Inaugural addresses are important for U.S. Presidents to establish the goals and objectives of their administration that will motivate the country to participate in a shared goal. Unfortunately, President Joe Biden missed that opportunity Wednesday as he took the oath of office on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol.
In spite of the salivation and groveling of the major media, President Biden’s inaugural address was at best a pedestrian speech that was heavy on identity politics that set a low bar for the future. It did little to motivate the country. Instead the newly minted president focused on the country’s political, racial and economic divisions and then called for unity without any guidance for accomplishing the goal.
Cornelius Hirsch and Giovanni Coi, writing for Politico, noted of Biden’s speech, “In 2,411 words over the course of 22 minutes, America’s 46th president sought to use his address to warn of the peril the country faces from the coronavirus pandemic and its own internal divisions, while simultaneously reaching out to his predecessor’s supporters.”
Missing were grand images that promoted a common purpose as the inaugural addresses of his predecessors such as John F. Kennedy who challenged the country with his famous phrase, “…ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
Also missing in Biden’s address was a message of hope, pride and confidence to rally the nation with a common objective such as expressed in Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address, “… as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.”
And in spite of major divisions that existed within the country at the time of their elections, both William J. Clinton and Donald J. Trump confidently proclaimed that the country would find solutions. “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America,” President Clinton proclaimed. President Trump declared, “We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people,”
All of his recent predecessors faced a divided nation which is not unusual considering each president had won a highly charged political election. Rather than focus on these obvious divisions the victorious presidents used their inauguration as a special moment to establish national agendas that would promote unity while striving to reach a higher goal.
Articulating a variety of divisions within the country, President Biden did nothing to aim for a higher goal. Instead he pleaded for unity…. “We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors,” he said. “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.”
While those were thoughtful phrases, at no point in the speech did he provide a pathway. And then he compounded the division by articulating reasons for discord such as racial discrimination and tribalism to name a few.
Professor Lara Schwartz, director of Project on Civil Discourse at American University, Washington, DC., speaking on the afternoon radio talk show Viewpoints on the TalkStation WTKF/WJNC, noted that public discourse depends on shared goals. Otherwise the participants are not engaged and have a tendency not to listen to one another. And the end result of this public discordance are the very divisions that President Biden is determined to eliminate.
President Biden did himself a disservice by focusing on his efforts to bring unity while at the same time he allows the divisiveness to continue in Congress. As the standard bearer of his party, the marginally successful Democrat party, he could have taken the opportunity to call for the end of highly charged partisan action. Following the inauguration, the president’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, when asked about the divisive impact of President Trump’s second impeachment, said the president would not interfere.
This response calls into question President Biden’s inauguration promise…. “And I pledge this to you: I will be a President for all Americans. I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.”
While the country will, for approximately 100 days, give this 46th President of the United States time to staff his administration, there will be little patience with the continued divisiveness within Congress. The President and all elected leaders should recognize that they represent a nation and not a party.