Since at least the time of Abraham Lincoln, US presidential inauguration speeches have contained appeals to unity. Rarely since then has unity been such a central or oft-repeated theme as it was of Joe Biden’s address on Wednesday — but rarely, too, has American democracy felt as fragile as today.
Speaking in the presence of massed security to guard the Capitol from violence but in the absence of massed crowds and of his own predecessor, Mr Biden called for a fresh start. Yet it was a call for a return: to truth and decency, to the respect for liberty, institutions and rule of law that have long been the source of America’s extraordinary dynamism, and its standing in the world.
The tasks of the 46th president differ from those of so many forerunners in their sheer magnitude. Containing a mismanaged pandemic that has cost 400,000 lives and brought economic pain to millions would be hard enough for most presidencies. As Mr Biden acknowledged, the burden of responsibility confronting him is weightier still: to soothe gaping social divisions, repair the American republic, and restore its moral reputation. Those undertakings will long outlast his presidency. How he performs in office will nonetheless determine in no small part whether they can ultimately succeed.
To begin rebuilding trust in politicians and institutions, Mr Biden must start close to home, with an effort to restore some semblance of bipartisanship to Washington politics. His record as a lawmaker ready to reach across the aisle equips him better than most. His campaign, and how he has conducted himself in the 10 tumultuous weeks since then, have demonstrated his fundamental decency and character, reflected in his pledge on Wednesday to “be a president for all Americans”.
Bipartisanship, however, will require the co-operation of his political adversaries. Though Democrats now control Congress, the behaviour of Republicans in opposition will be a vital determinant of Mr Biden’s success. The admission of Mitch McConnell, the most senior Senate Republican, that the rioters who stormed the sanctum of US democracy two weeks ago had been “fed lies” and “provoked by the president” seemed a belated recognition of the danger at hand. Yet his party’s record gives little cause for comfort. It still has a long way to go in repudiating Donald Trump and Trumpism, and reassembling its once broad electoral coalition.
Though Mr Biden avoided the subject, restoring respect for the rule of law must also mean holding Mr Trump and the Capitol mob accountable, as well as facilitating a Senate trial for impeachment. The former president’s role is a matter, too, for the criminal courts. Cleaving to unity and healing while allowing justice against his predecessor to take its course will be a treacherously fine line, but one Mr Biden cannot avoid.
America has taken a critical step to return to a culture of truth. The incoming administration will also have to mend trust in traditional media, and find ways to curb hate speech and misinformation on social media platforms. Only if Americans feel they are all living in the same reality can the country truly move forward.
Just as Mr Trump’s inaugural speech invoking “American carnage” set the tone for his presidency, so it should be hoped that Mr Biden’s appeal for an end to “uncivil war” will define his own. The pressures on him and the expectations are immense. We must wish him luck and hope that he succeeds. America — and the world — cannot afford to see him fail.
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