President Joe Biden's inauguration speech was strong start but tough times ahead - Professor John Craig, Leeds Beckett University

President Joe Biden's inauguration speech was a strong start but there are tough times ahead, writes Professor John Craig, Dean of the Leeds School of Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett University.

Thursday, 21st January 2021, 4:45 pm

Some Presidential inaugurations go down in history. Sometimes it’s because of the rhetoric employed in the new President’s speech, as in John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s declaration that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

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This is what Joe Biden said in his first speech as US president

In other cases, it is remembered as marking a significant change in the policy direction, as when Ronald Reagan took office stating his view that government was the problem and not the solution to the challenges facing American society.

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US President Joe Biden delivers his Inauguration speech at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Picture: Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Yet other inaugurations are remembered for their historical significance, as when Barack Obama became the first African American President of the United States, or the context in which they occurred, such as Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration in the midst of civil war.

Others, however,are soon forgotten, making little impact on the day or soon being overshadowed by momentous events.

Watching President Joe Biden’s inaugural address after he was sworn in as the 4 th President of the United States, one can’t help wondering how it will be seen in six months or six years.

Certainly, it will be remembered for the necessity of face masks and social distancing, and with all the attention on the President, it should be remembered that Kamala Harris is the first woman, first Black American, and the first South Asian American to be elected as Vice President. But what of the speech?

Professor John Craig, Dean of Leeds School of Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett University.

As a speaker, the President has not always been known for the eloquence of his words or inspirational delivery style. But in this speech, he delivered an effective combination of plain

speaking and a rhetoric that drew on America’s national memory.

He began by addressing the attack on the Capitol, stating that democracy had triumphed over attempts to derail the peaceful transition of power. He was clear on the need to confront the many challenges facing the nation, including unemployment, business closures, and systematic racism.

On Covid-19, he warned “the darkest and deadliest” days were yet to come. He also recognised the need for the United States to repair relations with allies and play its part in addressing global issues such as climate change.

He told his audience that the American people had come together in previous times of crisis, such as World War, the Great Depression and 9/11, and prevailed. His message was one of hope, unity and perseverance in the face of multiple challenges. While any one of them might have been difficult on its own, as he put it, “the fact is we face them all at once”.

As an experienced politician, who served as President Obama’s Vice President for two terms and a United States Senator for 36 years, President Biden will know that recognising problems and identifying potential solutions is one thing. Building the necessary political agreement for government action, and then successfully implementing policy, can be even harder.

On his side he has the significant powers of the Office of the President. Already he has used Executive Orders in a range of areas, including to reverse President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate accord, revoke authorisation for a controversial oil pipeline, stop the withdrawal of the United States from the World Health Organisation, halt the building of a wall on the border with Mexico, and reverse what his predecessor had called the ‘Muslim travel ban’.

In addition, the Democrats are now in control of both Houses of Congress, which is important for securing the passage of legislation, including financial measures, and the confirming of presidential nominees for executive and judicial positions. But in both Houses their majority is small and in the United States political system, the mid-term elections are already less than two years away.

This brings us to party politics and the question of how the Democrats and Republicans will behave. While many Americans will agree with President Biden that politics has become too polarised and would prefer a more bi-partisan approach, the current sharp divisions are not new and, while Donald Trump exploited and intensified them, he did not create them.

Even if Republicans now turn their backs on Trump, there are strong currents of conservatism that will be hostile to any compromise with the new President’s agenda.

Equally, within the Democrats, there will be those who want to take a more radical course of policy than the White House may wish to pursue.

Both groups have the potential to put obstacles in the way of President Biden and it will require careful party and legislative management, alongside an adept handling of communication to the wider public, to ensure that President Biden can turn the success of his inauguration into the foundation of a successful presidency.

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