President Joe Biden was sworn into office on Wednesday, on the steps of the Capitol, where Trump supporters staged a violent attempt at insurrection two weeks ago, determined not to accept his victory in the election.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” Biden said in his address at the Capitol. “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.”
Biden’s clear purpose in his first speech as president: to calm tensions, set a hopeful tone, and convince Americans that some kind of unity is possible, despite that attack and the years of division and hate groups incited by his predecessor.
His inaugural address echoed the call he has made throughout his campaign and in the months since winning the election, for Americans to “give each other a chance” as he said in November. In that space of time, though, that message has become even more complicated.
Biden’s speech was delivered on the site where Trump supporters targeted their violence because many of them believed conspiracy theories that Democrats had stolen the presidential election. Some of them were white supremacists, carrying Confederate flags through the Capitol — a culmination of four years of tacit endorsement of these groups by the former president.
It was distinctly in contrast to Donald Trump’s inaugural address in 2017, a speech with dark and foreboding tones, where he swore the end of “American carnage.” Trump was absent on Wednesday, both in person and in spirit, going unmentioned by Biden except by omission.
“I thank my predecessors of both parties for their presence here today. I thank you from the bottom of my heart, and I know the resilience of our Constitution and the strength of our nation,” Biden said, which had the effect of framing Trump as an aberration.
Biden sought to describe the people who broke into the Capitol as fringe elements, not representative of the vast majority of Americans and sent a message that he believes American democracy can survive.
“Here we stand just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground,” he said. “It did not happen. It will not happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not ever.”
Biden acknowledged the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic with a moment of silent prayer, called for as his first act as president, to remember the more than 400,000 Americans who have died in the past year as a result of the coronavirus.
And he took a moment to mark the history of Kamala Harris being sworn in as the first woman vice president. “Don’t tell me things can’t change,” Biden said.
Biden spoke to skepticism in his speech, to those who think “unity” is particularly far-fetched in this moment.
“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real,” he said. “But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are 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.”
He insisted though that the US can meet that. “We have never, ever, ever failed in America when we have acted together,” he said. “So today, at this time, at this place, let’s start afresh, all of us. Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t need to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
His allies who joined him on Wednesday stuck with Biden’s optimism.
“There’s a profound difference between having a president focused on bringing Americans together and a president doing the opposite,” Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s nominee for transportation secretary, told BuzzFeed News when asked ahead of the president’s speech how Biden’s plea for unity will work. “So right off the bat, that will be helpful.”
“But I think the biggest thing that’ll unify the American people is delivering results. And that’s, that’s where all of us are hoping to come in,” he said. And he added that the location of the inauguration is particularly resonant this year. “I think it’s poetic that this event will take place in good order, just two weeks after what America watched in horror in this very space.”
Biden tried in his speech to close not just the Trump presidency, but to begin to move on from his political legacy of mistrust, conspiracy, and racism. He appealed to those who supported Trump and asked them to try to move on.
“To all of those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward,” he said. “Take a measure of me and my heart. And if you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America. The right to dissent peaceably within the guardrails of our republic is perhaps this nation’s greatest strength. Yet hear me clearly: Disagreement must not lead to disunion.”
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