Writing an American story of hope: Our politicians often failed us but the American people did not
“Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” America’s 22-year-old poet laureate Amanda Gorman asked today as she spoke at the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States: Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.
For the past four years we have lived under an administration that advanced policies based on bullying; a fantasy of a lost, white, Christian America; and disinformation. We have endured the gutting of our government as the president either left positions empty or replaced career officials with political operatives, corruption, the rise of white supremacists into positions of power, the destruction of our international standing, an unchecked pandemic that has led to more than 400,000 deaths from Covid-19, an economic crash, and unprecedented political polarization.
“And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it,” Gorman reminded us. That light was us.
In these terrible years, our politicians often failed us… but the American people did not. Our national guardrails often failed us… but the American people did not. Many of our neighbors often failed us, but the American people did not.
Beginning on January 21, 2017, when women marched on Washington in the largest single-day protest in American history and dwarfed the new president’s inauguration numbers of the previous day, more and more of us worked together to keep the dream of American democracy alive. Last November, more than 81 million of us braved the coronavirus pandemic and voter suppression to reject a divisive president who seemed bent on turning our nation into an oligarchy. By more than 7 million votes, we elected Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to take the highest offices in the land.
President Biden and Vice President Harris took their oaths of office on January 20 in a ceremony that was sparsely attended because of the pandemic, in a city that was locked down out of concerns of violence from those who tried just two weeks ago to overturn the election.
Trouble, either in Washington DC, or in state capitals across the nation, did not materialize. Over the past two weeks, law enforcement officers have tracked down and arrested the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6, and the realization that committing federal crimes brings consequences might have taken some of the wind out of rioters’ sails. Today, one of the riot’s organizers, Joseph Biggs of the far-right Proud Boys, was arrested in Florida. For their part, the Proud Boys have turned on the former president, calling him “extraordinarily weak” for leaving office, and “a total failure.”
Kamala Harris took the oath first today, becoming the first woman, the first Black person, and the first person of South Asian heritage to become a vice president. She was dressed in purple in honor of Shirley Chisholm, the seven-term New York Representative who was the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress and who ran for president in 1972. Chisholm used the colors purple and yellow in her campaign, and Harris picked them up for her own presidential bid.
Biden came next. After taking the oath, Biden delivered an inaugural address that was not simply the call for unity that he has been making for the past year. It was a call for Americans to come together to rebuild America, one that echoed that of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, when he told us: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Biden recalled the Civil War, the Great Depression, the World Wars, and the attacks of 9/11, noting that “[i]n each of these moments, enough of us came together to carry all of us forward.” He urged today’s Americans to do the same in what he called “a time of testing” that brings together great crises: “an attack on our democracy and on truth. A raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis.”
“Are we going to step up, all of us?” he asked. “It’s time for boldness, for there is so much to do. And this is certain. I promise you, we will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era…. Will we master this rare and difficult hour?”
If we do, he said, “we shall write an American story of hope, not fear. Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness. An American story of decency and dignity. Of love and of healing. Of greatness and of goodness…. The story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history. We met the moment. That democracy and hope, truth and justice, did not die on our watch but thrived.”
After the ceremony, the new president and vice president and their spouses visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, and then Biden headed to the Oval Office. “I thought there’s no time to wait. Get to work immediately,” he said.
Biden began the process of signing more than a dozen executive actions, most of which either take us back to where we were four years ago or address the coronavirus pandemic. The executive orders will enable the United States to rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accords, and revoke new oil and gas development at national wildlife monuments. They reverse Trump’s own order not to count undocumented immigrants in the census, and call for a path to citizenship for the “Dreamers,” about a million undocumented immigrants brought here as children. Biden ended the travel ban that restricted travel from Muslim-dominated countries, one of his predecessor’s signature issues. He also stopped border wall construction.
Biden established a mask mandate on federal property and by federal employees, and reorganized government coordination on the coronavirus response. He revoked his predecessor’s limits on diversity and inclusion training and took down the partisan 1776 Report that attacked progressives and whitewashed our history that was issued just two days ago.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki held her first press briefing, seven hours after the Inauguration. She began by saying: “I have deep respect for the role of a free and independent press in our democracy and for the role all of you play,” then went on to answer questions. She will hold another press conference tomorrow, saying that Biden wants to bring truth and transparency back.
“Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished,” Amanda Gorman said today. And then, she concluded her inaugural poem with a reminder of the lesson that many of us have learned over the last four years: “[T]here is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.”
Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics