Biden promises unity and redemption amid divisions and challenges: ANALYSIS

"We have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities."

January 20, 2021, 2:23 PM

There was tradition to pair with tension, pageantry to counter any pettiness, and a thankfully peaceful transition day that saw former President Donald Trump leave the stage and President Joe Biden make his first attempt to seize it.

On a brilliant and windy inauguration day in Washington, a stillness prevailed that belied the challenges that face the nation and its new president at this moment.

Through powerful musical performances and poetry, and history-making formalities, a surreal fact lingered: Biden took the office by the same Capitol steps that violent protesters climbed to storm the halls of Congress, as part of an attempted coup that took place precisely two weeks earlier.

"Democracy has prevailed," Biden said in his inaugural address, employing a common-enough phrase that took particular meaning this day. "I know the resilience of our Constitution and the strength of our nation."

President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration after being sworn in at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021.
Patrick Semansky/AP

The relative quiet will not last, and the business of governance is more complicated than the rhetoric of inaugurals even after the smoothest of transitions.

But the focus on unity, empathy and spiritual renewal spoke to the promise that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris carry with them into office -- a promise of restoration and of comfort in political normalcy.

"We have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities," the new president said. "Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build and much to gain."

Biden didn't mention Trump's name once in his inaugural address. Yet in decrying the "state of chaos" and "raging fire" of outrage-based politics, in vowing to "defend democracy," and in promising to "always level with you," the rebukes of Trumpism were unmistakable.

In his speech, Biden reached out to those who didn't support him, repeating a pledge to be a "president for all Americans."

President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Biden also addressed what may prove the most central challenge of the era and of his presidency -- a refusal by many to accept baselines of facts and science. That sad aspect of American life contributed to the assault on the Capitol by Trump supporters who falsely believed the election was stolen.

"We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured," Biden said.

Overcoming the power of misinformation and politically motivated lies will be critical to combatting the pandemic, with Biden seeking to change behaviors and overcome skepticism of the COVID-19 vaccine and its rollout.

Biden will also have to contend with another tangible legacy of Trump rather immediately. Trump's impeachment will be taken up in the newly Democratic Senate as soon as the end of this week, and it will compete for floor time with Biden's legislative agenda and Cabinet confirmations.

Outgoing President Donald Trump waves as he boards Marine One at the White House in Washington, D.C, Jan. 20, 2021.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

As for the outgoing president, Trump sounded a few notes that were discordant for the day before departing for Florida. While not mentioning Biden by name, or conceding that he lost the election legitimately, Trump offered "great luck and great success" to the incoming administration and also told his followers, "we will be back in some form."

"I will be watching. I will be listening," Trump said.

The nation will be doing both of those things, of course. The new president is issuing a blizzard of executive orders and legislative proposals on Day One, testing any sense of unity with quick action on immigration, the environment and what would mark significant expansions of government spending.

It's not just Republicans or Trump supporters who are skeptical of unity and healing at the moment. Biden also needs to convince progressives and many others who have tuned out political promises that listening to those you don't agree with can be fruitful.

"I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days," the president said.

Biden takes office amid grave threats from outside and within the country itself, amid a pandemic, a racial-justice reckoning, a struggling economy and with the systems of government having come under literal attack by supporters of the man he recently defeated.

There are plenty reasons to view this as a dark moment in American history. For his part, Biden sees optimism in the fact that there is more history yet to write.

"This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward," he said.

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