Biden’s inaugural address in a time of crisis

National Guard members walk at the Capitol, in Washington, U.S., January 15, 2021. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Joe Biden’s inauguration will take place at a time of three national crises: the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting recession, and the threat of an insurrection prompted by an outgoing president. In all of American history there are few analogous periods. But (excluding wars with foreign powers) both Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 were inaugurated in a time of severe internal upheaval—what did they do in their inaugural addresses?

When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, the country he would govern was falling to pieces. He was elected president of the United States on November 6, 1860. Seven weeks later, on December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the union, followed by six other states. On February 4, 1860, just one month prior to Lincoln’s inauguration, representatives from these states met in Montgomery, Alabama to form the Confederate States of America and elected Jefferson Davis President.

All this was going on during Lincoln’s transition which, in his day (and all the way up until 1937) lasted a full four months.[1] In his presidential campaign, Lincoln had attempted to thread the needle on the slavery issue. According to his biographer David Herbert Donald, “Perhaps his most telling innovation was his explanation of why Republicans firmly opposed to the extension of slavery were not pledged to eradicate it in the Southern states.”[2] This delicate dance continued during the transition as Lincoln and the Congress tried a variety of last-ditch efforts to try and hold the union together.

On the day of his inauguration Lincoln approached the Capitol under heavy military guard. An assassination attempt in Baltimore meant that he was forced to sneak into town under cover of darkness. Sharpshooters were stationed on the tops of buildings and companies of soldiers blocked the side streets. Lincoln’s inaugural address was a continuation of the futile efforts that had taken place during the transition to prevent dissolution of the union and war. He began by trying to argue that the southern states had nothing to fear from him. The following sentence coming from the author of the Gettysburg Address, is jarring to the 21st century reader. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

The rest of the speech was an appeal to “the better angels of our nature” to preserve the union—the phrase that is most often remembered. Sadly, it didn’t work. A little more than a month after his inauguration, April 12, 1861, the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War was on.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933 in a nation staggering from unprecedented economic collapse. He too faced an assassination attempt in the run-up to his inauguration. In the long four months of his transition the country was desperate for action, for some sign that it could get out of the deep hole of the depression which affected everyone—even the rich—and which produced breadlines and unimaginable poverty among working people. But in spite of Hoover’s attempts to involve Roosevelt in policy discussions and decisions during this period, Roosevelt stayed as disengaged as he could, even at one point taking a Caribbean vacation on a luxurious yacht owned by Vincent Astor. Roosevelt’s distance was intentional. As the historian Jonathan Alter writes:

“…Hoover was determined to play pin-some-blame on the Democratic donkey; Roosevelt wanted to make sure that the people remembered that it was Republicans who had forgotten their interests. If this meant sitting by idly while the economy sank lower FDR could live with that.”[3]

As the inauguration grew closer, the banking crisis grew worse. On March 3, 1933 banks in 32 of the 48 states were closed and people couldn’t get money to buy milk or bread.

Today we remember Roosevelt’s inaugural address for the following line: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” But what really buoyed the country at the time was his plan to expand executive power, govern aggressively and confront the source of the problem without hesitation. Referring to Wall Street and the bankers, Roosevelt said, “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.”

But just because Roosevelt appeared publicly detached, his long and distant transition prepared him to lead the burst of policy innovation that became known as the first 100 days. His record in that time was so breathtaking in its imagination and energy and so effective in restoring hope to a battered nation that every president since then has been held to the same standard whether needed or not.

Like Lincoln, Joe Biden’s inaugural will be a no-frills affair under an unprecedented number of National Guard and police troops. Like Lincoln and Roosevelt, he undoubtedly faces death threats—if the insurrectionists wanted to hang Vice President Pence imagine what they’d like to do to Biden. But unlike Lincoln’s enemies, it is unclear what Biden’s opponents want. The secessionists had a clear goal: preserving slavery and the economy built on it in the South and in the new states and territories. But it is unclear what the Trump insurrectionists want beyond overthrowing a free and fair election and installing Donald Trump as an illegitimate second-term president. Their platform seems to be purely about hatred, of black people, immigrants, Jews and anyone in power who is not Donald Trump.

But unlike Lincoln and Roosevelt, Biden has not been shy about jumping into the issues of the day during his transition. In part, that is because the outgoing president abandoned any pretense of governing on Election Day, devoting his time and resources to a futile attempt to overturn election results. Into this breach, Biden has put together a governing team whose extensive experience stands in marked contrast to Trump and his team—especially the team of his last two years. He has laid out a plan for dealing with the coronavirus and the economic disruption it has caused. And he has made an ambitious pledge to deliver 100 million vaccines into the arms of Americans in his first one hundred days. If he comes close, he will have taken a huge step towards ending the crisis.

His inaugural address will, no doubt, echo Lincoln and Roosevelt in its calls for unity. It will probably contain some phrases that go down in history. But the most important parts of it will be his pledges to “Do something!” for a people traumatized by disease, economic despair and insurrection. For Lincoln, it was too late. War was inevitable no matter what he said. For Roosevelt, the promise of doing something came just in the nick of time. Let’s hope that Biden’s inaugural address and the promises in it will work out well for all of us.

[1] Even though the law had changed earlier, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president to have a shorter transition.

[2] Donald, David H. Lincoln. New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996. p 241.

[3] Alter, Jonathan. The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. p 144.