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President Joe Biden Begins With A Plea: "We Must End This Uncivil War"

Joe Biden's inaugural speech leaned hard on unity, and an argument for how it can happen, even as he spoke from the site of political violence.

Last updated on January 20, 2021, at 2:47 p.m. ET

Posted on January 20, 2021, at 1:00 p.m. ET

Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address at the US Capitol on Jan. 20.

President Joe Biden was sworn into office on Wednesday, on the steps of the Capitol, where Trump supporters staged a violent attempt at insurrection two weeks ago, determined not to accept his victory in the election.

“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” Biden said in his address at the Capitol. “We can do this, if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes.”

Biden’s clear purpose in his first speech as president: to calm tensions, set a hopeful tone, and convince Americans that some kind of unity is possible, despite that attack and the years of division and hate groups incited by his predecessor.

His inaugural address echoed the call he has made throughout his campaign and in the months since winning the election, for Americans to “give each other a chance” as he said in November. In that space of time, though, that message has become even more complicated.

Biden’s speech was delivered on the site where Trump supporters targeted their violence because many of them believed conspiracy theories that Democrats had stolen the presidential election. Some of them were white supremacists, carrying Confederate flags through the Capitol — a culmination of four years of tacit endorsement of these groups by the former president.

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It was distinctly in contrast to Donald Trump’s inaugural address in 2017, a speech with dark and foreboding tones, where he swore the end of “American carnage.” Trump was absent on Wednesday, both in person and in spirit, going unmentioned by Biden except by omission.

“I thank my predecessors of both parties for their presence here today. I thank you from the bottom of my heart, and I know the resilience of our Constitution and the strength of our nation,” Biden said, which had the effect of framing Trump as an aberration.

Biden sought to describe the people who broke into the Capitol as fringe elements, not representative of the vast majority of Americans and sent a message that he believes American democracy can survive.

“Here we stand just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground,” he said. “It did not happen. It will not happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not ever.”

Biden tried in his inaugural speech to close not just the Trump presidency, but to begin to move on from Trump’s political legacy of mistrust, conspiracy, and racism. He appealed to those who supported Trump as well as those who want to see progressive action from this post-Trump president.

“To all of those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward,” he said. “Take a measure of me and my heart. And if you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America. The right to dissent peaceably within the guardrails of our republic is perhaps this nation's greatest strength. Yet hear me clearly: Disagreement must not lead to disunion.”

The new president, who backs some progressive policies but essentially remains a mainstream Democrat who believes in cooperation with the Republican Party, will find it hard to avoid wading into those cultural rifts almost immediately. In the hours after being inaugurated, he will begin to enact policies that pointedly try to move the country away from Trump.

“I promise you I will fight just as hard for those who did not support me,” he said in his speech.

What that means in practice remains to be seen, with a close Democratic majority in the House, a Democratic-controlled 50-50 Senate, and a Republican Party struggling to re-shape its identity after Trump. The fissures that Trump exacerbated over the past four years go well beyond disagreements based on policy — for many Americans they are about who holds power and who is valued in this country.

Alongside those challenges, Biden is left to try to unravel the lack of trust in government from both people caught up in conspiracy theories on the right and those who have felt abandoned by the Democratic party on the left.

After winning the Electoral College in December, Biden gave a speech that tried to tamp down what has been an obviously growing threat to stability in the US — the rise of the QAnon mass delusion, fueled by Trump — and the mistrust of government that comes with it. Still, three weeks later, the Capitol attacks took place.

Biden taking office will not put much of a damper on those theories, judging by how believers have adapted to rationalize every event, including Biden’s election win, as being part of a right-wing nationalist master plan headed up by Trump.Biden tried in his inaugural speech to close not just the Trump presidency, but to begin to move on from Trump’s political legacy of mistrust, conspiracy, and racism. He appealed to those who supported Trump as well as those who want to see progressive action from this post-Trump president.

“To all of those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward,” he said. “Take a measure of me and my heart. And if you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America. The right to dissent peaceably within the guardrails of our republic is perhaps this nation's greatest strength. Yet hear me clearly: Disagreement must not lead to disunion.”

Biden acknowledged the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic with a moment of silent prayer, called for as his first act as president, to remember the more than 400,000 Americans who have died in the past year as a result of the coronavirus.

And he took a moment to mark the history of Kamala Harris being sworn in as the first woman vice president. “Don’t tell me things can’t change,” Biden said.

Biden spoke to skepticism in his speech, to those who think “unity” is particularly far-fetched in this moment.

“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real,” he said. “But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial and victory is never assured.”

He insisted though that the US can meet that. “We have never, ever, ever failed in America when we have acted together,” he said. “So today, at this time, at this place, let’s start afresh, all of us. Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t need to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”

His allies who joined him on Wednesday stuck with Biden’s optimism.

"There's a profound difference between having a president focused on bringing Americans together and a president doing the opposite,” Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s nominee for transportation secretary, told BuzzFeed News when asked ahead of the president’s speech how Biden’s plea for unity will work, particularly in the wake of the Capitol attack. “So right off the bat, that will be helpful."

"But I think the biggest thing that'll unify the American people is delivering results. And that's, that's where all of us are hoping to come in," he said. And he added that the location of the inauguration is particularly resonant this year. “I think it's poetic that this event will take place in good order, just two weeks after what America watched in horror in this very space.”

For two new Democratic members of Congress, Wednesday was the start of what they hope will be a more stable time in politics and in America more broadly.

“One of my colleagues right here, Sara Jacobs from California, she said earlier that we've been members of Congress for three Wednesdays,” said Georgia Rep. Nikema Williams after Biden’s address. “The first Wednesday, we had an insurrection on the Capitol. The second Wednesday, we voted to impeach the president. And then this Wednesday, we're here. My husband, he was like, ‘here's hoping next Wednesday, you text me and say, “I had a bagel.”’”

Williams, who was the chair of the Georgia Democratic Party before launching her Congressional campaign, spoke to BuzzFeed News at the end of the inaugural ceremony, still standing on the West front of the Capitol.

“We have a Jewish American and a Black man both being sworn in and to the United States Senate from Georgia, y'all,” she said, referring to the Wednesday afternoon swearings in of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who both won their Senate runoff races earlier this month. “We've come a long way in this country. We still have a ways to go. But I'm not gonna let any domestic terrorists steal my joy and what I'm feeling on this day and the pride that I feel to be an American today.”

She talked about the pride she felt in seeing Vice President Kamala Harris, an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister, sworn in as the first woman and first woman of color to hold the office.

But, she said, “it's more than just the symbolism of what happened today, with the first woman, the first woman of color being the Vice President, and changing of an administration, but everything that it means for so many people at home across the country that are hurting,” through the pandemic.

Asked about Biden’s call for unity and his inclination to try to work with Republicans, Williams said quoted James Baldwin. “‘I can love and work with anyone, except for those people whose disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity,’” she said. “And so there are some people that I'm absolutely not willing to work with, because they don't even think that I, as a Black woman, should be here serving in this body. But then there are people who we have a policy disagreement, and we can work together and we can find that common ground, but there is a clear divide in where we are.”

“My background is in international conflict resolution, and we've seen countries around the world torn apart and having their societies frayed at the seams,” added newly-elected California Rep. Sara Jacobs. “And we know it's possible to hold people accountable and bring people back together and rebuild those community ties and rebuild our country.”

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