“We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
So said President Joe Biden in his inaugural address. Four years after Trump gave the darkest, angriest inauguration speech in recent American memory, marked and marred by us-versus-them rhetoric and talk of “American carnage” - Biden delivered a very different message: that Americans could only meet the challenges of this heavy moment if they meet them together.
Trump was not present at the inauguration, having flown to Florida earlier in the morning. But the past four years of his presidency hung over the event. His divisiveness, his refusal to concede, his racism, his lies: they shaped the entirety of Biden’s speech (including the ultimately unrealised threat of violence on the day and a moment of silent prayer for those lives lost to COVID-19).
Two weeks after an angry mob stormed the Capitol, convinced by Trump’s claims that Biden had not really won the election, the incoming president stood before the Capitol and said, “This is a great nation. We’re good people … We’ve come so far, but we still have far to go”. Pointing to Kamala Harris, the first woman and first Black and South Asian person to be vice president, he said, “Don’t tell me things can’t change”.
He listed the threats the nation presently faces: political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, and climate change - a “cry for survival [that] comes from the planet itself”. And then said, repeatedly, that the US needed “unity” to beat them. “I ask every American to join me in this cause,” Biden told the world, while vowing to be a president for all Americans. “I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did."
America’s history, according to Biden, is filled with the struggle between the ideal of America and the “harsh, ugly reality of racism, nativism, fear”. But without unity, he added, there can be no peace. “We must meet this moment as a United States of America.”
[See also: The New Statesman on the Trump era]
Biden’s choice of co-speakers and performers also symbolised his vision of unity. Country music star Garth Brooks was invited to perform immediately after Biden’s speech (and before a remarkable recitation by Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old Black woman and the youngest poet ever to read at an inauguration). Brooks, whose fan base is conservative, risked angering fans in performing, but stood by his decision to do so. “This is not a political statement, this is a statement of unity. This is kind of how I get to serve this country," Brooks said a few days before the inauguration. The singer also asked everyone to join him in the last verse as a sign of the same.
Biden did take a moment to acknowledge America’s allies, promising, “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again … We’ll lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example”. And, by and large, the immediate response from world leaders was receptive.
Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, described Biden’s inauguration as “a huge relief!” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted: “America’s leadership is vital on the issues that matter to us all, from climate change to COVID, and I look forward to working with President Biden”. Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with whom Trump held multiple rallies during his time in office, tweeted; “My best wishes for a successful term in leading [the] USA as we stand united and resilient in addressing common challenges and advancing global peace and security.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the few world leaders who seemed to appreciate Trump's presidency, put out a video hailing his “warm personal friendship” of “many decades” with Biden.
But the credibility of US foreign policy under Biden will ultimately depend on the success of American democracy at home, and the intended audience of this inaugural address was the American public. Biden urged Americans to think of what they would want to tell generations to come. America could not let democracy, justice, and truth die on its watch, he said. “That is what we owe our forebears, one another, and generations to follow.”
Away from the podium, however, there are signs that Biden’s vision of unity still has a ways to go before it becomes reality. A CNN poll showed that only 19 percent of Republicans believe Biden is the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election. Ted Cruz, a Republican senator present at the Inauguration, objected to Biden’s victory just two weeks ago. And there are Americans who very simply do not want to defeat racism and white supremacy.
“We will get through this together,” Biden said. But it’s not wholly up to him whether we do.
[See also: Can Joe Biden restore America?]