Joe Biden’s life of resilience in the face of unbearable loss will take on new meaning when he steps up to deliver his inaugural address Wednesday as the nation’s 46th President.
Destiny has paired America’s new leader — a man rocked by tragedy who found the strength to heal his own soul — with a sick, hurting nation that needs to summon similar steel to beat its harrowing crises.
Biden’s overflowing empathy was forged in the unfathomable horror of burying his first wife, infant daughter and adult son. Just as he comforted bereaved supporters on countless campaign trail rope lines, he is now assuming the nation’s grief over more than 400,000 deaths in the coronavirus pandemic. After finding new reason to live following his own bereavements, he’s challenging Americans to honor their losses by uniting to win the battle to restore normal life.
“I know these are dark times, but there is always light,” an emotional Biden said before leaving his beloved Delaware for the mission for which he’s spent a lifetime preparing.
The new president will also offer ambitious new plans to combat economic blight caused by lockdowns and promises to cross party lines to ease the country’s embittered internal political estrangement.
His inaugural address will symbolically turn the page from the “American carnage” wrought by his predecessor and also herald a new dawn in which decency will be returned to the Oval Office.
At a time of national angst, it will seek to rekindle the quintessential American creed that tomorrow can be better than today. As he assumes the burdens of office, Biden, in the words of one of his favorite Irish poets, Seamus Heaney, will seek to create a moment when “hope and history rhyme.”
After a political system designed to thwart untamed power weathered President Donald Trump’s assault, the new president will able to affirm the survival of American democracy — even as the inauguration takes place behind high iron fences guarded by thousands of troops.
With vaccines offering the possibility that the pandemic could begin to ease later this year, Biden can also conjure the prospect of better days within reach.
And the swearing-in of Kamala Harris, America’s first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president, will deliver qualified progress in the halting march to racial justice and gender equality.
Biden’s first duty on his return to Washington was to lead a moving sunset vigil under a purple sky at the Lincoln Memorial for those lost — a step never taken by outgoing President Donald Trump, a longtime pandemic denier who appeared to believe that dignifying the dead stained his own image.
The solemn event, featuring Michigan nurse Lori Marie Key, who sang “Amazing Grace,” underscored Biden’s promises to restore decency to the center of power as he seeks to nurture the country’s battered soul.
Under the marbled gaze of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, who took office in perhaps the only time when America has been more divided than today, lines of lights stretched like gravestones towards the distant Washington Monument.
Biden’s grave challenges
New presidents typically use their inaugural addresses to bind the wounds of bitter elections, to reaffirm America’s founding values and to inspire the country to join in a momentous national effort.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin Roosevelt, whose Great Depression inheritance in 1933 is the closest modern equivalent to Biden’s.
As he worked on his own inaugural address, Biden had to contemplate a pandemic that has never been worse, a vaccine rollout that is a confusing mess, an economy pulverized by shutdowns and a generation of kids who have missed critical months of in-person schooling.
His challenges have become even more acute since the election, as Trump’s refusal to admit defeat and attempt to steal Biden’s victory, as well as an insurrection against Congress, hammered Biden’s legitimacy and exposed a White nationalist internal insurgency that will pose an ongoing threat to US security and democracy.
While Roosevelt’s famous line might find an echo in Biden’s approach to the pandemic, the nation’s fractured political state recalls Lincoln’s frantic efforts to keep it together during his 1861 inaugural.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection,” the 16th President warned months before the outbreak of the Civil War.
America’s current chasms suggest yet more synergy between Biden and his moment of history.
Despite decades of worsening national polarization, the President-elect still thinks he can enlist his old Senate Republican sparring partner, Mitch McConnell, in passing elements of his legislative agenda and a new pandemic stimulus plan.
Many Democrats are highly skeptical. And Republicans who live in fear of Trump and his 74 million voters have no reason to make Biden’s presidency a success. But Biden’s old-fashioned bet on building an administration on compromise at a time when such sentiments have rarely been less incentivized was attractive to many voters weary of Washington’s partisan wars.
And after Trump tried to make it a liability in the campaign, his half-century career as a Washington insider might just equip him to overhaul the lame federal response to Covid-19 and lead the country out of its nightmare.
An unlikely journey
When Biden places his hand on the Bible on Wednesday and takes the oath of office, he will complete a political and personal journey that had seemed fated to fall short of the White House.
But the man who was once one of the youngest senators in history will become, at 78, the country’s oldest president.
This day would never have come had Biden followed his initial instincts and given up the newly won Delaware US Senate seat he won in 1972 after his wife and infant daughter died in a car crash.
Biden spent months by the side of his surviving sons, Beau and Hunter, as they slowly recovered from serious injuries. In the late 1980s, he experienced his own health crises with a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him. But he bounced back.
Tragedy would visit Biden again in May 2015, when Beau, an Iraq War veteran and Democratic rising star, died of brain cancer.
Biden always saw Beau as a better version of himself. A tearful President-elect on Wednesday confessed: “Ladies and gentleman, I only have one regret, he’s not here because we should be introducing him as president.”
Beau’s death ultimately convinced Biden not to mount a bid for the Democratic nomination in 2016 against Hillary Clinton amid concern about his family’s emotional endurance for a race.
But fate called him back into the political arena because of Trump’s aberrant presidency and the commander in chief’s equivocation over condemning marches by White supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Joe Biden has a healing heart. He has been through so much,” former Vice President Al Gore told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday evening.
A changed man
Biden is now a far more disciplined politician than he was for much of his career.
His portrayal in the seminal “What It Takes — The Way to the White House,” an account of the 1988 presidential campaign by the late Richard Ben Cramer, was as a political charmer, with a dazzling smile, glad-handing style and preening self-belief that the presidency was his destiny.
But Biden’s 1988 campaign dissolved amid a plagiarism scandal. In 2008, he dropped out after an anemic showing in the Iowa caucuses.
Even when he was selected by Barack Obama as his vice presidential nominee, many of the younger aides around the soon-to-be president considered Biden a loose-lipped caricature — an impression he strengthened by adding to his long list of political gaffes. But Vice President Biden’s steady stewardship of the Recovery Act — which added to his pedigree as he sought the presidency this time around — won him admirers, and after eight years of loyalty to Obama, he was loved and respected in the White House.
Now, slowed a little by age, and with the windy opening statements that set eyes rolling in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just a memory, Biden has displayed unexpected late-in-life political adeptness.
Only a year ago, it seemed his political ambitions would again founder after terrible results in the Iowa and New Hampshire nominating races. But with trademark persistence, he hauled himself back up off the mat with a famous win in South Carolina, which rocketed him to the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
His handling of Trump’s unprecedented disruption during a treacherous transition was distilled from the wisdom of decades in high office, and a willingness to subvert his own ego for the good of the nation — another stark comparison with the outgoing President.
His campaign benefited from the curtailment of an exhausting travel schedule.
But every time he needed to show gravitas and poise — like in the debates against Trump and at the Democratic National Convention — Biden delivered, showing a new, spare speaking style that was likely a preview of his presidential bully pulpit and was shaped by his tragedies and redemption.
That durability in the face of personal angst is the force that will finally propel Biden to his longed-for destination — the Oval Office — on Wednesday. And it’s why he might just be the man for a perilous American moment.