The Poetry of Public Service

President Biden lays out the stakes & calls for a grieving, divided nation to work together, saying “My whole soul is in this.”

After four years of chaos, corruption, lies, and ultimately an armed insurrection, people across the United States and around the world have been counting down the hours and minutes until the powers of the US Presidency pass to Joseph R. Biden, Jr., as they did today at 12:00 pm EST.

Joseph R. Biden, Jr., comes to the Presidency at a moment of historic calamity. Multiple converging crises threaten the everyday, health, wellbeing, and security of the American people. During the turbulent and uncertain period of the transition—while the outgoing President fanned the flames of insurrection and refused to acknowledge defeat, and as daily COVID deaths soared above 4,000 per day in the United States—Biden effectively began his presidency by setting a tone of sobriety, care, and faithful service in hard times.

Today, President Biden reminded a divided country that “we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause, the cause of democracy,” adding “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious, democracy is fragile, and at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

He acknowledged that “we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities… much to heal, much to build, and much to gain,” and said the moment would be met in “our unique American way—restless, bold, optimistic.”

Amanda Gorman, the youngest Inaugural poet in history, in her poem “The Hill We Climb”, said:

We are striving to forge our union with purpose… Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true. That even as we grieved, we grew…

Being American is more than a pride we inherit; it’s the past we step into and how we repair it… For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us…

This is the era of just redemption… We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation, because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation…

So, let us leave behind a country better than one we were left. With every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one…

The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Biden sought to reassure the country that there is a way out of the division and suspicion that have marked recent history, saying “History, faith, and reason show the way… we can treat each other with dignity and respect… we can join forces…”

He added that “politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”

He traced the history of Americans struggling to expand the protection of basic civil rights and celebrated the historic swearing in of Kamala Harris—the nation’s first woman Vice President, also the first Vice President of African and of South Asian descent. Then, he said: “Don’t tell me things can’t change.”

He called on Americans to “Take the measure of me and of my heart,” and added: “If you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy.” He then declared firmly that:

Disagreement must not lead to disunion. And I promise you, I will be a President for all Americans, and I will fight as hard for those who voted against me as I will for those who voted for me.

He cited the words of St. Augustine, who said “A people is a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” He then sough to reassure Americans of all political backgrounds that there are such common objects of love: “Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, and yes: the truth.”

He spoke of the “painful lesson” of the threat posed by “lies told for power and for profit,” and reminded the nation that:

each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders—leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation—to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.

Citing the struggles his father endured, amid uncertainty about his job prospects, President Biden said he understands that many Americans look to the future “with fear and trepidation”, worried about whether they will keep their healthcare, or be able to put food on the table.

President Biden pledged to rebuild America’s alliances, to be a strong partner for democracy, peace, and security, and said the nation would now begin again to lead by “the power of our example”.

In a moment the nation has long needed, asked the nation to pause, saying:

In my first act as president, I’d like to ask you to join me in a moment of solemn prayer for all those 400,000 souls lost to COVID… Let’s say a silent prayer for those who lost their lives, for those left behind, and for our country.

The Rev. Silvester Beaman, an old friend of President Biden, also called for healing in a rousing benediction:

In our common humanity, we will seek out the wounded and bind their wounds. We will seek healing for those who are sick and diseased. We will mourn our dead. We will befriend the lonely, the least, and the left out. We will share our abundance with those who are hungry. We will do justly to the oppressed, acknowledge sin, and seek forgiveness, thus grasping reconciliation. 

The task of President Biden, Vice President Harris, and the new administration, will be to build back better from the COVID crisis and the abuses of the Trump era. Biden has already begun to act against four major crises:

The Biden-Harris administration will begin to act today on all of these major challenges. We will transcend the dark age of “American carnage” with faith, poetry, science, and common purpose. In the words of Van Jones, “Beauty heals.”

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