20 January 2021


Biden inauguration speech was one of the most impressive political speeches that I've seen in a long time.

Biden is canny to a degree that exceeded my expectations. He is walking a narrow tightrope with the thinnest possible majority he could have in the Senate, with a very thin majority in the House, with key federal courts up to the U.S. Supreme Court stacked against him. Unity is his only option and he is seizing it.

He has very carefully calculated who he needs to win over and who he can throw under the bus, and very carefully tailored his rhetoric and the overall symbolism of his inauguration event to woo them. He has thrown under the bus the Capitol rioters, the conspiracy theorists, the people who don't live in reality, the white supremacists, the militias, the haters, and the cynical nihilists.

He has made a powerful and sincere appeal to decency and humanity, to cooperation and fairness, to civility and the democratic process.

He has aggressively made a claim to be a "real Christian" who can talk about God because he is devout. I am not the target audience. He has me. He has my Jewish and Hindu and Wiccan friends.

Instead, he is telling the black and Hispanic Christians in the Democratic party that he is not another white liberal taking them for granted. He is telling the white Catholics and mainline Christians and open minded Evangelicals, as few as they may be, that he gets the part of their faith that makes them feel decent and good about themselves. He is trying to piece together a "center" coalition along the lines of a Christian Democratic party of Europe. It is no accident that he's speech was followed by a vocal performance by Garth Brooks, a Red state icon, and then by a black pastor who is a master of oratory.

He has made cultural and stylistic appeals to the struggling working class and members of the military.

He didn't leave the white liberals in the party with nothing. We care about racial justice too. We care about overcoming COVID. We care about truth and civility in politics. We care about climate change. He's picked some key focal points that you can count on the fingers of one hand and hit them again, and then again, and then again. We know that his appeal to faith won't mean that he'll put non-Christians in peril. He's appointed a transwoman to a senior post in the Department of Health and Human Services. He is absolutely a moderate but we know that his moderation is liberal enough to exploit what is within the realm of the possible. We know that there are a stack of executive orders waiting for him to sign in the Oval Office that will allow us to breath a sigh of relief again. And, we know that he has to play the game to build the supermajority coalitions it will take to respond the the challenges.

It is incredibly refreshing to hear his moderation peppered with a genuine sense of urgency about multiple big issues that we agree need urgent attention. It is incredibly refreshing to have a President do something so anodyne as denouncing misinformation, political violence and racism. His efforts to say the usual right things about hope and respect and being a good example for and engaged with the world, and being a President for the people who didn't vote for him and unity and decency, after four years of our long national nightmare in which Trump and his followers banished them from the public discourse.

Most importantly, his targets are the ten comparatively Republican Senators whose cooperation he's going to need to overcome filibusters or the two or three he'll need to switch parties to abolish the filibuster. He's holding out an olive branch to Mitch McConnell who has done the same by publicly condemning Trump, because he knows he will have to work with him for the next four years and that Mitch McConnell, as the highest profile Republican elected official in the District of Columbia, can provide cover for and deliver the Republican Senators that he needs to get legislation passed if everyone plays ball.

He's showing the secret signals to tell the two-thirds of the judges on the U.S. Supreme Court that he shares their faith and some of their values and that they should give him a chance. 

He's appealing to military officers to show them that he's someone they can respect and feel proud to serve instead of undermining.

Biden is a very smart man, but who used plain words and repeated himself to make sure that even people who weren't that bright could understand him. He didn't appeal to the rock bottom of stupid like Trump did, but he also only slightly hinted at his own sophistication, in a allusion to Saint Augustine (whose place he explained to the uninitiated) concealing his class and education far more than Barack Obama or George H.W. Bush, or Richard Nixon ever did. He was speaking with the same level of sophistication as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, but without the showmanship.

Joe Biden is no Kennedy. But he has largely succeeded in establishing a persona of a decent, wise, civil grown up from an earlier era faced with immense challenges that can be overcome with teamwork and unity. If he can continue to craft that kind of carefully curated message and image, and can turn that into results, he might end up being more a great leader, and less of a placeholder and caretaker, than his campaign and previous political career had led me, or anyone to expect from him.

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