Over the past 60 years, two inaugural addresses, in particular, have left a lasting impression on Democratic oratory. In 1961, John Kennedy embodied the spirit of Cold War patriotism with his ringing, verb-first declarations (“Ask not what your country...”) and explicit generational appeal (“The torch has been passed...”). That speech, which liberals of a certain age can almost recite by heart, represents one pole of Democratic rhetoric. The other, of course, comes from Barack Obama, whose sinuous sentences and confident certainty “that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply” set a modern standard for Democratic speechmakers in 2009.
The 78-year-old Joe Biden, who came of age idealizing the Kennedys and served as Obama’s vice president, is steeped in these two strikingly different rhetorical traditions. And as Biden and his speechwriters prepare his inaugural address, they will undoubtedly feel the gravitational pull to emulate what Kennedy, Obama, and other incoming presidents have said at times of crisis.
Take this advice from a former presidential speechwriter: Resist the urge to look backward.
If there were ever a moment to jettison Biden’s campaign rhetoric and reframe familiar Democratic arguments, it would be on the afternoon of January 20. America’s chasm of trust is too wide and the fissures dividing the two political camps are too deep for predictable oratory and pedestrian tropes to do anything other than offer balm to the already converted. For Biden’s inaugural address to influence the politics of the next four years, the incoming president must find a way to reach at least some of the disillusioned and the disaffected.
The middle of a pandemic is not the time to strain for eloquence as JFK did. Or to dwell on the memorials on the Mall following the model set, in 1981, by Ronald Reagan, the first president to speak from the West Front of the Capitol with the grandeur of Washington spread out before him. And, sadly, the nation’s problems have festered for too long and the Trump legacy will be too difficult to shed for this to be a moment when, as Obama suggested in 2009, we must simply “dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
No other incoming president in the last century, with the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, has inherited a crisis of democratic legitimacy. A shockingly high number of Republicans—caught up in their Newsmax bubbles where Rudy Giuliani is still a respected figure—believe that an election won by seven million votes was somehow stolen. The cowardice of prominent Republicans in Congress (yes, you, Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz) in refusing to acknowledge Biden’s election has made Trumpian denial of reality a respectable political position. We are beyond the point at which Biden can get away with neo-Obama bromides about coming together, with lines like, “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify. Who doesn’t see Red and Blue states, but a United States.”
Maybe it would be enough for Biden to acknowledge the doubters (deranged as their Hugo Chávez conspiracy theories have become) and to pledge as president to try to win their trust. Maybe a grander gesture is needed, like a bipartisan commission both to ensure the right to vote and to guarantee there will never be any questions about the counting of ballots. Some Democrats may regard such olive branches as naïvely ineffectual or as pandering to the lunatic fringe. But despite the obvious limits of any single speech—even an inaugural address—the alternative is to allow Trump’s hate-mongering to gather strength in the dark recesses of the internet and on TV.
The second challenge Biden must face is the cynicism of millions of Americans who view the economy as a permanently rigged game. Taking office in the wake of the financial collapse, Obama departed from soaring oratory to offer a laundry list of program ideas: “We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.”
Twelve years later, voters on the economic margins have heard it all. Empty slogans like Biden’s awkwardly phrased “Build Back Better” are unlikely to create bonds of trust with the incoming president. From “green jobs” to “rebuilding the infrastructure,” standard Democratic rhetoric about the economy has become forced and mechanical. The widespread feeling is that programs will be announced and promises made, as the rich become richer and everyone else struggles to keep their heads above water.
Unlike a State of the Union, an inaugural address is designed to be inspirational. The emphasis has traditionally been on goals rather than on the specific legislative means a president plans to use to achieve them. But to be memorable, an inaugural address also needs more specificity than Biden’s campaign rhetoric about restoring “the soul of America.”
One idea would be for Biden to employ a rhetorical device that William Safire, a legendary wordsmith and former Richard Nixon speechwriter, called the “I See” Construction. A prime example was a 1940 Franklin Roosevelt speech filled with such visionary images as, “I see an America where factory workers are not discarded after they reach their prime.” This rhetorical style is similar to that of Martin Luther King in his enduring “I Have a Dream” speech.
I could see Biden saying, “I see an America where corporate CEOs and hedge-fund investors do not live on an exalted plane far from ordinary workers.“ Or “I see an America where we are all in it together—where rich and poor alike have good schools and the opportunities that come with them.”
None of these bits of suggested oratory can guarantee political success. While the inaugural address may be the most influential speech of Biden’s presidency, no one will be voting in the glow of its immediate aftermath. But it will provide the template for the Biden administration. And that is why it is so important to transcend the clichés of campaign rhetoric and American-flag–pin patriotism and speak to citizens mired in cynicism about their futures, the economy, and the very workings of democracy.
More than anything, on January 20, I will be listening for new words and arguments. Not recycled Kennedy or Obama, but refocused and reframed Joe Biden. Yes, it is a high bar. But the times, and a world-weary nation, require no less.