Deft, moving — and cheesy: Joe Biden's inauguration speech. Credit: Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP/Getty

January 21, 2021   4 mins

There’s a set form to a US President’s inaugural address, and Joe Biden followed it. You place yourself in a historical tradition. You make free reference to Lincoln and Washington and Martin Luther King, and you quote as many as possible of a handful of resonant phrases from the history of American rhetoric: “we the people”, “better angels”, “more perfect union”, “one nation under God” and so on. Sleepy Joe managed all four of those, for instance, in very short order.

You say that you aim to unite the nation. You pay humble tribute to the voters and to the living presidents in the audience — in which respect, Donald Trump did Biden a favour by skipping the show. You say stirring things about the “American story” and the long tradition of the peaceful transfer of power. And above all you make the maneouvre that Lincoln pinched from Pericles for the Gettysburg Address: you say that you intend to honour the struggles and losses of the past by striving to create a better future.

You sprinkle the speech liberally with well-worn metaphors — crucibles and battles, cries for justice, storms and shadows, light and darkness, foundations shaken, chapters in history written, precious things hanging in balances, beacons beaconing to the world — and high-sounding epithets. Biden pulled “hallowed ground”, “sacred oath”, “soul”, “sacrifice”. “historic moment”, “dignity”, “humbled”, “eternal peace” and many more like them out of the presidential epithet generator. We might sneer, but cliché has its uses: it is reassuring to draw from a common stock of metaphor.

It’s not really possible to be too cheesy or too pious on such occasions (President Biden tested this proposition robustly), and it’s not really a great idea to depart from the script for the form of novelty. Especially not now. Biden’s job — amid a pandemic and with five people dead in a riot against the election result — was to play the reassuring mood music of an imperturbable flow of American history. This he did. The trick was to make it sound sincere.

Joe Biden doesn’t share Barack Obama’s lavish oratorical gifts, nor Donald Trump’s unpredictable and combustible energy. But he projected decency and sincerity, and he allowed the odd moment of folksy directness (“Look…” “I get you.” “Here’s the thing about life”) to cut through the flannel. And there was no mistaking his central message. The word “unity” and its cognates appeared more than a dozen times in the speech.

He used the bog-standard toolkit of the formal orator in the grand style. He piled on the anaphora (repeating phrases) and the tricolons (groups of three) and even whacked in the odd chiasmus, such as “we’ll lead not merely by the example of our power but the power of our example”, which would have been even niftier had he not said it before, and Bill Clinton said it before him.

He yoked pairs of words together (syntheton) and gussied it all up with alliteration. He opened the speech by declaring that this was “democracy’s day, a day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve”, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place in an Anglo-Saxon poem — though he borrowed the second phrase, again, from himself borrowing it from Seamus Heaney.

His strongest move was a more modest one: the emphatic repetition. “I know the strength – the strength – of our nation.” “To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America […] requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy – unity. Unity.” “We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we’ve acted together.” “We will get through this together. Together.”

In one callback to Lincoln, he recalled how in “another January” (effective way of linking past and present) in 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Biden quoted Lincoln’s words as he signed the paper: “If my name ever goes down into history, it’ll be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.” Here’s a little electric thrill of connection, not just to a historical moment but to a moment of human feeling. Biden repeated: “My whole soul is in it.”

In using that as the springboard for his next passage — declaring that “Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause,” — Biden not only placed himself in Lincoln’s line of descent, but he channeled the emotional appeal of his predecessor for himself. He also, of course, implied that he too might go down in history and reminded his audience, in a time of intense racial argument, that Lincoln himself thought the freeing of the slaves his most important act.

That was deft, and rather moving. Deft, too, was the passage in which he quoted St Augustine.

“Many centuries ago, St Augustine — the saint of my church — wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. Defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honour, and yes, the truth.”

Again, that emphatic repetition of the key phrase. And also a pivot: a sort of showy gestalt switch in the way that he would like the American community to see itself. Not as defined by its opposition to a threatening series of out-groups, but by a common set of objects of devotion. He’s making a point, in an age of identity politics, about how identities can be defined — not against things, but for them. It’s not an accident, either, that “truth” capped off that list.

He did not mention the other guy by name. But he was a presence. “Lies told for power and profit” was certainly a jab. The past that this speech needed to look back on was not a single one. It sought to establish the usual connection with the deep past, but also to repudiate the recent past — and put both those things in service of his exhortations for the future. You could see those purposes knit when he said: “We can see each other, not as adversaries, but as neighbors.” Here was one of many feelingly delivered calls for a reset of the ferociously adversarial politics of the last four years; but also a gentle echo of Lincoln’s inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends.”

All that said, this speech could and should have been half or two thirds of the length. A really great peroration — the stirring closing passage of a speech — will linger whole in the mind. Biden’s peroration went on for most of the second half of his rather extensive running time, and the grand-sounding epithets started to blur into each-other. Just when you thought he was going to wrap it up and take a load off, he embarked on another paragraph of unfolding stories, great chapters, debts to forebears and legacies to children’s children’s children. Lord knows, many of us were pleased to see him — but the trick would have been to leave us wanting more.

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator and the author of Write To The Point: How To Be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page