Joe Biden became the president of the United States amid a series of overlapping crises. More than 400,000 Americans are dead from Covid-19. The current economic downturn is the worst since the Great Depression. There is an ongoing, serious threat of far-right violence after the attack on the Capitol. And there’s a Republican Party that seems unwilling to work with Biden on fixing any of it.
None of that has changed now that Biden has officially assumed the presidency. And yet, watching Biden’s inaugural and listening to his first address, it’s hard not to feel a real measure of hope.
“Today, we celebrate not the triumph of a candidate but a cause: the cause of democracy,” Biden said. In a typical inauguration, these words would be pro forma. This year, in the wake of the storming of the Capitol, they felt profound.
“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. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured,” the new president declared. He was painting a picture of the America we want: not the one we have, but maybe one we could, one day.
Biden’s call for a better country was paired with a clear-eyed recognition of what exactly it was that got us in such a bad way in the first place: not mere political disagreement, but a resurgence of illiberal forces that have haunted America since its founding — and, at times, triumphed over democratic ideals.
“Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial, and victory is never assured,” Biden said.
And yet, he noted, these forces have been beaten back in the past — in the United States, utopian visions have eventually become reality.
“Here we stand, where 108 years ago at another inaugural, thousands of protesters tried to block brave women marching for the right to vote. And today, we mark the swearing-in of the first woman in American history elected to national office, Vice President Kamala Harris,” he said.
The Biden-Harris administration will not be perfect. Among other reasons, there are worrying signs that the new president and his allies in Congress do not fully recognize just how obstructionist and dangerous the GOP opposition will be.
But the fact that things could go badly doesn’t mean they will. The fact that the way out isn’t clear doesn’t mean it’s not there.
After four years of Trump, many people’s capacity for hope might be broken. But working to build it back up is a worthwhile — maybe even vital — political task.
Going down the right path
In his book Utopophobia, political philosopher David Estlund defends the imagining of different social realities — even improbable or seemingly impossible ones — that would be far better than the one we live in. In the first chapter, he tells a little story to help illustrate the point:
Suppose we are hiking, and we spy a beautiful spot some miles off, down the slope, across the valley. It isn’t just beautiful, it looks like a great place to stay, or even to live. Alas, it is not yet clear whether we can get there, so we might try to contain our excitement. ... Perhaps the slim chances of success will give us sufficient reason to make other plans. But why jump to that conclusion? After all, the place is beautiful, and for all we can tell getting there is not beyond our abilities.
The point is not that we should go marching off willy-nilly down the hill, barreling toward the beautiful spot with no consideration of any obstacles or risks.
Rather, Estlund says, we need not immediately rule out that we might be able to get there: that we “relax the line between hopeful and hopeless standards in a spirit of hope.” Though it may not be obvious how we can get to a better world, there’s still value in believing we could get there. It might help us to think of ways that we can.
If there was one overarching message of Biden’s inaugural address, it’s that Americans should start thinking about how to get to a more beautiful spot in the distance.
He didn’t shirk in describing the challenges of the current moment: “We face an attack on democracy and untruth, a raging virus, growing inequity, sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways, but the fact is, we face them all at once.”
But far from the “American carnage” bleakness of Trump’s inaugural, Biden used this as a call to America’s better angels.
“The question, will we master this rare and difficult hour? Will we meet our obligation and pass along a new and better world to our children? I believe we must. I’m sure you do as well,” he said.
Inaugural speeches are not remembered chiefly as policy documents. They are statements of purpose: a time for a new administration to tell us what guides them and what they aim to do. They are, above all else, moral documents — a statement of social purpose and vision.
This cannot replace a policy vision, of course. There is no sense in pursuing ideas that are impossible — as so much of Biden’s policy agenda seems to be, given Republican intransigence and the lack of Senate majority support for filibuster abolition.
Yet politics is not merely a matter of constraints. Political actors, from presidents to members of Congress to ordinary citizens who volunteer and vote, can alter the boundaries of what’s possible: They can persuade people to think differently, or galvanize those who might otherwise sit comfortably at home.
Two weeks ago, we saw how political leaders can use fear, anger, and lies to galvanize a crowd. But politics can be fueled by hope as well as rage. Historically, American civil religion — including a pseudo-mythological belief in our liberal ideals and national perfectibility — has motivated Americans to get into the political arena.
No one should expect Joe Biden to be a perfect president. He may not even end up being a good one. Biden has a long history of errors and misjudgments, ranging from his role in the 1994 crime bill to his harebrained plan to divide Iraq to his alleged invasive, inappropriate personal touches. He was not my first choice for the presidency and may not have been yours.
But it’s possible to acknowledge Biden’s imperfections and the monumental task facing his new administration while still having hope that things can get better. Not just because Biden gave a good speech, but because if we want the world to be better, we must not lose faith that it can be.
The Trump era gave us plenty of reason to believe that the worst and most cynical possibility was also the most likely. Yet millions of Americans mobilized throughout that, defending causes ranging from women’s bodily autonomy to health care access to freedom from police violence.
As this new administration begins, such Americans can move from defense to offense. They can look down the slope, scanning for paths that might reach a beautiful pasture.