The day Joe Biden launched his presidential run, he warned that a dangerous reality was taking hold in America, one where white supremacists wrought violence in the streets, where the country was more fractured than ever, and where truth could not be distinguished from lies.
On Wednesday, having just been sworn in as president, he found himself once more issuing that warning.
A two-year journey to the White House was bookended by two of the darker chapters in modern U.S. history: the riots in Charlottesville and the insurrection at the Capitol. And, for Biden, it prompted a familiar task. Speaking before a sparsely-attended crowd, against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic and political insurrection, he pledged to act as a healer, called on the nation to band together, and pleaded for individuals to put more value in the truth.
“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,” Biden said. “And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
Biden, who entered a primary race teeming with fresh-faced Democrats, was sometimes mocked for being out of touch and not progressive enough and for holding on to the sentimental notion that politics can be a collaborative process even in an age of hyperpartisanship. Advisers say that was him avoiding the mistakes of his youth — no longer trying to fit himself into the mold of someone else (a new Kennedy, a foreign policy wiseman) but, instead, being true to his beliefs, however antiquated. In the end, they argue, that consistency and familiarity served him well. His messaging never wavered, even through his inauguration.
“The cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear,” Biden said. “And now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
The consistency in message also served to underscore Biden’s promise of a return to stability. Biden vowed his administration would serve as a stark contrast to the chaos and tumult of his predecessor, a president whose name Biden did not mention in his inaugural address.
“We will get through this, together. The world is watching today. So here is my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested and we have come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” he said.
That the inauguration — and Biden’s speech at it — were cloaked in somberness was, perhaps, fitting given all that he has endured. His political trajectory has been filled with promise and personal tragedy. It was racial strife in his hometown of Wilmington, he said, that compelled him to leave his potentially lucrative path in law and become a public defender.
Unlike other politicians, Biden never hid the extent of his ambition. He first ran for president in 1988, only to flame out spectacularly and then run again twenty years later and flame out once more. In a memoir in advance of that latter run, he conceded that he always felt a calling to serve and a sense that he belonged among the nation’s leaders.
“From the time I was little I had a picture in my head of the sort of man I wanted to become, a picture filled in by my mom and dad, by the teachings of the Catholic schools I attended, by stories I heard about our family hero, Uncle Bosie, a pilot who was shot down in World War II, and by a faith in the size of my own future,” Biden wrote in “Promises to Keep.” “As it turned out, surprising political opportunities opened up for me when I was a young man. When they did, I was not shy about pursuing them, because I already had a picture of what I had to do—how i had to conduct myself—to take advantage of them.”
When he made it to the White House on Wednesday after his inauguration speech, he was asked how he felt. It feels, he responded “like I’m going home.”
Though often self-reflective, there was little biography in Biden’s address. Instead, his attention was both figuratively and literally directed outwards, as he looked down on a crowd that was forced to socially distance because of a raging pandemic and a capital that was transformed into a militarized zone because of the deadly insurrection weeks earlier.
He did not shy away from the reality that thousands of armed troops were roaming the streets, that tanks were cutting off intersections, that train lines had been shuttered, and that those hoping to celebrate a new day by watching in person were greeted with razor wire and seven-foot fences. Instead, he did what he did when discussing Charlottesville for his campaign launch: He addressed it head on.
“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, and to drive us from this sacred ground,” Biden said. “That did not happen. It will never happen.”