“At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” -President Joe Biden, January 20, 2021
Yes, it has, but just barely. If it weren’t for the pandemic and his woefully inadequate response to it, Donald Trump would likely have won the 2020 election. Imagine how he might have used a second term to degrade the legitimacy of America’s political institutions. Imagine how he might have used the mob.
Joe Biden framed his inaugural speech as a triumph of democracy over lies. And while certain institutions buckled—America is looking at you, Congress—other institutions, like the military and the U.S. court system, stood firm, reminding us that democracy depends not just on voters and political leaders, but on the institutions that support, strengthen, and limit them as well.
That said, American democracy has seen better days, and it narrowly survived the stress-test Donald Trump just spent four years administering. He’s out of sight for the moment, but his looming financial and legal challenges will return him to the national conversation soon enough as he works to raise money and rally support. When he returns, a significant number of Americans will welcome him back with open arms, and the politics of confrontation he represents will test Biden’s politics of unity.
Biden understands this. His optimistic inaugural speech, punctuated with confident predictions that American idealism will prevail, is the speech millions of Americans, exhausted by the last administration and the ongoing pandemic, needed to hear. Here’s the line that stood out for me:
“We face an attack on democracy and on truth. A raging virus. Growing inequity. 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 the fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with the gravest of responsibilities.”
After four years, the U.S. now has a president ready to acknowledge and face the cascading problems plaguing the nation, none of which stands in isolation from the rest. That itself represents a significant break from Trump.
The coming years will be difficult for Americans, both at home and abroad. The pandemic is far from finished, and polarization will continue to define our domestic politics. Allies and rivals will question the value of American leadership in a world where China continues to rise, Russia continues to make trouble, and Europe continues to struggle to define its values and common purpose.
But the United States now has a president who sees the challenges, calls them for what they are, and gives for the greater good. He will know both failures and successes. But his clarity and sincerity alone offer cause for, dare I say it, hope.
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