At noon on Wednesday, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. will take the oath of office on the Capitol steps and become the 46th president of the United States. Millions of Americans will breathe a sigh of relief that four years of division, violence, and injustice perpetrated on this country by his predecessor will finally be over.
President Biden will step up to the podium and address the nation. There have been few times in our history when an incoming president has faced such a challenge to find the right words for the inaugural address. In a time of uncertainty, strife, and fear, these words will largely define the coming four years. In 1865, speaking to a nation torn by civil war and mourning the deaths of hundreds of thousands of young Americans on both sides of the conflict, Abraham Lincoln announced that the program of his second term would be one of rebuilding, reconciliation, and justice:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
In 1933, with the global economy in collapse, crops failing, and almost a quarter of all Americans out of work, Franklin Delano Roosevelt told a country facing the worst economic crisis in its history that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” If you thought about it, it was an absurd turn of phrase, bit it was perhaps the right thing to say on Inauguration Day. Americans needed a pie-in-the-sky promise at that moment, and President Roosevelt gave it to them. As the historian David M. Kennedy observed, it was as much Americans’ belief in an economic recovery as President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that ultimately lifted the United States out of the Great Depression.
Historically, the inaugural address contains the incoming chief executive’s promise to the American people that, for the next four years, we will move forward. If we had been listening closely enough in 2017, we might have recognized President Trump’s intention to move the county forward into “American carnage,” but that was an unusually candid admission from an inveterate liar.
More typical were John F. Kennedy’s promise in 1961 of a “national renewal,” as he turned to the world and asked it to imagine “what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Returning to a theme he had introduced months earlier, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 promised to set course to a Great Society that would embody the “excitement of becoming – always becoming, trying, probing, falling, resting, and trying again – but always trying and always gaining.”
What path to the future will President Biden promise as he looks out from the Capitol steps to America and the world on Wednesday? After four years of division, white nationalist violence, and hate, culminating in the attempted insurrection on 6 January, how will he imagine a future for all of us? Will he exhort us to face the days to come without fear, as President Roosevelt did, or will he charge us with a mission to press on through all obstacles, as President Johnson did, to build a better future than we could ever have imagined?
All indications are that President Biden will fearlessly set course for the past.
There is already a strong aroma of nostalgia surrounding the commentary in advance of Wednesday’s inauguration. In The Washington Post, Jackson Diehl offered some suggestions on how the new president can “update” Obama-era policies, and E.J. Dionne, jr. celebrated Biden as a return to the good old days of traditional leadership. Biden “remains in principle a believer in cross-party cooperation,” Dionne wrote, “and he is an institutionalist who has filled his administration with experienced hands who believe in traditional approaches to governance.”
The Guardian reports that President Biden “will deliver a message of national unity” and healing. Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union, incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain offered a preview of President Biden’s address, striking a note of restoration: “The events of the past few weeks have proven out just how damaged the soul of America has been, and how important it is to restore it.”
It is as if we find ourselves standing in the rubble of the Napoleonic Wars desperately beseeching the Bourbon pretender to erase the decades since 1789 and return us to the glory of the Ancien Régime.
For all of his flaws, and they are many, President-elect Biden is by all accounts a decent, caring man, and he has a touchingly innocent faith in the idea of America rather reminiscent of a schoolchild reciting the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. He built his political career on the proposition that people of goodwill – even if they were vile racists like Senators James Eastland and Herman Talmadge – could find common ground. As the dumpster fire of our national crisis has raged over the last months and years, the president-elect has repeated the phrase “this is not who we are” like some kind of occult incantation to exorcise the demon possessing America. Yet, almost half of all American voters – more than 74 million – knowingly and eagerly voted for the demon. It is exactly who they are.
President-elect Biden believes so strongly, and so completely in America, as an exceptional nation, a beacon upon a hill, a land of opportunity where anything is possible, that his solution to our rapidly-escalating civil war is to turn back the clock and return to the golden age of our national innocence before these years of carnage. In that respect, his message is not so different from “make America great again;” nor should that surprise anyone, as it is founded on the same ideology of American exceptionalism and perfection.
Unfortunately, that is not how history works; even if you step in the stream at the same place, the water has already moved on. Restorations, no matter how well-meaning always fail. The Stuart Restoration lasted 28 years and collapsed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; the Bourbon Restoration was over in 15 years, and led to revolutions in 1830, 1848, and ultimately to the comic-opera restoration of the Napoleonic empire.
Moreover, golden ages, like the one that so many liberals like the president-elect are so desperate to return to, are myths. America did not attain a state of grace either during the Kennedy and Johnson years, or under the eight years of Barack Obama that we can return to if only we click our heels together and wish hard enough. Despite our sepia-toned memories, these were times of inequality, injustice and violence, when American soldiers fought a war in Southeast Asia, and American killing machines murdered civilians in the Middle East. They were times when people with names like Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner, Rice, and Garner were murdered by racist police. And it was, in fact, in these imagined golden years where the seeds of carnage were planted in soil contaminated with the legacies of American racism and capitalism.
We cannot go back, and we cannot restore an innocence that never was. We can only pretend that the past was what we wish it had been rather than what it was. And if we do that, the future will certainly be worse than we can imagine.
Wednesday’s Ceremony of Innocence only portends a blood-dimmed tide.