What Joe Biden must accomplish in an inaugural address like no other

Then-Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris arrive to deliver remarks at the Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Delaware in August 2020. Harris is the first Black woman and first person of Indian descent to be elected on a presidential ticket in U.S. history. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Diana B. Carlin is professor emerita of communication at Saint Louis University who has taught speechwriting at the University of Kansas as well as a course on presidential speechwriters for KU’s Osher Institute.

“The words of a president matter.”

Joe Biden’s words, said in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, echo what students of rhetoric and public speaking have known for centuries. Words are powerful. They calm us during a crisis or incite a mob to violence. History is replete with both. Franklin Roosevelt told a nation suffering from the country’s worst depression that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Adolf Hitler’s and Benito Mussolini’s fiery speeches led to the most devastating war in history.

Most speech strategies come from Aristotle, who defined rhetoric not as empty words but as the art of discerning the best available means of persuasion. And for Aristotle, persuasion was grounded in trust and ethics.

The Greeks also provided us with the flip side of the ethical coin: sophistry. Sophists used rhetorical skills to present arguments that appeared believable or plausible but were deliberately fallacious or misleading. The Sophists could be considered progenitors of “alternative facts.”

Our nation has its share of the best and worst of political rhetoric. Traditionally, a presidential inaugural address models the former with George Washington’s first providing elements that are still incorporated. All new presidents face similar challenges in that they are not elected unanimously, and some not by a majority.

Abraham Lincoln faced a country with seven secessionist states. The house divided was no longer standing and civil war loomed darkly. However, Lincoln appealed to unity and attempted to placate secessionists by claiming his positions were taken out of context: “Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that … their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension,” he said, adding that “ample evidence to the contrary…. is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you.”

When Joseph R. Biden, Jr., addresses the nation on Jan. 20, he faces apprehension from many that he sows seeds of the country’s destruction with a “socialist” agenda. One-third of the electorate think his victory is fraudulent. Unlike George W. Bush, whose legitimacy was questioned by some, Biden’s opponent did not concede and stoked anger that led to the Capitol assault.

Biden will lead a country exhausted from a pandemic that has killed almost 400,000 people, left nearly 11 million unemployed, shuttered businesses and created more homelessness and food insecurity. Donald Trump’s second impeachment deepens the political divide and distracts from Biden’s agenda.

But, Biden must follow his predecessors and lay out a path to unity. This cannot be a speech filled with platitudes. It must recognize the deep country’s political and cultural divides, and the fact that government, as led by both parties over the years, has caused many to seek a leader and solutions outside traditional Beltway offerings that worsened the climate.

While Lincoln spoke of erroneous accusations against him, he faced nothing like the disinformation created by 24-hour news cycles and social media. Biden must find a pathway to establishing trust, and his characteristic empathy needs to apply to those who oppose him even as he condemns their tactics. It is a tall order, and I do not envy his speechwriters.

Unity is the hallmark of inaugural addresses, but they have other enduring characteristics. They call on communal values and repeat words of past leaders — from both parties — to remind us what binds us together.

Washington spoke of the “tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent” that forged a nation. Lincoln told us “to bind up the nation’s wounds…. With malice toward none, with charity for all.” George W. Bush identified “the grandest” of our ideals as the “promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance.”

Like his predecessors, Biden must establish political principles to guide his administration. This is not a litany of policy proposals but a philosophy defining a view of government that is clearly not socialism. He needs to exhibit humility and demonstrate an understanding of the presidency’s limitations as well as its powers and the need for help from others — including a Divinity — to accomplish the nation’s work.

An inaugural address asks us to contemplate what our country and government represent. It renews the covenant between government and the people. This “peaceful” transition of power takes place with 25,000 military personnel guarding the Capitol as fears of violence persist.

Joe Biden’s challenge is unlike any other, but he has rhetorical traditions to guide him. His words need to matter to begin the healing.

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