‘Hope in hard times’ was central message of Biden’s inauguration

In his first address to the nation, America’s new president made it clear he is on a mission to heal

U.S. President Joe Biden signs documents in the President's Room at the U.S. Capitol following the 59th presidential inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2020. Biden will propose a broad immigration overhaul on his first day as president, including a shortened pathway to U.S. citizenship for undocumented migrants - a complete reversal from Donald Trump's immigration restrictions and crackdowns, but one that faces major roadblocks in Congress. Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

The names, policies and priorities keep changing, but the choreography of a US presidential inauguration remains the same.

There is music, singing and prayers, then the new president swears a 35-word oath and makes a speech. Washington has a big party – and then the hard work begins. Sometimes the inaugural speech is short – George Washington’s was shortest, at 135 words. Sometimes it is long – William Henry Harrison was the longest at 10,000 words, but in the winter weather, he caught a chill and died of pneumonia after only 31 days in office, the shortest presidency in history.

The Biden inauguration will go down in history, too; yes, for the profound challenges he faces, but also for one big positive reason: hope in hard times. This was the first socially distanced inauguration, held during a pandemic while the centre of America’s capital resembled the highest security zone you can imagine. Armed National Guardsmen stood on alert, protecting against any repeat of the storming of the Capitol last week by supporters of Mr Biden’s predecessor.

Like Lord Voldemort, Donald Trump’s name was never mentioned. He had chosen to make his way to Florida rather than attend his nation’s greatest healing ceremony.

But with Mr Trump gone and hope in abundance, there was diversity and history, too. After performances from Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez came the swearing in of the first woman US vice president in history, Kamala Harris, by the first Latina on the US Supreme Court.

Republicans including George W Bush and departing vice president Mike Pence stood shoulder to shoulder with Democrats including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. With repeated calls for unity and civility, Joe Biden captured the mood of a nation that desperately needs to heal.

“We must end this uncivil war,” he said. “Disagreement must not lead to disunion.”

As president, he aims to heal a “broken land” and despite the violence of the mob that opposes him, “this is democracy’s day. Democracy has prevailed”.

Yet Mr Biden faces four “overlapping and compounding crises”, according to his incoming chief of staff Ron Klain – Covid-19, the ensuing economic crisis, the climate crisis and “a racial equity crisis”. Mr Biden promised to tackle all of these, and to US allies he said, “we will repair our alliances” damaged in the Trump years.

The challenges are immense, but hope was hardened by determination to always be honest with the American people. After a period where falsehoods were part of policy, Mr Biden said that “there is truth and there are lies” and he would not tolerate a culture “in which facts are manipulated and are manufactured”.

While Mr Trump slides into history as the first president to be impeached twice, this was not a day for reflecting on the failures of the past, but a day of hope of change for the future. Mr Biden often quotes the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

“History says

Don’t hope on this side of the grave

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.”

That time is now.

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National