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Artillery Row

Take Biden seriously

Why the new president’s call for unity is more than a platitude

It’s hard to think of a more shop-worn banality in American political rhetoric than the appeal to unity. But times of civic trauma — and the last two weeks have been such a time in the United States — give clichés fresh potency.

So it was with Joe Biden’s inauguration. The attack on the Capitol, the backdrop of plague and economic crisis and the many lesser indecencies of the Trump years meant a speech that would have sounded platitudinal and schmaltzy in another context was instead sincere and necessary.

“This is a historic moment of crisis and challenge,” he said. “And unity is the path forward.”

“Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” Biden continued. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”

Standing yards from the spot where his predecessor’s supporters killed a police officer and ransacked the home of American democracy, the 46th President of the United States did not merely nod to these horrors but addressed them head on: “So now, on this hallowed ground where just days ago violence sought to shake this Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.”

In perhaps the most memorable part of his speech, Biden said: “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

Biden’s great advantage is that he has been vindicated by events. And yesterday’s speech was a reminder of that. It felt absolutely for the moment and completely in keeping with the central theme of his campaign for the presidency: that the election was a battle for the soul of the nation. If that wasn’t clear by November, it was blindingly obvious from January 6. In other words, Biden didn’t meet the moment, the moment met Biden.

As important as the theme of the President’s address was the reassuring normalcy of proceedings, Biden’s respect for ritual and old-school assumptions about the promise of America, and the religion laced through the day from Mass with leading figures from both parties in the morning to the speech’s use of scripture — and even Garth Brook’s rendition of “Amazing Grace”. All of this struck an inclusive, patriotic tone, which is exactly what America needs.

What are the values around which America can unite? According to Biden, “Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honour. And, yes, the truth.” That’s a good list, and Biden is betting on the fact that most of his countrymen and women aren’t hyper-engaged culture warriors, but basically pretty reasonable and weary of the way in which politics has inserted itself into every part of American life.

Of course, unifying rhetoric is easier than unifying action. “I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy,” acknowledged Biden yesterday.

One challenge for the new president is that the battle for unity must to be fought on two fronts. Elements on the left take issue with what the President sees America’s core civic values. Will he stand up to them just as he stands up to their equivalents on the right?

Will he focus resources and energy on projects with which he can demonstrate competence and pragmatism? Will he resist the temptation to demonise and vilify those who object to his policy agenda? Will he keep in mind the Americans who voted for Donald Trump? Will he recognise that they treat with contempt the institutions he reveres and ask himself why that might be?

The right answer to that final question need not conflict with holding those responsible for the attack on the Capitol accountable. It need not conflict with the conviction of Donald Trump in a Senate trial (something which Biden has been interestingly quiet about). But it points to the difficult balancing act, weighing comity and justice, that lies ahead.

Delivering unity, or at least some improvement on the division and reversal in the collapse in faith in the democratic process, may sound like a tall order. And it is. But any American, on the left or the right, who wants to be a little less preoccupied by politics in four years’ time should take Biden seriously. They should see a genuine attempt at a more unified, functional America not as a far-off dream but a promise the president has made to the country. That means giving him a chance to make good on it — and calling him out if he doesn’t.

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