Biden's inaugural address might be one for the history books — in fact, it must be
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On Jan. 20, 2017 President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpIran's leader vows 'revenge,' posting an image resembling Trump Former Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Justice Dept. to probe sudden departure of US attorney in Atlanta after Trump criticism MORE delivered his inaugural address promising great things for the country during his administration. The speech was filled with many platitudes, but one line received much attention: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

It is easy to say, after the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6, that the opposite happened. That carnage, sparked by four years of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, was an exclamation point on the Trump presidency.

Words matter and those leading up to the events in Washington, D.C., spoken by Trump, his supporters, and by thought leaders across the political spectrum have created a political environment in which violent acts were virtually unavoidable.


The solution to this unhealthy political context is more words — words carefully considered and spoken by leaders across the country in academia, business, media, and politics. It begins with President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenRev. Barber says best way to undercut extremism is with honesty Biden requires international travelers to quarantine upon arrival to US Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 MORE’s inaugural address in less than two weeks, but certainly does not end there. Although other leaders must take up the mantle restoring national unity, Biden’s remarks will set the tone for a process that will take longer than four years.

The models for Biden’s remarks should be those speeches made by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt during equally precarious times. Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865 sought to heal wounds, even while the Civil War raged. Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech was an honest assessment of the country during the Great Depression and a set of policy prescriptions for moving the country forward.

Biden’s first speech as president needs to combine the high-minded idealism of Lincoln with the clear-eyed pragmatism of Roosevelt.

Lincoln faced a rhetorical situation similar to that of Biden. Even among those in the Union, there was a divide about how to handle Confederate leaders and citizens. Some wanted reconciliation, while others wanted retribution. In 2021, there are many in the country that want Donald Trump and his supporters to be punished for their words and actions.

Sermonic in tone and substance, Lincoln invoked God’s will throughout the speech to address events leading up to the Civil War, stating that the war was punishment for slavery and the inability of people to resolve fundamental differences without bloodshed. At the end of his remarks Lincoln boldly stated that the nation would rebuild “with malice toward none” and “to bind the nation’s wounds.” He ended his remarks with the hope of a “just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”


Roosevelt’s audience for his first inaugural was fearful, much like Biden’s audience in 2021. In 1933 Americans had experienced more than three years of economic devastation and many had lost hope. Heading into Joe Biden’s inauguration, public opinion indicates that a vast majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Biden must provide much-needed reassurance that the pandemic will end, the economy will recover and the country can be reunited, much as Roosevelt assuaged the nation’s fears in his speech.

Although Roosevelt’s address is often remembered for one line — “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — the speech was more of a practical analysis of the causes of the Great Depression and policy arguments for getting Americans back to work. Roosevelt criticized the economic policies of the Hoover administration: “Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money.” Later in the address, Roosevelt dealt specifically with policy prescriptions for reducing foreclosures, protecting people’s money, and putting people back to work. Roosevelt’s rhetorical brilliance truly revealed itself at the end of the speech, when he said “the people of the United States have not failed” and “they have made me the instrument of their wishes.”

Although it is unfair to expect Joe Biden to become either a Lincoln or a Roosevelt as president, he is up to the challenge of producing an inaugural address that meets the needs of the situation after the Trump presidency and the events of Jan. 6. Biden began his quest for the presidency with a promise to change the tenor in Washington. Through this speech, he can set the tone for other leaders to begin the difficult process of unifying a very divided nation.

David McLennan is a professor of political science and director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.