American story is indeed the story of a heroic perennial battle between good (light and unity) and evil (darkness and division), between idealism (what we must be) and the sometimes “harsh ugly reality” that has “long torn the country apart.” Biden called it once again a “time of testing,” “our historic moment of crisis and challenge,” a chance to “come out stronger for it.”
Immediately, following the references to domestic threats, the president proposed a series of actions through the phrase “We can” (repeated seven times). He defined America’s heroism not only by its strength and power, as was the case with his predecessor, but also by its virtue, so that American can be “once again the beacon of the world.” This led to the most quoted line from his speech:
“We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”
Through this ennobling story, Biden said, Americans can define their character (restless, bold and optimistic) and their values (dignity, respect and honor).
As James Fallows, a former presidential speech writer concludes, Joe Biden’s inaugural address may be remarkable not so much for its eloquence but for its authenticity, its conditional optimism, and a plan of action for the future.
His collaboration with a young Indian-American speech writer, Vinay Reddy, is another less well-known but highly symbolic contrast with Donald Trump, whose inaugural address was written by Stephen Miller, a man well-known for his ideological ties to white nationalism.
Biden may be the right man for the time. His plain and direct language, his habitual colloquialisms (“I get it”) and folksy charm (“Look, folks”), as well as his empathic faith make him a figure with whom many citizens and voters can relate, a bit of a throwback. It is perhaps this change of tone and vision that much of the American people needed in this period of much upheaval and uncertainty.