The Inauguration of Joe Biden as the forty-sixth President was the culmination of stories long and short; sixty years ago, the success of a fellow Irish catholic, John F. Kennedy, inspired a teen-aged admirer in Delaware to study the Congressional Directory in the school library, for clues into how he might achieve the ludicrous ambition to follow him. (His conclusion: law school.) Four years ago, the arrival of Donald Trump launched a cascading catastrophe of such lethal effect that he was driven from office after the death of as many Americans, from a pandemic, as died in the Second World War. And, just two weeks ago, a mob of Trump followers, intoxicated by lies and rage, seized the Capitol in service of a delusion that they might overturn the election results.
In his Inaugural Address, Biden spoke less of triumph than of warning: “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” At this hour—it was an acknowledgment of the risks that remain in what he called a “winter of peril and significant possibilities, much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.” He dispensed with the euphemisms to speak plainly of the crises before him: “white supremacy, domestic terrorism” and a “cry for survival” from “the planet itself.” He invoked St. Augustine’s definition of a people as a “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” It was an elegant object of aspiration, even if it carried the faint echo of Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 Inaugural Address, in which he appealed to Americans’ “bonds of affection” and their “mystic chords of memory”—an address followed, six weeks later, by war.
It was a relevant analogy. Biden turned, over and again, to the prospects for national reunion, what he called “the way of unity”: “We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace—only bitterness and fury. No progress—only exhausting outrage. No nation—only a state of chaos.” Biden told the story of how, in 1863, Lincoln dedicated what he called his “whole soul” to the spirit of the Emancipation Proclamation. “When he put pen to paper, the President said, and I quote: ‘If my name ever goes down into history, it’ll be for this act,’ ” Biden said. And, in that spirit, he added, “On this January day, my whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”
In launching his Presidency around the pursuit of unity, Biden will immediately face the hard political calculations of making it concrete—and therein lies a challenge worthy of his “whole soul.” Last spring, when Biden was still deep in the competition for the Presidency, he sought out the advice of the Reverend Dr. William Barber, a pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, an icon in the present struggle for civil rights, an activist whom Jelani Cobb has called “the individual most capable of crafting a broad-based political counterpoint to the divisiveness of Trumpism.” Barber is a fellow traveller on the path of unity, but he is vigilant against the trade-offs that might occur in the pursuit. When they spoke, Barber recalled, he told Biden, “Our Constitution does not start with insuring tranquility. It starts with establishing justice.”
In a call this week, Barber told me, “In my tradition, hope is different than optimism. Hope has to deal with what caused despair. Trump may have lit some matches in this idea of dividing the country, but Trump inherited an audience that had been prepped and primed for years.” In Barber’s view, the sources of disunity are not simply incivility or rhetorical excess; they are the underlying facts of injustice, dispossession, and immiseration. “I said, even before COVID, forty-three per cent of this country is poor and low wealth. People are mourning because they don’t have health care, wages, and sick leave. They’re mourning because of the racism.” Since 2017, Barber has co-chaired the Poor People’s Campaign, which takes its name from Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s 1968 call for a “revolution of values” in America.
The campaign seeks to “unite poor and impacted communities across the country,” including communities of color and, in many cases, poor white people, in a shared pursuit of higher wages, a single-payer health-care system, and voting-rights protections. Barber told me, “In Georgia, for instance, forty-five per cent, not of Black people, of all people, are poor or low wealth; 1.9 million people in Georgia make less than a living wage; 1.4 million people in Georgia are without health care. A third of all poverty is in the South. A third of all white poverty is in the South. Speak to that in your policies.”
In their call last spring, and in contacts since then, Barber has urged Biden and his advisers to prepare for political fights in the short term—over wages, health care, racism, and other divisive issues in our politics—in pursuit of a larger, more sustainable unity. “It’s got to be not just rhetoric and on the surface,” Barber told me. “You have to go down to the real level of people’s pain, and what folks are experiencing in the country,” he said.
On the morning after the Inauguration, Barber will give the homily at the official inaugural prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral. He will address a new President, and a country still dawning to the idea of rediscovering what Biden, in his Inaugural Address, called America’s “common objects”—“Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.” Biden, like Barber, signalled his wariness of glib pronouncements. “I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy,” the new President told the nation. “I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real, 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, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial. Victory is never assured.” For Biden, that battle has been a long time coming, and now he has joined it.
Read More About the Presidential Transition
- Donald Trump has survived impeachment, twenty-six sexual-misconduct accusations, and thousands of lawsuits. His luck may well end now that Joe Biden is the next President.
- With litigation unlikely to change the outcome of the election, Republicans are looking to strategies that might remain even after rebuffs both at the polls and in court.
- With the Trump Presidency ending, we need to talk about how to prevent the moral injuries of the past four years from happening again.
- If 2020 has demonstrated anything, it is the need to rebalance the economy to benefit the working class. There are many ways a Biden Administration can start.
- Trump is being forced to give up his attempt to overturn the election. But his efforts to build an alternative reality around himself will continue.
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