Biden has historic opportunity with inaugural address to turn the page 

Biden has historic opportunity with inaugural address to turn the page 
© Getty Images

President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBriahna Joy Gray: White House thinks extending student loan pause is a 'bad look' Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Former New York state Senate candidate charged in riot MORE is preparing to deliver the most important speech of his political career shortly after being sworn into office on Jan. 20. The presidential inaugural address is soaked in rich history dating back to 1789, when George Washington surprisingly announced at Federal Hall in New York City that he wouldn't take a salary while in office. His second inauguration was the shortest ever, comprising a mere 135 words.

On the opposite end, William Henry Harrison delivered an 8,000-word opus in 1841 without a coat and hat: He died of pneumonia a month later.

Now the typical address duration is usually between 15 and 20 minutes.


The location of the important speech was relocated to Washington, D.C. for Thomas Jefferson in 1801. The Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution moved the inauguration date from March back to January in advance of Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1937 term. Harry Truman's inaugural was the first one televised in 1949, and Ronald Reagan's 1981 speech drew a record-high audience of over 40 million viewers.

The vast majority of inaugurals have taken place at the East Portico of the Capitol Building, but Reagan moved it to the West Front because of its picturesque setting and backdrop.

Most living presidents appear at their successor's inaugurations, but Trump will join John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Johnson in being conspicuously absent from the event.

Most inaugural addresses over the last several hundred years have been unmemorable and average at best. This history and low expectations give Biden an opportunity to rise to the occasion at a time of great tumult and division in the country.

There are several parallel moments in history that Biden can draw from and would help inform what to expect. Richard Nixon took office in 1969 amid protests and political assassinations. He was aware the nation needed to be healed and asked Americans to build spirit and look within themselves. George Washington and Andrew Jackson both possessed a great deal of humility during their addresses, which the country could desperately use following a closely fought election and deadly violence. Just as Biden touts his Scranton, Pa., birthplace and blue-collar background, Missourian Harry Truman was described as "the common man's common man." In his 1949 inaugural address, he emphasized four major courses of action to secure peace and freedom, including sending the North Atlantic security plan to the Senate for ratification.


Biden has already pledged to rejoin the Paris climate accord, and referencing multilateral initiatives like this during the speech would be in stark contrast to Trump's "America First" mantra from four years ago. President Obama called for a new era of responsibility and peace in his 2009 address. Just like Obama and John F. Kennedy, Biden won the presidency by cobbling together a formidable new generation of voters from across the country, and he shouldn't be afraid to look forward and turn the page on America's next great chapter of history.

Biden's inaugural address will emphasize boilerplate themes from his campaign like unity and healing. Rough drafts are usually completed by the holiday break, but advisers Mike DonilonMike DonilonWhite House releases staff salaries showing narrowed gender pay gap Biden has historic opportunity with inaugural address to turn the page  MORE and Vinay Reddy are continuing to work on the finishing touches, given the late breaking developments at the Capitol and second impeachment of Trump.

Given the raging pandemic, the inauguration will resemble last summer's Democratic National Convention and its virtual programming. That was a partisan event aimed at base excitement and turnout, so Biden must deftly pivot to a broader audience and message.

The inaugural speech window is also much narrower, so Biden must be disciplined and cannot veer off course as he is prone to do. Every president since Reagan has used a teleprompter on Inauguration Day, and this should aid Biden immensely.

Biden's desired unity message will be complicated by both the absence of Trump from the festivities and his impending trial in the Senate, which will be soon underway. To help reinforce the "America United" inaugural motif, a memorial to honor pandemic victims will take place on Tuesday around the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial. At the conclusion of the inaugural ceremony, the Bidens will be joined by three former presidents and their families to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This menu of carefully planned events has been scripted to connote bipartisanship and camaraderie, but the address is the centerpiece that will determine if these efforts succeed.

Whether or not Biden's inaugural address is forgotten or one for the history books could determine both the congressional fate of his ambitious domestic agenda and his presidency itself.

Aaron Kall is the director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor/co-author of "The State of the Union Is ... Memorable Addresses of the Last Fifty Years," and "I Do Solemnly Swear: Inaugural Addresses of the Last Five Decades.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronsUKBBBlog.