There are two kinds of inaugurations. For some, the theme is “Let us continue”; for others, “Let us begin anew.” Rarely has the latter seemed more apt—or necessary.
It was a foregone conclusion that newly sworn-in President Joe Biden would speak of unity and democracy in his inaugural address. From the very beginning, these were the themes of his presidential campaign, and he adhered to them in the face of pressure from pundits and politicians to change course.
“We come together as one nation,” Biden declared. “Democracy has prevailed.” We have much to repair, much to restore, much to build, much to heal–and much to gain. But we cannot do it while divided against ourselves. “My whole soul is in this—bringing America together,” he said. It is time to end our “uncivil war.”
Mr. Biden acknowledged that calls for unity in our current circumstances can sound naïve, and he worked to dispel this impression. “The forces that divide us are real,” he said. But he reminded us that this has often been so throughout our history.
Calls for national unity at inaugurations are nothing new, of course—most memorably by Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Back then, however, the better angels of our nature were not strong enough to avert a disastrous civil war. Now, two weeks after an unprecedented assault on the Capitol by an insurrectionary mob of its own citizens, the new president faces a similar challenge—to avert conflict and to build anew on what we have in common.
But there was another, newer theme in President Biden’s inaugural address—an invocation of truth as the foundation of unity. The reason is clear: never has truth been more necessary, or more endangered. “There is truth and there are lies,” he told us. Lies told for profit and for power.”
And then he promised, “I will always level with you.”
A new beginning takes more than rhetoric and promises, of course. It will require governing with full awareness of our differences—and with the fact that we are closely as well as deeply divided. The Senate is evenly divided; the House, nearly so. President Biden may be able pass a handful of bills with the support of only his own party. For the rest, bipartisanship is more than a slogan; it will be a necessity.
This morning, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate joined Joe Biden as he attended mass at St. Matthews Cathedral. And although President Trump was absent from the inaugural ceremonies, Vice President Mike Pence and the only other former Republican President, George W. Bush, were present. In the months to come, Biden’s Oval Office should welcome leaders of both parties, and a wide swath of America. Only then will Biden be able to make good on his hopes to end this “uncivil war” that for too long has pitted us against one another.