President-elect Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address later today, and it is an immense challenge. The country is divided, and polls show anywhere from one-half to three-fourths of Republicans who voted for Trump do not believe Biden won the election legitimately.
Regardless of what he says today, it will be difficult for Biden to convince voters of the truth that the election was not “stolen.” However, he can appeal to broader sensibilities, to the ethos of our republic that dates to its founding.
Through the years, presidents have used those kinds of aspirational appeals in inaugural addresses to try to rise above the divides that elections do not necessarily settle, and perhaps even exacerbate.
Thomas Jefferson won a bitter campaign against incumbent John Adams in the election of 1800. Jefferson sought commonality when he said, “But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”
He said something you would rarely hear a politician saying today. He admitted he would make mistakes and that his critics would be reluctant to credit him for successes. “I shall often go wrong through defect in judgment,” he said. “When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground.”
No President has assumed the office during a more divided time that Abraham Lincoln. During his first inaugural address March 4, 1861, just weeks before the start of the Civil War, Lincoln held out hopes of avoiding conflict.
“Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection,” he said, and finally he appealed to “the better angels of our nature” to preserve the union.
By his second inauguration in 1865, the bloody Civil War was coming to an end. Rather than lashing out at his enemies—and there were many—he called for the nation to go forth “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Teddy Roosevelt, in his inaugural address of 1905, challenged citizens to understand that maintaining a democracy requires commitment by its citizens. “We know that no people need such high traits of character as that people which seeks to govern its affairs aright through the freely expressed will of the freemen who compose it.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most often quoted line from his four inaugural addresses is, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt delivered that in his first inaugural address in March 1933 when the country was languishing in a deep depression.
Eight years later, as the world was plunging into war, Roosevelt sought to rally the patriotic spirt of the country. “In the face of great perils never before encountered, our strong purpose is to protect and to perpetuate the integrity of democracy. For this we muster the Spirit of America, and the faith of America.”
John F. Kennedy used his inaugural address in 1961 to challenge Americans to devote themselves to the greater good of the United States when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
The bold statement raised expectations for Americans. The perpetuation of American ideals and the security of the country depended on sacrifice by its citizens.
Ronald Reagan, ever the optimist, sounded the trumpet for the virtues of the country in his second inaugural address in 1985. “It is the American sound,” he said. “It is hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair. That’s our heritage; that is our song. We sing it still.”
Biden’s challenge today, like presidents before him, is to somehow move people to think about what it means to be an American. If we can coalesce around those ideals, or at the very least put aside out tribalism to remember them, we can again strengthen “our bonds of affection.”