Presidental inaugurations are always weird, and Biden’s last week was especially weird. Many countries have largely private transitions of power; in the UK the papers will run photos of Downing Street Staff congratulating the incoming PM, in other nations Tv Cameras will pick up cars driving towards the residences of Heads of State etc. The US treats the handover as a sort of suit and tie carnival in freezing weather; thousands of supporters take part in a victory lap as the newly empowered politician soaks in approval and projects power across the world.
This year’s inaugural felt especially pointless as a public ceremony and, in general, brilliantly surreal. The constitution does not demand an outdoor event with speeches. The mall was empty, and the seats around the capital stage were filled with American flags, as if Biden was addressing a purely fabric audience. The outgoing president was absent, thus robbing the event of some of the legitimating function it is meant to fill. The backdrop of dignitaries was spaced out with pandemic etiquette while showing off folks’ taste in masks. Biden spoke out onto an empty mall as the streets of DC were patrolled like a warzone by thousands of military figures
Because five people died in that same capital only days prior. The outgoing president has been impeached, again, and Biden’s inaugural address was his third attempt at a statesmanlike peroration to save democracy. The response online and in the major press organs was largely positive; some pundits were emotional while watching, basking in the ‘dignity’ and ‘decency’ of the new President and what they felt were his powerful words.
The speech was certainly gesturing towards some powerful emotions and ideas. The main sentiment expressed seemed to be, ‘Things are going to be fine. You have to do things to make sure they will be fine, but trust me, they’ll be fine.’ The lack of brevity in my description is deliberate; the speech lacked structure or clear theming. It opened with an attempt at institutionalist bombast; declaring that January 20th 2021 was ‘Democracy’s’ and ‘America’s’ day. The nation had been through, ‘a crucible for the ages’, a phrase that is simultaneously both overwrought and yet unequal to the task of commemorating what happened in the attack on the capital.
On twitter, Jacob Reynolds compared the speech’s rhetorical gesturing to late-soviet propaganda. This is a little harsh, but Reynolds is undoubtedly right to see much of Biden’s message as pointlessly vague and increasingly anachronistic. The new President attempted to connect to the nations past with references to ‘storm and strife’ and the preamble to the constitution.
These gambits are hard to pull off in a speech without coming across as teleological in all the wrong ways. If history can be said to progress at all it certainly does not do so in straight lines or even with the sort of dialectic cleanliness suggested by Biden’s image. As many commentators have pointed out, the attack on the US Capitol is a continuation of tradition of White Supremacist violence that the American Civil War attempted to destroy. The US is still far away from delivering on the promises of Reconstruction; it can hardly be said to have effectively won the battles of the past, much less their mutations and re-formations in the present.
The speech wanted Unity. It is repetitive to go over this well-covered ground, but a key fact bears repeating in any analysis of the inaugural address; half of the crowd and half of Washington were actively campaigning for the re-election of Donald Trump not three months ago. Trump had been promoting political violence since at least the summer, with his barely disguised requests for peaceful black protestors to be shot by the police. He then spent three months attempting to overturn the results of a legal election. Asking for a unified approach with a political party willing to tolerate this style of politics is total madness. Biden will find poor friends and worse allies among the Republicans he is courting.
Biden’s drive for unity aims to recapture a lost age of shared assumptions between less diverse lawmakers, one in which the parameters of debate were narrowed by the outside pressure of Cold War rivalry first into the ideological centre and then towards the neoliberal right. The past thirty years have happened however and we cannot wish them away; the democrats have made some concessions to the left but largely remained squatted on the centre ground while their republican friends have shot strongly to the right. What on earth does Biden imagine his repetitive cries for combined action will achieve?
The speech was not very good, but the over-praise of it in some quarters is understandable. That same outburst of mass political violence had shocked the American media out of the last of its pre-Trump complacency. Biden’s selling point has been a return to normalcy, and to divest the public of the fear of what terrible thing their head of government might say next. People want to not be horrified by their President anymore and Biden’s poor oratory was certainly not horrible. It has been an emotional year, and the removal of Trump is an emotional moment. In this context, even Joe Biden might seem a touch Periclean.
Still, there is something odd in people forcing Biden into a mould he so obviously does not fit. Before his most recent run for office, Biden was a kind of official punchline. He was ‘gaffe-prone’ in an era where we thought that term meant something; he misspoke, he praised segregationist old friends, he asked a non-ambulatory wheelchair user to stand up, he responded to a question from a private citizen by calling him fat. He actually did a couple of those things in the past election cycle, but eyes were swiftly averted. Biden’s lack of articulation and skill with public speaking was one of the primary contrasts between him and Obama during the latter’s eight years in power. The desire of much liberal opinion to relive the Obama years casts his former VP in a glow that smooths over the deficiencies in his profile. His strange speech in a stranger setting provided a surreal curtain opener to his Presidency.