Political speeches follow a surprisingly simple set of rules—or at least the successful ones do. Newly sworn-in President Joe Biden observed them all in his inaugural address. Although his 20 minutes at the lectern are not likely to be parsed and studied for rhetorical flourishes, with this speech Biden accomplished something more important: He signaled how he will approach this job and this moment in history.
The first rule in political rhetoric is authenticity. Does the essence of the speech—its vocabulary, its rhythms, its cadences, its tendencies toward “plain” versus “fancy” tone—match the essence of the speaker? Does the rhetoric call attention to itself? Or does it mainly serve to transmit the mood, intention, and ideas the speaker hopes to convey?
Martin Luther King Jr. was modern America’s greatest rhetorician. But the very words and cadences of his speeches that have gone down in history—“I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the promised land”—would have sounded forced and stagey from most other prominent Americans. They would not have rung true even from the first Black president, Barack Obama, whose single greatest speech—his “Amazing Grace” elegy for the victims of the racist gun massacre in Charleston, South Carolina—was delivered at the historic Mother Emanuel Church, where King himself once spoke.
Obama’s eloquence, as I once argued here, is in the paragraph-scale development of ideas, rather than the sentence-by-sentence coinage of standalone phrases. The American politician I can most imagine presenting a Martin Luther King speech and sounding authentic would have been Barbara Jordan, the late Democratic Representative from Texas—who indeed gave a very King-like speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1976.
When it comes to rhetoric, many politicians would love to be considered another King, another FDR, another Jordan, another Churchill. But the wisest of them aspire to sound like the best possible version of themselves. (And the wisest of speechwriters aspire to make their own work invisible—to serve, in essence, as glaziers, creating transparent panes through which the speaker’s intent can be most clearly seen.)
Joe Biden sounded like the best version of himself on Inauguration Day. Few if any of the sentences he uttered will be chiseled into marble. The exception illustrating the rule was Biden’s summary statement about foreign policy: “We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” This line, which he has used in other speeches (and which Bill Clinton also used in his speech nominating Obama back in 2008), was both a distillation of a swing away from Trumpism (as Fred Kaplan observed) and a handy case study of the rhetorical technique called chiasmus, or reversing terms. (Homely example: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s …” High-flown example: “Ask not what your country can do for you …”)
But the speech in its entirety was admirably plain and direct, and therefore plausible. It sounded not like John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama or Franklin D. Roosevelt or any other Democratic president, but like Joe Biden. It sounded like the vice president who served loyally for eight years under Obama, like the candidate who struck and stayed true to a “Can’t we just get along?” tone from the start of his 2020 campaign, like the president-elect who would not rise to the bait of Donald Trump’s taunts or sink to the depths of his discourse but instead calmly reasserted his plans to address the nation’s crises. (But it also sounded like the person who had learned from the bitter fights Obama had when trying to get his legislation and nominees approved, and from the assault on the democratic process itself launched by Trump and many of his allies.) The speech’s tone matched the speaker, and thus the tone was right.
The second rule in political rhetoric is realism. A speaker must seem to understand the world in which the listeners live. By definition, a president, prime minister, or other leader operates from a privileged and powerful perspective. But the effective ones open their ears, their minds, their hearts—and ultimately their voices—to the hardships of their society, and also the long-term hopes. This is why virtually every effective speech in a time of crisis follows a three-part sequence: empathy, for the pain, fear, uncertainty, and suffering people are going through, for instance at the beginning of the Great Depression, after surprise attacks like those at Pearl Harbor and on 9/11, and during civil unrest or a pandemic; confidence, about the strains and struggles the society has withstood before, and thus about the hope of success again; and a plan, about ways to turn things around. (“In our first 100 days, we will …”)
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.
The third rule in political rhetoric, which applies to most speeches but above all to inaugural addresses, is to tell two stories. One of those stories is “Who we are.” The other story is “Who I am.”
“Who we are” is the story of the country: where it stands along history’s arc, what it can hope and what it must fear, what its strengths and shortcomings are. “Who I am” is the story of the person taking responsibility to lead.
The “who we are” part of the saga is as listed above: a nation that is unfinished rather than broken, that is bloodied but unbowed. The “who I am” was an explicit and implicit presentation of a man who understands others’ suffering, who himself knows the unpredictability and cruelty of fate, who thinks of the country as us rather than us and them:
We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.
If we show a little tolerance and humility.
If we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes just for a moment.
Because here is the thing about life: There is no accounting for what fate will deal you.
There are some days when we need a hand.
There are other days when we’re called on to lend one.
That is how we must be with one another.
I cannot remember a presidential address in which the values of the speaker’s faith were as evident as in this one—and not through loud exhortations of piety but through statements and commitments reflecting compassion and empathy. The one line I wrote down as soon as Biden said it was this, playing off a quote from Lincoln upon his signing the Emancipation Proclamation:
Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this:
Bringing America together.
Uniting our people.
And uniting our nation.
My whole soul. The president for whom I worked long ago, Jimmy Carter (whose absence from the ceremonies Biden graciously acknowledged in his speech), similarly based his campaign on the need for moral balm, after a disastrous decade. He was (and is) deeply spiritual, but I don’t remember him so plainly talking about devoting his whole soul to the nation’s cause.
Joe Biden might not prove to be the right person for this moment. As I argued recently in this magazine, he takes office facing more emergencies than any predecessor since Lincoln. But his own story and his version of the country’s match as well as any president’s could at the beginning of a term.