Local experts: Biden will set tone in inaugural address

  • President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event at The Queen theater, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Wilmington, Del. AP PHOTO/MATT SLOCUM

Staff Writer
Published: 1/19/2021 7:05:59 AM

An inaugural address by an incoming president can be an opportunity to unify the country and inspire citizens to action by calling for differences to be set aside and common objectives to be pursued.

But for President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday — whose inauguration comes less than two weeks after violent protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol building, in the midst of a second impeachment of President Donald Trump, and as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on — what he says in his speech to the nation may be less important than actions he pursues in his initial days in the White House, according to local political experts.

Justin Gross, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, said he believes Biden’s inaugural address should be an opportunity to call on Congress to pass various democratic reforms, including codifying that presidential candidates release their tax returns, preserving the Justice Department’s independence and limiting the interference of Congress in presidential election results.

“So the tone should be soothing, but firm in support of justice, civil rights and democracy,” Gross said, adding that Biden should not shy away from endorsing stances such as full representation for Washington, D.C. “He can remind us of our supposedly shared civic values and extend an open hand to those political opponents who wish to recommit to these through action.”

Though it’s uncertain whether Biden can match President John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you” oratory from 60 years ago, Gross said Biden could soon demonstrate government’s competence and helpfulness during a crisis by improving the country’s vaccination plan, providing more financial relief for those affected by the pandemic, and working with Congress to address stalled initiatives.

Marc Lendler, a professor of government at Smith College, said outlining how COVID-19 will be addressed by the Biden administration has to be a critical aspect of the incoming president’s speech.

“I think announcing a serious, well-funded (and) well-organized plan to deal with the coronavirus should be the centerpiece,” Lendler said. “Nothing good can happen until we can approach normal functioning.”

The inaugural address will likely strike the same unifying tone Biden has struck in recent weeks, said Alexander Theodoridis, an associate professor of political science at UMass.

“He will certainly seek to claim a mandate and will hint at key policy priorities,” Theodoridis said. “The primary objective of this speech is to heal a nation deeply divided.”

Theodoridis said he expects the contrast between Biden’s address and the one Trump delivered at his inaugural four years ago will be quite stark.

Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College, said he anticipates Biden speaking to the “better angels” of America’s character.

“He no doubt knows that merely talking about unity won’t produce it,” Sarat said. “What he does will be as important as what he says.

“He needs to govern in a way that includes everyone and take steps to make government a force for good in people’s lives,” Sarat said.

Gross observes that Biden will be walking a fine line, having run a presidential campaign on a message of unity, but with circumstances changing after the election and with the continued attacks on democracy from those who falsely argue the election was stolen. Biden won’t be able to have a calming influence, Gross said, if he draws false equivalencies between the protests at the U.S. Capitol this month and Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer.

“Biden cannot win over right-wing extremists. And unfortunately, shockingly high numbers of Republican voters indicate belief in provably false claims about the election,” Gross said.

It is also not an incoming president’s responsibility to ensure that there is a peaceful transfer of power, Gross said. That is a responsibility already abdicated by Trump and his supporters.

In the early days of the new administration, Gross said Biden can avoid being visible in any push for criminal prosecution of Trump, though he should recognize that it is in the best interest of the country to allow for a full investigation of recent events in Washington, D.C., as well as other egregious acts, like the family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt might also serve as a model for overcoming the challenges caused by Trump, his influence on the GOP, and on American politics, Gross said.

“He should look to FDR for inspiration, give regular fireside chats in which he combines his naturally calming tone with strength and commitment to help navigate the nation during multiple crises,” Gross said.

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