Joe Biden began his presidency with a soaring appeal to end America's "uncivil war" and reset the tone in Washington, delivering an inaugural address that dispensed with a laundry list of policy goals to instead confront the nation's glaring political divides.
Mr Biden's speech, delivered from the steps of the Capitol under heavy security, made no direct mention of Donald Trump but repudiated some of the hallmarks of his tenure.
The new president acknowledged the historic challenges facing the US: the worsening coronavirus outbreak, climate change, systemic inequality and persistent unemployment. But rather than offer policy prescriptions, he kept his remarks trained on a call for unity, saying the American democracy had prevailed over a fractious election and now must heal.
“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in his path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” Mr Biden said. “Without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge and unity is the path forward.”
Mr Biden’s 21-minute speech capped an inauguration that unfolded without incident under heavy security in the aftermath of the January 6th riot when Trump supporters overran the US Capitol. The speech borrowed heavily from themes that formed the pillars of his campaign speeches.
“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real,” he said. “But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal – that we’re all created equal – and the harsh ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonisation have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial and victory is never assured.”
Mr Biden sketched a path from the suffrage movement to Wednesday's inauguration of vice-president Kamala Harris – the first woman, the first black American and first Indian-American to hold the role. "Don't tell me things can't change," he said.
While Mr Biden spoke broadly about social discord, he also alluded to the need for co-operation on Capitol Hill, where Democrats’ narrow control of the House and Senate could threaten his agenda.
“We must end this uncivil war, that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls, instead of hardening our hearts,” Mr Biden said.
The speech was applauded by some Republicans, including senator Mitt Romney, a Republican who was a Trump critic and will be a crucial swing vote in a divided Senate.
‘Told the truth’
"I think it was Churchill that said you can count on Americans to get things right after they've exhausted all the alternatives," said Mr Romney, who lost the 2012 presidential race to Barack Obama. "I thought it was very strong and, and very much needed. We as a nation come together if we are told the truth."
Mr Biden likened the moment to past American crises, and signalled that he was seeking unity, though not unanimity.
“In each of these moments, enough of us – enough of us – have come together to carry all of us forward, and we can do that. History, faith and reason show the way, the way of unity. we can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbours,” Mr Biden said.
“To all those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me, and my heart.”
Mr Biden will grapple not only with bridging divides between parties, but between Democrats as well, with progressives wary that his centrist leanings will squander the opportunity for structural change.
Still, Mr Biden made only passing reference to that in his bid to reset the temperature in Washington.
“This is America’s day, this is democracy’s day,” Biden said. “The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded. We’ve learned again that democracy is precious, democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” – Bloomberg