In his first words as President, Joe Biden offered a parable of American grit, healing and unity, leveraging resilience forged through personal loss and disdain for the “uncivil war” of modern politics in an inspirational rallying call to a sickened and divided nation.
Destiny paired America’s new leader – a man rocked by tragedy who found the strength to heal his own soul – with a country that needs to summon similar steel to overcome what he called its “cascading crises.”
In a moving interlude to his inaugural address, silence fell over the US Capitol and the National Mall as Biden paused to lead Americans in a moment of silent prayer, to honor the more than 400,000 fellow citizens taken by Covid-19.
But as he has done throughout a life scarred by family tragedies, Biden sought strength in the moment of mourning, willing the country to overcome its divides, after admitting that ignoring their existence was a “foolish fantasy.”
“Now, we are going to be tested. Are we going to step up? All of us?” Biden asked as he started into the country’s vast interior on the West Front of the Capitol that was invaded by a marauding mob only two weeks ago.
Despite warning of a “winter of peril,” Biden’s inaugural address was a rare moment of hope and inspiration nearly a year into the country’s battle with a virus that has shut down normal life and fractured community and families.
The 46th President struck a sharp contrast with the dark rant about “American carnage” issued by Donald Trump in his inaugural address four years ago. The ex-President was unseen behind the walls of his Florida resort club at the hour when his tumultuous term expired.
Biden didn’t mention Trump. But by praising the survival of American democracy and condemning “shouting,” “exhausting outrage,” a “state of chaos” and politics as a “raging fire destroying everything in its path,” Biden clearly sought to turn the page from the discord of the Trump years.
He also pointedly rejected the signature characteristic of the Trump era of lies which in the former president’s refusal to accept his election defeat threatened the democratic structures of the country itself. “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured,” Biden said.
Only two weeks ago, the platform on which Biden delivered his inaugural address was overcome by a pro-Trump mob on its way to insurrection in the Capitol. Memories of that outrage added poignancy to the new President’s comment that “at this hour, democracy has prevailed.”
Biden’s address was less soaring than some inaugural addresses. But its power lay in the way he seemed to be talking to every individual American, almost like President Franklin Roosevelt in his fireside chats in which he guided the country out of the Great Depression.
“Let’s start afresh, all of us, let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, show respect to one another.”
The swearing-in of Kamala Harris, America’s first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president, will deliver qualified progress in the halting march to racial justice and gender equality.
Biden’s empathy was forged in the unfathomable horror of burying his first wife, infant daughter and adult son. Just as he comforted bereaved supporters on countless campaign trail rope lines, he is now assuming the nation’s grief over the pandemic. After finding new reason to live following his own bereavements, he’s challenging Americans to honor their own losses by uniting to win the battle to restore normal life.
Biden’s first duty on his return to Washington Wednesday was to lead a moving sunset vigil under a purple sky at the Lincoln Memorial for those lost – a step never taken by Trump, a longtime pandemic denier who appeared to believe that dignifying the dead stained his own image.
The solemn event, featuring Michigan nurse Lori Marie Key, who sang “Amazing Grace,” underscored Biden’s promises to restore decency to the center of power as he seeks to nurture the country’s battered soul.
Under the marbled gaze of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, who took office in perhaps the only time when America has been more divided than today, lines of lights stretched like gravestones towards the distant Washington Monument.
Biden’s grave challenges
As he worked on his own inaugural address, Biden had to contemplate a pandemic that has never been worse, a vaccine rollout that is a confusing mess, an economy pulverized by shutdowns and a generation of kids who have missed critical months of in-person schooling.
His challenges have become even more acute since the election, as Trump’s refusal to admit defeat and attempt to steal Biden’s victory, as well as an insurrection against Congress, hammered Biden’s legitimacy and exposed a White nationalist internal insurgency that will pose an ongoing threat to US security and democracy.
America’s current chasms suggest yet more synergy between Biden and his moment of history.
Despite decades of worsening national polarization, the President-elect still thinks he can enlist his old Senate Republican sparring partner, Mitch McConnell, in passing elements of his legislative agenda and a new pandemic stimulus plan.
Many Democrats are highly skeptical. And Republicans who live in fear of Trump and his 74 million voters have no reason to make Biden’s presidency a success. But Biden’s old-fashioned bet on building an administration on compromise at a time when such sentiments have rarely been less incentivized was attractive to many voters weary of Washington’s partisan wars.
And after Trump tried to make it a liability in the campaign, his half-century career as a Washington insider might just equip him to overhaul the lame federal response to Covid-19 and lead the country out of its nightmare.
An unlikely journey
When Biden placed his hand on the Bible on Wednesday and takes the oath of office, he completed a political and personal journey that had seemed fated to fall short of the White House.
The man who was once one of the youngest senators in history became at 78, the country’s oldest president.
This day would never have come had Biden followed his initial instincts and given up the newly won Delaware US Senate seat he won in 1972 after his wife and infant daughter died in a car crash.
Biden spent months by the side of his surviving sons, Beau and Hunter, as they slowly recovered from serious injuries. In the late 1980s, he experienced his own health crises with a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him. But he bounced back.
Tragedy would visit Biden again in May 2015, when Beau, an Iraq War veteran and Democratic rising star, died of brain cancer.
Biden always saw Beau as a better version of himself. A tearful President-elect on Wednesday confessed: “Ladies and gentleman, I only have one regret: he’s not here because we should be introducing him as president.”
Beau’s death ultimately convinced Biden not to mount a bid for the Democratic nomination in 2016 against Hillary Clinton amid concern about his family’s emotional endurance for a race.
But fate called him back into the political arena because of Trump’s aberrant presidency and the commander in chief’s equivocation over condemning marches by White supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Joe Biden has a healing heart. He has been through so much,” former Vice President Al Gore told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday evening.
A changed man
Biden is now a far more disciplined politician than he was for much of his career.
His portrayal in the seminal “What It Takes – The Way to the White House,” an account of the 1988 presidential campaign by the late Richard Ben Cramer, was as a political charmer, with a dazzling smile, glad-handing style and preening self-belief that the presidency was his destiny.
But Biden’s 1988 campaign dissolved amid a plagiarism scandal. In 2008, he dropped out after an anemic showing in the Iowa caucuses.
Even when he was selected by Barack Obama as his vice presidential nominee, many of the younger aides around the soon-to-be president considered Biden a loose-lipped caricature – an impression he strengthened by adding to his long list of political gaffes. But Vice President Biden’s steady stewardship of the Recovery Act – which added to his pedigree as he sought the presidency this time around – won him admirers, and after eight years of loyalty to Obama, he was loved and respected in the White House.
Now, slowed a little by age, and with the windy opening statements that set eyes rolling in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just a memory, Biden has displayed unexpected late-in-life political adeptness.
Only a year ago, it seemed his political ambitions would again founder after terrible results in the Iowa and New Hampshire nominating races. But with trademark persistence, he hauled himself back up off the mat with a famous win in South Carolina, which rocketed him to the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
His handling of Trump’s unprecedented disruption during a treacherous transition was distilled from the wisdom of decades in high office, and a willingness to subvert his own ego for the good of the nation – another stark comparison with the outgoing President.
His campaign benefited from the curtailment of an exhausting travel schedule.
But every time he needed to show gravitas and poise – like in the debates against Trump and at the Democratic National Convention – Biden delivered, showing a new, spare speaking style that was likely a preview of his presidential bully pulpit and was shaped by his tragedies and redemption.
That durability in the face of personal angst is the force that finally propelled Biden to his longed-for destination – the Oval Office – on Wednesday. And it’s why he might just be the man for a perilous American moment.