If a speaker omits the first part, listeners feel that their government is hopelessly out of touch. If a speaker omits the second, it’s all the harder to make progress. Despair is a poor motivating tool. And without the third, hopeful promises are “just talk.”
Joe Biden made good on all parts of this formula. His speech was coldly realistic about the bleak prospects ahead—from the pandemic, from economic collapse, from the climate crisis, from the assault on democracy and truth. He called for a moment of silence in memory of the 400,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19, “a silent prayer for those who lost their lives, for those they left behind, and for our country.” In calling repeatedly for “unity,” he seemed aware of forces who do not share that goal. He summed up the larger situation, again with trademark plainness of language and non-sugarcoating of reality:
We face an attack on democracy and on truth.
A raging virus.
The sting of systemic racism.
A climate in crisis.
America’s role in the world.
Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways.
But then Biden switched to the theme of becoming, which has been at the heart of all great American rhetoric. The idea of the endless process of improvement links the authors of the Constitution’s ambition to form “a more perfect Union” to Abraham Lincoln’s appeals in all of his major addresses, to Martin Luther King and “I have a dream,” and to virtually all of the presentations at Biden’s inaugural ceremony, including the memorable poem by Amanda Gorman (“A nation that isn’t broken / but simply unfinished”).
On the campaign trail, Biden frequently fell into the pattern of saying “Folks, we’re better than this.” The proper formulation—the realistic and convincing formulation—is “We should be better than this. We can be better.” What I think of as “conditional optimism”—not the naive assumption that things automatically will get better, but the determined conviction that they can– was the central motif of his speech, and of all the presentations of the day. As Biden put it:
We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era.
Will we rise to the occasion?
Will we master this rare and difficult hour?
Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world for our children?
I believe we must and I believe we will.
And when we do, we will write the next chapter in the American story.
Memorable line by line? No. Effective and right for the moment? In my view, yes—and, again, absolutely in keeping with the day’s explicit and symbolic presentation as a whole. And fortunately, Biden did not have to belabor the “Here is my plan” part of his presentation, both because his speech was already getting long, by inaugural-address standards, and because a few days before being sworn in, he had given a very detailed address about what he proposed to do.