Abraham Lincoln took his first oath of office when the Union was breaking apart and his second during a bloody Civil War to hold it together. Franklin Roosevelt took his oath during the Great Depression and another during a world war. Eight other presidents took the oath under sudden circumstances when their predecessors died in office; Gerald Ford took his following our only presidential resignation.
Joe Biden took office Wednesday in circumstances that rank somewhat less dire than what Lincoln and Roosevelt faced but surely more challenging than most incoming presidents have faced — with a pandemic that has claimed more American lives than World War II did and a Capitol ringed with troops after the outgoing president incited an insurrectionist mob to try to overturn election results that did not go in his favor.
History will deal harshly with Donald Trump; his legitimate accomplishments will be forever measured against his crude manner, his reveling in division and, ultimately, the dark hours of Jan. 6. History will eventually have its way with Biden, too, as it does with all. For now, let it be said that Biden in his inaugural address said the things Americans desperately needed to hear from their president — and not only their president, either.
Biden’s address was not poetry or even necessarily soaring prose; it remains difficult for any president to rival Lincoln for that. Nor did it match Roosevelt’s famous declaration that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” or John Kennedy’s inspirational “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” However, a more plainspoken Biden called on Americans not to do great things but to do normal things. “Stop the shouting and lower the temperature,” he said. “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path.”
These are words the country has needed to hear for a long time and bear repeating at every dinner table across America — and on every social media screen. That those words came Wednesday from a Democrat is irrelevant — that plea is neither Democratic nor Republican. A century ago, after a tumultuous time that saw a world war and, yes, a pandemic, we inaugurated a president (Warren Harding) who vowed an ungrammatical but simple “return to normalcy.” The true promise of Biden’s presidency is not a particular political program but a modern-day “return to normalcy.” Biden’s inaugural address was a good start on that. “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue,” he said. “We can see each other, not as adversaries, but as neighbors.” That’s simply a pithier formulation of what Lincoln said in 1861: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Biden’s greatest service to the country will be to return it to the civil and democratic norms that have been either ignored or willfully broken over the past four years. (Let the record show that outgoing Vice President Mike Pence did his part by gamely taking part in the inaugural ceremony that Trump petulantly boycotted, a sign of Pence’s basic decency and respect for American traditions.) None of that means that Americans must subscribe to Biden’s political agenda. At any given time in American history, there is always a significant minority that wishes the other party were in power — and every so often that minority becomes a temporary majority. Republicans should no more change their beliefs about the role of government in society than Democrats should change theirs under a Republican administration. A democracy doesn’t just allow for such disagreements; it requires them. However, we can have those arguments in a normal tone of voice and without treating those with whom we disagree as some kind of alien “other.” Somehow too many Americans have to come to hate some of our fellow citizens; the reasons why are long and complicated, and lead inevitably toward the condition that Lincoln, echoing Scripture, warned against: A house divided against itself cannot stand. The vital question of the day is how we step back from that dark abyss that we saw yawn open before us Jan. 6.
“Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” Biden said. That harkens back to something Thomas Jefferson — a polarizing figure in his own day — once said: “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” Jefferson’s magnanimity would surely be tested today, when Americans on both sides gleefully “unfriend” those who share different views and retreat into social media bubbles where they need not be disturbed by a contrary thought. Biden addressed this when he said “the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like — look like you or worship the way you do or don’t get their news from the same source as you do.” Instead, quoting St. Augustine, the nation’s second Catholic president (and our most overtly religious since Jimmy Carter more than four decades ago) appealed to Americans to remember “the common objects of their love.”
Those are the right words but those are also easy words. There now exists in the land whole industries devoted to stoking political outrage — on both the left and the right. “Exhausting outrage,” Biden aptly called it. The best thing Americans could do would be to turn off their favorite propaganda channel for awhile and think for themselves. Conservatives will not magically become liberals and liberals will not magically become conservatives, but they might come to find they have more in common than they think — and that when they do still disagree, they can do so in less strident ways. This is not a question simply for the politicians who found themselves on the grandstand at the Capitol but for all Americans, particularly those within reach of a “send” button. The challenge through our history has been to constitute a government that’s as good as our people; the challenge now is whether people can be as good as our new president is, at least rhetorically speaking. Biden swore an oath to defend the nation but we should remember what Benjamin Franklin once said about our form of government — “a republic, if you can keep it.” That part is on all of us.