Four points for Biden to make in his inaugural address

Four points for Biden to make in his inaugural address
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Four years ago, just before Donald Trump mounted the inaugural podium, Kelly Anne Conway, the president’s senior counselor, announced what his speech would be about: a message, she said, "to unify the country." 

It seems almost impossible to imagine now. Not after hundreds of Trump supporters forced their way into the Capitol, causing President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Albany Times Union editorial board calls for Cuomo's resignation Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout MORE to become the nation’s first chief executive to be impeached a second time — and certainly not when, as Washington prepared for President-elect BidenJoe BidenBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Myanmar military conducts violent night raids Confidence in coronavirus vaccines has grown with majority now saying they want it MORE's inauguration, workers hastily erected chain-link fences topped with razor wire around the National Mall and more helmeted U.S. troops patrolled Washington than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. 

Yes, America is polarized. And with 40 percent of Democrats but only 10 percent of Republicans being non-white, race is at the heart of it. But those numbers were not that different a decade back, when we had elected a Black president whose inaugural speech followed a time-honored format: Thank the outgoing president, salute the Founding Fathers, affirm the greatness of America, laud achievements from highways to health care, outline problems and solutions without evidence, and close with a call to unite.


Will Biden do the same thing on Inauguration Day? It would seem completely irrelevant if he did. He won't bring unity with poetic descriptions of Americans building railroads and winning wars. Unlike his speech at the Democratic convention, this time he is not preaching to the choir; millions will watch who have never seen him before.  

So when he steps to the podium facing an empty Mall, he should do four things:

  1. Be concrete. An American will die from COVID-19 every 30 seconds during Biden's speech — out of every 100,000 Americans, the pandemic has killed 10. Biden should repeat his pledge of 100 million inoculations by April 1. Things are too dire for abstractions. 

  2. With about 13 million Americans out of work, he should address the everyday struggle so many face just to write a rent check; he should remind us that he's endorsed a $2,000-per-person stimulus, and rebut its critics. Many Republican voters won't object; even Trump called the $600 deal passed in December by Congress "a disgrace."

  3. He should not be afraid to pledge a tax increase — as long as he makes clear what he's already promised, that no American making under $400,000 will pay a dime more. 

  4. He should cater to Republicans by quoting them — and, if possible, name a few to key slots in his administration. Presidents traditionally reach across the political aisle to at least seem bipartisan. Ambassadors, heads of agencies — why not announce one on Wednesday? What better way to demonstrate that Biden wants support from the other side?

It's been an axiom since 2016 that those who voted for Trump will never desert him. That is partly a myth: 15 percent of Republicans (about 12 million) believe Trump should be impeached. He leaves office with about a 30 percent approval rating, the lowest since pollsters began measuring it around 1937. 

And while we shouldn't turn a blind eye to the stark differences between the parties, there are examples where Democrats and Republicans agree: 41 percent of Republicans think the rich make too much money; almost 6 in 10 support NATO. Moves toward economic equality and global partnerships will attract Republican supporters. Biden has been around too long and has pollsters too skilled not to know that many Republican officeholders might take kindly to a president who, unlike Trump, likes them, listens to them and once in a while concedes a point.

Can Biden call for civility in his address? George W. Bush did in his inaugural. Can he urge an "end to barriers born of bigotry or discrimination?" Ronald Reagan did in his. Can Biden say that what matters most is "not which party controls government but whether government is controlled by the people?" Trump uttered those very words.


Biden clearly didn't wait for Inauguration Day to urge unity. On Friday, unveiling his $1.9 trillion stimulus program to conquer the coronavirus and restore the economy, he included an invitation for Republicans to weigh in. "Unity is not some pie-in-the-sky dream. It's a practical step to get any of the things we have to get done as a country, get done together," he said. 

Should he go into detail about those steps? Absolutely not; he should follow the example of other inaugural speeches and use his time to inspire. Not always a great speaker, Biden shouldn't abandon his strengths: telling stories, reciting poetry, telling a joke. That's how his former boss moved Americans. He can, too.

Even good writers fill inaugural speeches with clichés and abstractions. But many also include surprising moments of eloquence, such as Reagan, in 1984, looking out from the West Front to the Jefferson Memorial and saying that "the Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence," or George H.W. Bush, who declared: "My friends, we are not the sum of our possessions. ... What do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we are no longer there? That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us? Or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better?" 

Yes, those words were crafted by speechwriters, but the speakers had to accept them. Biden, who told stories and recited poetry throughout his campaign, should have no trouble moving us.

An inaugural speech is not a laundry list of proposals. Presidents leave that for the State of the Union address. But once he makes points aimed at Republicans, Biden can move to the things that have inspired Democrats and Republicans alike. 

Over the next four years he will be judged not by his rhetoric but his results. If he demonstrates the warmth and empathy that made even opponents in the Senate like him, he can rein in the pandemic, right the economy — and mute some of the hostility dominating politics today.

Bob Lehrman, chief speechwriter for former Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreKlain on Harris breaking tie: 'Every time she votes, we win' Al Jazeera launching conservative media platform Exclusive 'Lucky' excerpt: Vow of Black woman on Supreme Court was Biden turning point MORE, teaches speechwriting at American University in Washington. He has authored four novels and thousands of speeches, and given speechwriting workshops around the world. Follow him on Twitter @RobertLehrman1.