In a speech which calmed and cleansed, and reset the course of the nation’s journey back towards normality, President Joe Biden offered an answer to those who questioned whether a 78-year-old who has spent more than half his life in politics was up to the job: you had better believe it.
In times past, the inauguration of a new president has been a spectacle of ostentation. Three elephants, 450 horses, and scores of floats formed the spear of Dwight Eisenhower’s parade, while Grover Cleveland laid on 150 gallons of lobster salad, a 120 piece orchestra, and a ten strong team of barbers to trim the moustaches of his guests.
This time around, the centrepiece was a man who loves America with every fibre of its being. There have been few sights so inspiring. The circumstance of a raging pandemic and the taut mood of a fractured country dictated that his elevation to the presidency would be different, and it was. It dispensed with grandeur, hollow symbolism and hackneyed metaphors, and instead reaffirm what matters: love and decency. It did so not through narratives, historical invocations, or imagery, but through the sheer emotional conviction of its keynote speaker.
At once modest and firm, inspiring and pragmatic, the inaugural address of the 46th president did not shy away from the confluence of crises he and the country has inherited. It explicitly referenced the scourge of white supremacy and acknowledged that few generations had ever faced challenges so grave as those of the present day. It was a winter of peril, he said. But also a time of possibility.
Harnessing that hope, Mr Biden made clear, depended on one thing - unity, which he called the “most elusive of all things in a democracy.” It was a word he turned to nine times throughout his speech by way of emphasising its importance. It sounded like a “foolish fantasy” to some, he admitted, yet he reminded a watching world that it was unity, and unity alone, which has been a constant oppositional force in American life, combating racism, nativism, fear, and demonisation. “I know the forces that divide us are deep, and they are real,” he said. “But I also know they are not new.”
Mr Biden acknowledged he is merely the latest commander-in-chief to wage that “perennial battle,” and that the war could not be won without help - without an end to the shouting and a lowering of the temperature. “Without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury,” he implored. “No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.”
It was telling that he did not give voice to the architect of so much of that chaos, who landed in Florida just moments before the inauguration began, but the pull of that unseen character was evident in the theatre of a quadrennial ritual that has long stood as a beguiling blend of pageant and sermon.
He railed against a culture which spread disinformation and disputed objective facts, and scorned those who had built their careers and fortunes on the back of it. “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and profit,” Mr Biden said, the subject of his censure never in doubt. “Each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders - leaders who are pledged to honour our constitution to protect our nation - to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
But in order to take the first steps on the long road to recovery, Mr Biden knew that the best way to draw a line between his administration and the one it has succeeded lay in action, not mere words. Few inaugurations have ever witnessed a moment so achingly raw as when he paused to lead a silent prayer for the 400,000 Americans who have lost their lives to the pandemic. In the course of a few hushed seconds, he did more to honour the dead and empathise with their families than his predecessor managed in ten months.
Mr Biden did so not to shame Donald Trump, or those who continue to support him, but to try and lift them up. He asked those 74 million Americans to “take a measure of me and my heart,” and promised to respect their views if they still did not like what they saw. Come what may, he said, there must be an end to the “uncivil war” across America, a conflict that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts,” he insisted.
He knows better than most that the unity he craves will not be easily won or preserved indefinitely. One of the great achievements of his address was also the most sobering: a reminder that the American journey towards progress is never without obstacles or diversions. It is a constant process, and its momentum is derived from the very tensions it seeks to overcome.
Those tensions will persist long after Mr Biden’s term is over, but there is reason to hope that under his watch, the diversions will not be so many, nor the obstacles so impassable. Two weeks to the day after the seat of America’s constitutional democracy was besieged by a violent mob intent on ushering in a new age of anarchy, it has a president again.
He has helped it rise to its feet, and though a little bruised and shaken, it stands taller than ever before, ready to resume the long march forward.