In his inaugural address, US President Joe Biden appealed for national unity and a battle for the common good, a stark departure from now-former president Donald Trump’s vision of “carnage” and an assertion of American individualism in his remarks four years ago.
The 46th president was sworn in at 11.48am on the steps of the US Capitol, which just two weeks ago was smothered in tear gas during an insurrection mounted by the former president’s supporters, driven by the lie that the 2020 election was “stolen” from them.
On Tuesday night, at the foot of the reflecting pool in front of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Mr Biden and now-vice president Kamala Harris also led a solemn memorial to recognise the more than 400,000 Americans who died from Covid-19.
Those twin crises – facing democracy and public health – join the threats of racial injustice, the climate emergency, and a lagging economy and mass unemployment that have thrived under the previous administration.
Mr Biden campaigned on a promise of unity but did not dismiss the realities that have demanded it. His 21-minute inaugural address, following a chaotic transition and a lethal attempt to upend the transfer of power, expanded on that message and called on Americans to meet it.
‘This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve’
From the steps of the US Capitol, the president called his election and the inauguration a “triumph not of a candidate but of the cause, the cause of democracy,” with the spectre of the former president’s trails of falsehoods and a violent insurrection – and thousands of National Guard troops in the nation’s capital – surrounding him. “Democracy has prevailed,” he said.
“On this hallowed ground just a few days ago, violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation,” he said. “We came together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power.”
‘Much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities’
Mr Biden’s administration includes offices and cabinet-level positions specifically to address the crises he inherits, and he has outlined an extensive list of Day One plans, including executive orders to overturn the former president’s severe immigration actions.
He said that the US must be “restless, bold, optimistic” and “set sights on a nation we can be, we must be.”
“This is a great nation – we’re good people, and over the centuries through storm and strife, through peace and war, we’ve come so far, we still have so far to go,” he said.
His ambitious 100-day plan also includes a $1.9trn legislative coronavirus relief package, which Democratic lawmakers will seek to quickly pass through Congress.
‘The most elusive thing in all of democracy: Unity’
Mr Biden has explicitly pointed out the rising threats of white supremacists and racial injustice and condemned lawmakers and other officials who have endorsed Mr Trump’s efforts to undermine American voters. Critics have argued that the president’s insistence on “unity” dismisses fascist violence and racism, placing the burden on Democrats to repair the nation rather than begin a meaningful period of reckoning.
But the president’s bipartisan message speaks more to the common “foes” among Americans: anger, resentment, disease, joblessness and hopelessness, among others.
He said the US has always been in a “constraint struggle” to live up to its creed “that we’re all created equal.”
“Our better angels have always prevailed,” he said. “Without unity there is bitterness and fury … No nation, only a state of chaos … This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”
He said that “politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path.”
“Disagreement must not lead to disunion,” he said.
Americans must be “willing to stand in another person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment,” he said. “Here’s the thing about life: there’s no accounting for what faith will deal you.”
‘Common objects of their love’
Mr Biden, who is Catholic, invoked St Augustine in his appeal to unity: “A people are a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.”
He listed the “common objects” loved among Americans – opportunity, security, dignity, respect, honor, and, “yes, the truth.”
‘The leading force of good in the world’
In a message to other nations, he assured that “America has been tested, and has come out stronger for it,” but didn’t mention the fractured foreign policy under the previous administration. He pledged to “repair our alliances” and make the US a “leading force of good in the world."
On Day One, the Biden administration will rejoin the Paris climate agreement. Within his first 10 days, he intends to roll out an extensive immigration reform plan that includes efforts to reunite families separated by federal law enforcement at the US-Mexico border.
The administration also will confront the joint comprehensive plan of action with Iran, crafted under the Obama Administration, with a new State Department helmed by Obama-era officials.
‘My first act as president’
President Biden led a moment of silent prayer to recognise the more than 400,000 Americans who died from the coronavirus.
He also called on Americans to do their part, without addressing specifics, but with an honest admission of the difficulties ahead.
“We’re going to be tested,” he said. “Are we going to step up, all of us? It’s time for boldness. There is so much to do … We will be judged, you and I, how we resolve these cascading crises of our era. … Will we master this rare and difficult hour?”
“I believe we must, I believe we will,” he added. “And when we do we will write the next great chapter in American history.”
As he closed his remarks, he quoted from Gene Sheer’s 1998 composition “American Anthem,” which he called his “favorite song”. The song was also performed at George W Bush’s inauguration.
President Biden recited these lines: “What shall be our legacy? What will our children say? Let them say of me / I was one who believed / In sharing the blessings / I received /Let me know in my heart / When my days are through / America, America / I gave my best to you.”
“Let’s add our own work and prayers to the unfolding story of this great nation,” he said.