Sunday, January 24, 2021

Unity Elusive Despite Biden's Plea at Inauguration

        What a difference four years can make! Four years ago, Donald Trump painted a dark and foreboding picture of American carnage in a divisive inaugural address filled with falsehoods and exaggerations. The conservative columnist George Will called it “the most dreadful” inaugural address in history, as I noted in a critical orders at the time.

Four years later, Joe Biden was upbeat and resolute last week [Jan. 20] as he appealed in a widely admired inaugural address for unity in confronting the “cascading crises” facing the country as he assumes the presidency for the next four years. My college classmate Chris Wallace used his Fox News anchor desk position to call it the best of the inaugural addresses he has witnessed since John Kennedy’s in 1961.

 “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” Biden said, halfway through his 22-minute address. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

After winning the most votes ever by a presidential candidate, Joe Biden looked out at a National Mall filled not with cheering crowds but with nearly 200,000 American flags symbolizing the 400,000 Americans lost to the coronavirus pandemic on Trump’s lackadaisical watch. Trump left town without accepting responsibility or expressing regret for the deaths.

In contrast, Biden used what he called his first act as president to  “ask for a moment of silent prayer to remember all those we lost this past year to the pandemic.” After a pause, he followed with a pledge “to honor them by becoming the people and nation we know we can and should be.”

Biden acknowledged, as he had to, the scene two weeks earlier when “violence sought to shake this Capitol’s very foundation.” He left unspoken the extreme security precautions put in place to guard against a recurrence: the unprecedented closing of the National Mall to Inauguration Day crowds and the deployment of more than 20,000 National Guardsmen throughout the capital city.

On Fox News, opinion hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity conveniently skipped over the deaths that resulted from the Trump supporters’ Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and instead depicted the security precautions as aimed only at silencing dissent.  In his address, however, Biden singled out “the rise of political extremism, white supremacy,  domestic terrorism” as a security threat that “we must confront and will defeat.”

 On the issues, Biden laid out an agenda in stark contrast to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and instead promised not only “greatness” but also “goodness.” He promised to gain global prestige not by “the example of our power” but by “the power of our example.”

“With unity, we can do great things. Important things,” Biden declared, listing them one by one. “We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome this deadly virus. We can reward work, rebuild the middle class, and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice. We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world.”

Biden skipped over the partisan divisions that hampered those goals during the year of the pandemic: the armed resistance from Trump supporters to mask mandates and the White House’s political posturing over closing schools to limit the spread of the virus. He listed, without directly blaming Trump, the economic disasters of the pandemic: “millions of jobs lost,” “hundreds of thousands of businesses closed.”

Biden listed as well other challenges that Trump had left unaddressed in four years in the White House. “A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer,” he vowed. Trump had been all but silent as the Black Lives Matter movement stepped up pressure to reform police use-of-force policies.

Next, Biden turned to climate change: “A cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.” However clear the problem may have been, Trump installed in key positions climate-change deniers and, in fact, banned the term from government publications. He started his administration by ostentatiously withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, even while the United States was lagging on the pact’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

With the inaugural ceremonies over, Biden got down to work quickly with a flurry of executive orders that, for example, halted further work on Trump’s border wall and reversed Trump’s travel ban targeting mostly Muslim countries. He also mandated mask-wearing on all federal properties and most public transportation, instituted an array of other steps to speed up vaccinations, and called on federal agencies to develop policies to limit the spread of the virus in schools and workplaces.

Other steps in his first days included personnel moves: ousting the veteran union buster as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board and kicking out the Trump propagandist as director of the Voice of American (VOA). Meanwhile, the Senate was moving only slowly on Biden’s Cabinet nominees, stymied in part by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s stiff-necked negotiating stance on power-sharing in the 50-50 Senate. For McConnell, it seems, Biden’s appeal for unity fell on deaf ears.

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