Biden’s words will not echo for long unless the achievements that follow actually answer the question. But the speech, and the atmospherics surrounding it, was a clear success because it offered credible hope — how much of that have we had lately? — that a new president has a plan for getting free from a very deep rut.
Former President Donald Trump launched one of the most potent political movements in U.S. history by harnessing the politics of contempt. The contempt he and his supporters expressed toward institutions, toward established norms of government and politics, and toward fellow citizens who opposed Trump invited an inevitable response: Contempt was returned in kind. What other reply is appropriate toward a president who lied and bullied, or toward people who reward that behavior with cheers and devotion, or toward a mob that invades the Capitol?
But the country has had four years to see where the politics of contempt lead. Biden now has four years to see if he can revive the politics of respect when many people aren’t exactly feeling that sentiment toward half of their fellow citizens.
His 21-minute speech was a start. It was more credible because he didn’t try to obscure the past in a cloud of false goodwill. Thankfully, he didn’t follow the usual ritual of gracious words for his predecessor, which would have required painful artifice. He didn’t mention Trump at all.
But nor did he indulge the illusion that with Trump gone politics can return happily to normal. Recall that the alleged normal that preceded Trump was not so happy. Biden touched on systemic factors that made Trump’s movement possible, including a political-media “culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured” by partisans.
“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson,” he added. “There is truth and there are lies — lies told for power and for profit.”
He acknowledged that many people have turned toward contempt because they are facing futures with limited economic and social mobility. But he offered this commentary without the sociological condescension that many people heard from Barack Obama when he was captured talking in 2008 about how working-class conservatives “cling to guns and religion” or Hillary Clinton’s 2016 analysis that half of Trump’s supporters are hopelessly prejudiced and belong to a “basket of deplorables.”
Here’s how Biden put it instead in his speech Wednesday at the Capitol: “Look, 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.
“But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you or worship the way you do, or don’t get their news from the same sources you do,” Biden continued. “We must end this uncivil war 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. 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.”
“Mom,” “Dad,” “I get it”—this is not “ask not what your country can do for you” rhetoric of the sort that usually infuses inaugural addresses. There were passages that did have a JFK-meets-high school commencement ring to them (“A day of history and hope of renewal and resolve through a crucible for the ages”).
But the most effective portions were the most plain-spoken. And these also offered a window into how he believes seeking a politics of respect may be something other than self-delusion. He will present himself as an ordinary man of good intentions who believes in the system. He’s not asserting superior virtue over those he wants to lead or, as Trump once boasted, “I alone can fix it.” He is pleading that there is a shared interest, even among political opponents, in a functional government that can resolve arguments within “guardrails” of civility and institutional integrity.
At the personal level, he urged: “Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
But there is an assumption embedded in this on which Biden’s hopes of restoring unity hinge. It is the belief that people actually will respect what they see and hear from fellow citizens. That is an assumption that is wobbly, to put it mildly, as the country emerges from the Age of Trump.
Although it was a reversal of precedent and standard inaugural etiquette, Trump’s decision to skip the event turned out to be a generous gift.
Even many backers of Trump probably felt a small measure of relief — obviously not the jubilation felt by others — at his physical absence. The main reason Biden is president is the Trump show ultimately became too exhausting for all sides. Righteous indignation — one bond shared by his partisans and his detractors — had long since turned to rancid indignation.
Of course, the outgoing president never had any power except that which flowed from people who shared Trump’s love of Trump, believed in the politics of contempt, or at a minimum acquiesced to it. Trump caught a morning flight to West Palm Beach but that essential reality of Washington, D.C., in the Trump years did not.
Biden’s speech suggested it is possible to reckon honestly with that reality, and maturely move on from it. Perhaps it is possible to be hopeful without being hopelessly naïve.
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