U.S. military units march in front of the Capitol, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021 in Washington, as they rehearse for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, which will be held at the Capitol on Wednesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

U.S. military units march in front of the Capitol, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021 in Washington, as they rehearse for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, which will be held at the Capitol on Wednesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Biden aims for unifying speech at daunting moment for U.S.

President Donald Trump won’t be there to hear it

President-elect Joe Biden will take the stage for his inaugural address at perhaps the most difficult starting point for a president since Franklin Roosevelt began his first term by assuring a nation scarred by the Great Depression that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

But memorable turns of phrase like Roosevelt’s are more the exception than the rule when it comes to inaugural addresses.

Former President Barack Obama in his memoir noted that singer Aretha Franklin’s showy hat and a glitch in Chief Justice John Roberts’ administration of the oath of office got more attention than his speech in the days following the first Black president’s address, delivered as the nation was mired in recession and a growing malaise over two intractable wars.

Now, with the coronavirus raging, unemployment claims soaring and partisan divisions sharpening, Biden faces a fraught moment as he prepares to deliver a speech that aides say he wants to use to “call Americans to unity.”

“The situation he faces is absolutely brutal,” said Cody Keenan, who served as a chief speechwriter for Obama and assisted with his two inaugural addresses. He added that Biden in many ways is ”the perfect president for the moment, because he is not hyperbolic, he’s not a bomb thrower, he’s surrounded himself with policy wonks who already have all these plans. I think what we are going to hear him talk about is ‘Here’s where we are, here’s what we have to get done.’ I think that’s going to go a long way just to making people feel better.”

With the current mood of the country, Biden’s consistent focus on restoring “the soul of America” may be of greater value to the nation than any soaring oratory, in the view of some Democratic allies of the incoming president.

“It is entirely possible that this inaugural is one we remember for generations to come, because of the gravity of this moment” said David Litt, who served as an Obama speechwriter and wrote the comedic memoir, “Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years.” “But I also think it’s possible that the signature speeches of the Biden administration come at less expected moments and that would be par for the course.”

The inaugural address is as much a celebration of the peaceful handover of power as it is a set piece for a new or reelected president to lay out a vision for the nation. In recent memory, inaugural addresses have followed a predictable structure: The nation has challenges but there is hope to solve the problems if the president’s agenda is embraced.

One tradition dating back at least to Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inaugural is for the incoming president to offer the nation’s gratitude to the outgoing president — a moment of graciousness intended to put aside the strife of the political campaign and signal to Americans that it’s time to come together as a nation.

President Donald Trump won’t be there to hear it. He’s already said he won’t attend the inauguration — the first outgoing president to skip his successor’s swearing-in since Andrew Johnson did not attend Ulysses S. Grant’s inauguration in 1869.

Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush, said there are still ways that Biden’s speechwriting team can continue the tradition of honouring the peaceful transition of power by simply giving a nod to the past presidents and Vice-President Mike Pence, who are expected to be at the Capitol for the address.

Biden chief of staff Ron Klain said during a recent event hosted by The Washington Post that the president-elect has been chipping away on the address through the entire transition — taking time every few days to write and rewrite his thoughts. His speechwriting team is led by longtime Biden collaborator Vinay Reddy.

More important than flowery oratory is substantively demonstrating how Biden will take steps to begin unifying a country that remains emotionally raw because of the pandemic and a divisive election cycle that culminated with the violent insurrection at the Capitol, Fleischer said.

“Don’t dwell on today’s difficulties. Focus on tomorrow’s answers,” Fleischer advised. “Soaring oratory is just not Joe Biden. The effectiveness of his speech is going to be much more about what he says than how he says it.”

Edward Frantz, a presidential historian at the University of Indianapolis, said Biden’s daunting moment has parallels to what Roosevelt faced in 1933 as he sought to rally support for his agenda, as well as to Rutherford B. Hayes, who delivered his inaugural address in 1877 after winning by a single Electoral College vote in an election in which he and his allies alleged fraud in several states.

In addition to pushing a message of unity for Americans, Biden should signal to the world that the United States will recalibrate after four years of Trump, Frantz said. That may be easier said than done, though.

“How do you talk about returning to new normal while also not seeming arrogant about the United States’ position in the world — especially after what’s transpired over the last four years of the Trump administration and also with what foreign observers watched in horror as the riots transpired,” Frantz said. “There really is no parallel to what Biden faces.”

Aamer Madhani, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Donald TrumpJoe Biden

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Seniors in the Interior Health region can book their COVID-19 vaccinations starting Monday, March 8, 2021 at 7 a.m. (File photo)
Seniors in Interior Heath region can book COVID-19 shots starting Monday

Starting March 8 the vaccination call centre will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

A member of the Vernon Search and Rescue winch helicopter team pulls a skier who broke her leg at the gorge backcountry area east of Sicamous into the helicopter on Friday March 5. (Shuswap Search and Rescue/Facebook)
Search and rescue helicopter helps injured skier out of Shuswap backcountry

The Salmon Arm woman broke her leg, but was helped out of the bush thanks to radio communication.

SASCU is looking to celebrate its 75th anniversary with a legacy project, in the same way the Shuswap credit union marked its 60th by commissioning the apple sculpture at its downtown location. That artwork includes 14 apples honouring SASCU’s founding families. (Lachlan Labere-Salmon Arm Observer)
Shuswap credit union to mark 75th anniversary with legacy project

SASCU will be looking for input from arts community, city

Interior Health reported 33 new COVID-19 cases on March 5. (Black Press Files)
Interior Health reports 33 new COVID-19 cases on March 5

Over 300,000 vaccine doses have been administered provincewide.

The James C Richardson Pipe Band marches in a Remembrance Day parade on Nov. 11, 2019 in Chilliwack. Wednesday, March 10 is International Bagpipe Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of March 7 to 13

International Bagpipe Day, Wash Your Nose Day and Kidney Day are all coming up this week

Multiple people were injured at a Vernon home following an early-morning break-in Saturday, March 6, 2021. (Black Press file photo)
Multiple people left injured following break-and-enter in Vernon

Police believe the early-morning break-in was targeted and not a threat to the general public

Kelowna General Hospital (File photo)
Second COVID-19 outbreak declared at Kelowna General Hospital

One patient and one staff member on Unit have tested positive for the virus.

Victoria man Brett Andersen is asking for people’s help to secure him one of eight free tickets to the moon. (Screenshot/@brettandersen Instagram)
Victoria man wants your help securing a free ticket to the moon

Japanese billionaire offering eight people a trip to the moon

A Coldstream resident who found an owl struggling on her property in March 2021 is now spreading awareness of about the knock-on effects of rodent poisoning. (Kathy Renaud photo)
Okanagan owl ‘fighting for her life’ after ingesting rat poison

Coldstream resident warns against the use of rodenticide due to risk of secondary poisoning in raptors

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

Fire ripped through a mobile home on Boucherie Road in West Kelowna on March. 6. (Phil McLachlan - West Kelowna News)
‘My whole life just went up in smoke’; Fire consumes Okanagan mobile home

RCMP confirmed that there were no injuries due to the fire

Donald Alan Sweet was once an all star CFL kicker who played for the Montreal Alouettes and Montreal Concordes over a 13-year career. Photo courtesy of Mission RCMP.
Ex-B.C. teacher who was CFL kicker charged with assault, sexual crimes against former students

Donald Sweet taught in Mission School District for 10 years, investigators seek further witnesses

During a press event on March 6, Const. Alex Berube, media relations officer for the West Shore RCMP, addressed a deadly shooting that occurred in Metchosin the night before. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
VIDEO: One man shot dead on Vancouver Island in ‘targeted incident’

Highway 14 reopens following multi-hour closure for investigation

Most Read