Two weeks after the storming of the United States Capitol by the followers of his predecessor, in the middle of an out-of-control pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans, Joe Biden – the 46th president of the United States – tried to contain the blaze in his inaugural address.
“Politics does not have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” said Biden.
As aspiration, the speech was pitch-perfect. Biden rightly took on the present of America’s most serious domestic crisis since the Civil War. Coronavirus, the Capitol attack, economic loss, immigration, climate change and social injustice were confronted.
“We will press forward with speed and urgency for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibility,” Biden said. “Much to do, much to heal, much to restore, much to build and much to gain.
But what distinguished the speech beyond the essential was the sincerity with which it was delivered. Since the election, there has been a commingling of Biden’s personal narrative of loss with the damage that America has suffered. When he spoke of the “empty chair” and relatives who have died, it was from the heart and not just the script.
So, as he said in front of the Capitol: “My whole soul is in this”, there was no doubt – in contrast to the statements of his predecessor – that it is.
Complementing Biden’s rhetoric are the executive orders and legislation set out in the days before the inauguration. Immigration reform will be accompanied by protection of almost 800,000 young Dreamers from deportation. There is a mandate to reunite children separated from parents and a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
The US has rejoined the Paris Accords on climate change. The “Muslim Ban” is rescinded, Donald Trump’s wall with Mexico suspended. And coronavirus will finally be confronted with coordination between the federal, state and local governments and a $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan”.
Words to a waiting world
But where is America in the world in all this? In Biden’s attention to domestic crises, there was little beyond his intention to re-engage with the world on climate and reverse the previous administration’s myopic immigration measures. Even the invocations of American greatness, with one exception, stayed within its borders: “Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge.”
There is historical precedent for the exclusive focus on home. In 1933, as the Great Depression raged, Franklin Delano Roosevelt also made no reference to the world as he said at his first inauguration, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Perhaps even more pertinently, in 1865, Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, a month before his assassination and two months before the end of the Civil War: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Beyond the inaugural, there are clues in Biden’s appointment of Obama-era pragmatists: Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Jake Sullivan as national security advisor, John Kerry in a special post for climate change. There will be no sweeping “Biden Doctrine”, nor a grand speech such as Barack Obama’s in Cairo or Ankara in 2009.
Instead, the pragmatists will try to restore alliances, reestablish the “rules of the game” with countries such as China, Russia and North Korea – and work case-by-case on immediate issues such as the Iran nuclear deal.
But for this day, and for the weeks and months to come, the foreign challenges will primarily be an extension of the domestic issues that Biden set out on “America’s day … democracy’s day”.
Recovery of America’s damaged standing will come from success in putting out the fires that are not just in the US: saving lives and vanquishing a virus, committing to a secure environment, tackling the inequities and divisions in the way of justice for all.
For as the world watched, Biden’s exceptional reference to an aspiration beyond the US came in his penultimate paragraph about the “American story” to be written: “That America secured liberty at home and stood once again as a beacon to the world. That is what we owe our forebears, one another, and generations to follow.”
Scott Lucas is a Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.