The lesson for Biden in these examples is that he must think big if he wants to speak to the souls of Americans. Following Trump’s intensely polarizing presidency and final insurrectionary calamity, Biden’s message of decency, truth, constitutional integrity, and care for one another is more imperative than ever. And it will go far. Biden has the public character to make that message stick even against the fusillade of attacks that have already been launched against the very legitimacy of his election. But in the long term, Biden’s message of calm and decency will not suffice. He needs to hitch his bid for moral leadership to a crisis still bigger than the Trump disaster, bigger than the COVID-19 emergency, bigger than expertise or bipartisanship.
Many hope that Biden will focus his presidency’s long-term rhetorical power on the scandal of persistent structural racism, laid bare more vividly than ever before by last week’s eruption of the angry white-power politics that runs beneath so much of Trumpism. Others hope that he will bring it to bear on the catastrophe of accelerating climate change. The structural crises of contemporary American democracy—undisguised voter suppression, blatant gerrymandering, an unrepresentative Electoral College system, and an unchecked avalanche of lies in political advertising and on social media—cry out for reform.
Biden needs to commit his presidency strongly to all of these issues. But the long-term crisis that is most broadly and most acutely felt in households on both sides of the political divide is the ever-growing gap between those at the top of the American scale of income and privilege, and all the rest. Here, the sense of a festering wound is already widely shared, waiting for a president to articulate its moral costs as well as its economic ones. The median household income has barely risen in real terms since the 1980s. Most Americans are no longer confident that the next generation will do better than they have themselves. They worry about their own foothold in the 21st-century economy, where corporate restructuring has made downward mobility an everyday fact of life, even as the aggregate GDP level soars and stock-market wealth booms. These were among the acutely felt grievances to which Trump opened his megaphone; they fueled the energies of Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Where masses of Americans feel left behind by the economy and alienated from politics, every aspect of a racially just and democratic society is at risk.
Adam Serwer: The crisis of American democracy isn’t over yet
Biden’s measures to address the long-term crisis of constrained and unequal opportunity will be far more incremental than progressives might wish, given Biden’s political temperament and the limited possibilities that his narrow majority in Congress will afford him. His words must be bigger than his actions. He must convince Americans that he sees the stagnation of the life chances for too many Americans with a moral intensity that is deeper and truer than that of the failed president he defeated. If he wants to speak to the souls of Americans, he must bring the full resources of the rhetorical presidency to bear on the crisis of unequal opportunity. For a nation to respond to the words of a presidential preacher, the subject must be as broadly and deeply felt as the rhetoric’s moral intensity demands.