Joe Biden’s inaugural address was one filled with sincere hope and held a sincere call for unity. And it also offered a realistic view of the challenges that Americans face today and the road we now have before us. 

Here are a few lines from the address that struck me as important to remember for many years to come. Today I just want to reflect on them and what they mean. Tomorrow, I’ll offer some annotations.

We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed. From now on this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago, violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power, as we have for more than two centuries.

The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.

The cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat. To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.

In another January, on New Year’s Day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put pen to paper, the president said, and I quote: “If my name ever goes down into history, it’ll be for this act. And my whole soul is in it.” My whole soul was in it today. On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.

Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial and victory is never assured.

History, faith and reason show the way, the way of unity. We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace — only bitterness and fury. No progress — only exhausting outrage. No nation — only a state of chaos.

We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we’ve acted together.

Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. 

Yet hear me clearly: Disagreement must not lead to disunion. And I pledge this to you: I will be a president for all Americans. All Americans. And I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.

Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.

I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs. I understand, like my dad, they lay in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering: Can I keep my health care? Can I pay my mortgage? Thinking about their families, about what comes next. I promise you, I get it.

We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes. Because here’s the thing about life: There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days when you need a hand. There are other days when we’re called to lend a hand. That’s how it has to be.

We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus. We must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation. One nation.

So here’s my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested and we’ve come out stronger for it. 

Cynics and individuals with extreme and hostile views might believe that President Biden’s inaugural address didn’t instantaneously cure all of our nation’s ills (which of course it wouldn’t; let’s be reasonable), or that it was just gibberish and “politics as usual.”But in all seriousness, is there such a thing anymore? Unless we are willing to accept “politics as usual” for what it really is nowadays…

“Politics as usual” nowadays is what has led to extreme violence, pettiness, name-calling, the inability to debate respectfully about issues that are in and of themselves not violating human rights (more on this topic some other time), the designation of timely and snarky remarks on social media as intelligent and worthy of high esteem in everyday social discourse, deadly hostilities, dangerous and deadly and often inaccurate, confused, or overly conflated stereotypes. (This is unfortunately not an exhaustive list.) 

So no, I don’t think President Biden’s speech was an example of “politics as usual,” or even a step back in the direction of previous status quo politics (which I, for one, was concerned he would encourage at the beginning of his presidential campaign). 

For one, a president has never mentioned white supremacy as a problem in an inaugural address before.

President Biden also led a moment of prayer during his address to honor those who have died as a result of the coronavirus, displaying a profound amount of empathy and compassion for “regular” Americans (which let’s be honest, we have not seen in years).

And President Biden pleaded for bipartisan unity and for Americans to come together, to work together to address climate change, political extremism, subpar leadership, corruption, domestic terrorism, and more.

President Biden’s display of sincere human empathy and call to national unity for the purpose of addressing the coronavirus, systemic racism, climate change, economic hardships, etc. is certainly not “politics as usual” in today’s political arena or everyday political discourse.

Even prominent conservatives and Republicans noticed and praised Biden’s authenticity and admired his displays of empathy and calls for unity. It seems as if a majority of the nation took a collective and restorative breath yesterday during his address, regardless of their politics. 

Still, here are a few things to ponder and discuss after yesterday’s inaugural address:

  • Words matter. Especially those in presidential addresses on inauguration day. But their real-world effects (i.e. legislation, direct action, etc.) are rarely if ever implemented and felt immediately across hundreds of miles of a democratic society, although their emotional effects tend to be felt immediately. That is unless they are words espousing violence and hatred and turmoil and reactive movements.    
  • There are still critics and cynics of Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address and George Washington’s inaugural address, which is worth considering… So they will and always have had a space in public and political discourse.
  • Being critical of Biden’s inaugural address can be exceedingly valuable as long as it’s reasonable. Of course, we should hold him to what he promised and said that he will do. That’s part of the deal that should exist between citizens and their President and other elected leaders. Demanding that the leaders we elect be accountable is very different than vilifying them before they’ve had a chance to do much within their positions and work with others. 

SOURCES and ADDITIONAL READING:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/interactive/2021/01/20/biden-inauguration-speech/

https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/535058-gop-senators-praise-bidens-inauguration-speech

https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/20/media/inaugural-address-biden-media/index.html

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