US president-elect Joe Biden. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
US president-elect Joe Biden. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

Washington —  Joe Biden ascends to the presidency on Wednesday with an inaugural speech outlining how he’ll tackle the health and economic crises he inherits while attempting to knit the country back together, just two weeks after the outgoing president’s loyalists waged a deadly riot to block the change of power.

The incoming president will call on the US to abandon the divisiveness stoked by Donald Trump, whose four-year term ends with nearly 400,000 Americans dead of Covid-19, a sharp economic downturn and the worst political crisis since Watergate, after the Capitol attack.

Biden’s address will seek to bridge the nation’s deepening political divide by summoning support from people who didn’t vote for him as well as those who did, according to advisers and allies. To do that, he’ll have to move beyond his penchant for saying what’s on his mind — such as remarks Friday in which he told Republican legislators  who refuse to wear masks to “grow up”.

“He believes that we have to bring this country together,” incoming White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said told ABC on Sunday. “You can expect that this will be a moment where president-elect Biden will really work to try to turn the page on the divisiveness and the hatred of the last four years.”

His message of unity will also be tested by Democrats’ impeachment of Trump last week over the riot. Their plans to try the president in the Senate after he leaves office risk overshadowing the early days of Biden’s presidency and fanning the very flames of partisanship that Biden seeks to douse.

The inaugural address will be the highest-profile speech of Biden’s nearly half century in politics. While he will soberly address the difficult challenges ahead, his remarks are expected to be optimistic, stressing that with the right policies and a glimmer of comity in Washington, the country can find its way to a better position than before the pandemic.

The speech is likely to contrast markedly from Trump’s inaugural address in 2017, in which he famously declared he would end “American carnage” in the streets of US cities.

If Democrats watched Trump’s address in 2017 still dumbstruck that it was him standing there and not Hillary Clinton, Republicans watching Biden might feel that same sense of disbelief as the Democratic leader pleads for unity barely a week after his party impeached Trump. Biden had expressed misgivings about sanctioning Trump over the riots with less than two weeks left in office but could do little to keep lawmakers angered by the attack on the Capitol from forging ahead with impeachment.

“He takes office at a very difficult time, perhaps the most difficult time that any president’s taken office since Roosevelt, and he comes into office determined to get to work on these crises immediately,” said Ron Klain, the incoming White House chief of staff. Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933 with the US still mired in depression and Adolf Hitler on the cusp of taking over Germany.

Klain said Biden will sign more executive actions on his first day than any other president, in part to overturn policies unilaterally adopted by Trump. They’re expected to include orders to end a ban on travel from some predominantly Muslim nations and to rejoin the Paris climate accord.

Volatile time

Biden’s inauguration as the 46th US president will be unlike any other in modern history. Washington, DC, is now a fortified city, with rings of security around the Capitol, White House and National Mall and thousands of armed soldiers guarding against another attack by Americans who refuse to accept Trump’s defeat.

While the outdoor ceremony is “certainly our plan”, Biden’s team is “preparing for any scenario” surrounding the inauguration, Bedingfield said. Daily meetings with the outgoing administration as well as security and law enforcement official will begin on Monday, she said.

“Unfortunately, you only have to look at the chatter on social media to see that we are in a volatile time,” Bedingfield said on ABC. “And so we are making preparations.”

Vice-president-elect Kamala Harris also recognised the unique nature of Wednesday’s ceremony, but said on Sunday on CBS, “we are going to get sworn in, and we’re going to do the job we were hired to do”.

After his speech, before an empty National Mall absent the usual throngs of Americans who attend inaugurations, Biden will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery and then proceed to the White House.

“This is the most important inaugural address in terms of the health and future of our democracy, and the challenges of bringing us together, since Abraham Lincoln,” said Delaware senator Chris Coons, a Democrat who holds the seat Biden occupied for 36 years.

‘Someone’s in charge’

The inaugural speech is likely to be positive in outlook and focus on competency, said Matt Teper, Biden’s chief speech writer at the beginning of his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice-president.

“People want to know someone’s in charge, help is on the way, chaos is behind us now,” he said. “There’s a recognition that things aren’t great right now, but there’s definitely hope that they’re going to get better.”

Teper said not to expect the speech to dwell on the past. There’s “no way” Biden would invoke “American carnage” to describe the problems Trump left behind, he said.

“That’s not the tone anyone wants,” Teper said. “That’s not his way of looking at the world. It’s, ‘We’re going to fix things and we’re going to move forward.’”

Delivering rousing oratory isn’t Biden’s strength. He overcame a childhood stutter by reciting Irish poetry in front of a mirror, but his struggles with public speaking are still sometimes evident. Always deeply engaged in the speech-writing process, he devoted time to Wednesday’s text every few days during the two-month transition, Klain said.

While Biden has a reputation for being long-winded and easily sidetracked in conversations and campaign speeches, he’s shown discipline when the moment demands it. When he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in August, Biden delivered a powerful and tightly scripted address in less than 25 minutes.

Channel RFK

A Republican strategist, Frank Luntz, said Biden’s speech “should channel his best Bobby Kennedy. America was hurting in April 1968 when Bobby Kennedy delivered the most amazing five minute off-the-cuff speech full of empathy and understanding. It healed a broken country”.

Kennedy’s historic speech, which followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the same night, pleaded with Americans “to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love”.

“That’s exactly what Biden needs to do,” Luntz said.

The speech will be an opportunity for Biden to signal that he plans to abide by the traditions of the American presidency after Trump’s chaotic term, as well as a chance for him to lay out his policy goals and to begin pressuring Republicans to co-operate in a time of crisis.

The president-elect last week unveiled a $1.9-trillion pandemic relief proposal that would increase direct financial payments to Americans, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and provide billions in aid to states and local governments.

He will hold narrow majorities in the House and Senate to help him achieve his agenda, though aides have signalled a desire to push for Republican support for the stimulus legislation. Some GOP legislators have already said they’re opposed, however. While Klain acknowledged that the proposal is an opening bid, he argued it reflects what the country needs and that anyone who doesn’t support it should offer “alternative answers”.

Bloomberg

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