Biden’s Inauguration Speech: Empty Platitudes and (Neoliberal) Unity

Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. In his speech, he spoke very little about politics, policy, or the actual situation facing millions of people. Instead, he spoke in vague terms about the need for “democracy” and “unity” as he began his attempt to restore faith in America’s institutions.
  • Tatiana Cozzarelli and Ezra Brain | 
  • January 20, 2021
(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Shortly after the United States hit 400,000 coronavirus deaths and was rocked by a right-wing storming of the Capitol, Joe Biden was sworn in as President. In a dystopic scene, Democratic Party politicians, a priest, and celebrities performed in front of a field of flags in a highly militarized Washington, D.C., which has come to be known as “Fortress D.C.” Everyone wore masks. 

Biden’s inauguration comes in a context in which millions of people expect change and want to eradicate the ailments that affect the working class and oppressed in the United States. From putting an end to racist violence perpetrated by police departments to winning basic rights like unions, a living wage, affordable housing, and Medicare for All, millions have put their hopes of progressive reforms in Biden. Biden’s unity speech tried to hide the fact that these expectations clash with both the interests of big capital as well as Trumpism which, despite the fact that Trump has left Washington, still enjoys significant public support.

For the first time in U.S. history, the outgoing president refused to come to the inauguration. Early this morning, Donald and Melania Trump were whisked away to Florida in Air Force One. Mike Pence, however, did attend the inauguration, as the latest step in the remaking of his image and his re-acceptance into the political establishment.

The inauguration clearly attempted to highlight diversity and to superficially pander to the largest movements over the past four years: Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. Kamala Harris, the first woman and person of color to be Vice President, was sworn in by Sonya Sotomayor, the first Latina on the Supreme Court. 

Despite attempts to maintain continuity with past ceremonies, nothing about the scene was normal. The entire spectacle was all about shoring up the image of American democracy and its institutions, which were shaken by the right wing protests just a few weeks ago. 

Since then, Donald Trump and the Far Right have been disciplined and censured by both big business and the political establishment. Yesterday, Trump made a speech conceding the election and wishing Biden luck — but also promising that he “will be back in some form.” Rumor has it that Trump is trying to organize his own political party. While the Far Right has been disciplined in the short term, it isn’t going anywhere — and everything about this inauguration indicated that Biden knows it.

Biden is left to walk a fine line between a radicalized Far Right on one hand, and an increasingly progressive base in the Democratic Party on the other. In the days preceding the inauguration, his statements included some promises for progressive policies and reforms. He is set to issue executive orders stopping construction of the border wall and ending the Muslim ban, and he promised an extensive Covid-19 response, including doubling the federal minimum wage, a new vaccine program, and $1,400 checks for everyone who qualifies. 

But these policies were missing from Biden’s inauguration speech. Really, any mention of policy was missing from Biden’s inauguration speech. It was an empty speech — entirely devoid of a roadmap of what a Biden presidency will be like. It was a speech built around the glorification of American democracy and hollow calls for unity. His speech had the sole purpose of being a bucket of cold water on the fires raging over American politics. Given the extent of the pandemic and the economic crisis, this is a slap in the face to the people struggling. 

Empty Democracy and Unity

The biggest buzzword of the inauguration was “democracy” — which the establishment and the media claim has been tested and shaken by Donald Trump. In fact, Joe Biden opened his speech by saying, “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” From Master of Ceremonies Amy Klobuchar to token Republican Senator Roy Blunt, to Biden himself, every speaker hit on the “strength” of American democracy — as well as the necessity to strengthen, cherish, and reinvigorate it during the Biden presidency. This inauguration was meant to be the re-introduction of American “normalcy.” 

In his speech, Biden called for an end to what he called an “uncivil war.” He went on to say, “politics doesn’t need to be raging fire”— calling on Americans to unify despite disagreements. He promised to be a president for everyone and to listen to everyone, including Trump voters and the Far Right. This unity, to Biden, is based on history and an identity as Americans.

Ironically, Biden clearly stated, “To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America, requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity.” But indeed, words were the only thing Biden had to offer. While many presidents use their inauguration speech to point to policies they seek to pass, Biden waxed eloquently while offering absolutely nothing. He mentioned the pandemic only four times in his speech. Unity and democracy, however, were mentioned 14 and 15 times, respectively.

While Biden spoke about the fears of unemployed people, his only solution was unity and democracy. He said, “I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs. But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions…We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.” Opening our souls doesn’t pay people’s rent or put food on their tables.

The lack of content in Biden’s speech was an intentional calculation: Biden and his team know that he will have to clash with the demands of his base in order to give Wall Street what it desires. By shifting the focus away from politics and onto abstract notions of “unity,” Biden is seeking to lean into bipartisanship as a cover for the impending backtracking on his (already dismal) campaign promises. 

Another clear goal of this “unity” and “democracy” is to restore American hegemony abroad and to project the image of a strong and capable United States that is willing to lead the world once more. In this area, Biden and Trump agree: the priorities are disciplining China and lining up U.S. allies to sustain American imperialist hegemony. Biden has already announced that he will recognize Juan Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela, and Biden is taking power in the same moment that the U.S. is preparing to repress the migrant caravan from Honduras. 

Undemocratic American Democracy 

This glorification of American “democracy” is both laughable and a dangerous illusion for working class and oppressed people. As we have seen in the past few months, the institutions of American “democracy,” from the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, and the Senate, to the presidential pardon, are completely undemocratic by design. What Alexandria Ocasio Cortez calls the “citadel of democracy” was founded on the enslavement of African people, the genocide of indigenous people, colonial plunder, and the hyper-exploitation of the working class.  Biden is not interested in creating a more democratic system, but rather in re-legitimizing the institutions that have been tarnished by the Trump years. By framing the past few months as a triumph for democracy over Trump and the Far Right, he both paints Trump as an anomaly and sets himself up to strengthen the repressive power of the state in his attacks against the Far Right. 

The concept of unity is being deployed intentionally and cynically. Biden will certainly call for unity against “divisive” politics, like demanding our basic rights: the right to healthcare or a clean environment in which to live. He is looking for a bipartisan consensus, which surely means that any concessions that Biden does offer will be the result of great pressure exerted by his social base that has already  shown its willingness to mobilize in the streets.  

A Tenuous Unity 

Biden’s hyperfocus on democracy and unity reveals what a weak presidency he is set up to have. For a country in economic, political, and health crisis, Joe Biden brings empty platitudes. Why? Because he’s trying desperately to hold together an anti-Trump coalition that brought him to the presidency and that expanded as Trump became more erratic and leaned into the conspiratorial white supremacist Far Right. 

Biden was elected by a broad coalition that included everyone from George W. Bush to Bernie Sanders and leading members of the DSA. He was the Wall Street favorite, despite some capitalist trepidation over too much spending. He was able to weave together this coalition with the one promise on display today: that he would re-legitimize American institutions, calm the tumultuous political terrain, and bring about stability so that capitalism and imperialism can continue to function as usual. His central promise: nothing will fundamentally change. 

And that’s what was on display at his inauguration. But the problem is that millions of people want change — in fact, millions of people need change, not just as a result of the newest economic crisis and pandemic, but after years of attacks against the working class and oppressed. Nearly half a million have already lost their lives. And these masses may clash with the Biden administration.

Biden is attempting to use the carrot of unity and the stick of the Far Right’s attacks on democracy to keep his coalition behind him in the coming period. But the cracks are already beginning to show. Biden promised $2000 checks, but now will only provide $1,400. This angered much of his progressive voters, and drew criticism from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. On the other hand, The Wall Street Journal, the press of big capital criticized the measure, saying he was spending too much. This is indicative of the pressures on Biden’s presidency. Instead of using his inauguration speech to buckle down on a comprehensive and ambitious plan to get the U.S. out of the crisis, he offered nothing but hollow words and platitudes. This doesn’t bode well for pushing through any major reforms: it’s not even that he’ll break promises. He’s hardly even making them.  

The road ahead for Biden seems rocky. He has promised to issue a plethora of executive orders in the next 24 hours, many of which offer much-needed progressive reforms. However, these executive orders will just be crumbs intended to sate the appetite of the millions who are in deep need because of the current crisis. Because the truth of the matter is that, as his speech revealed, Biden has no real solutions to help the working class in the current crisis. 

Sure, in the next few weeks and months he may very well give concessions, but as Biden’s speech demonstrated today, he is no champion of reform. If we want change, we will have to fight for it. Biden and the Democrats want us to sit back and trust that, under their leadership,  all will be well. But both history and the current moment shows this to be a lie. We cannot trust this party of capital to protect the working class any more than we can trust any other party of capital. We must organize and fight both for our demands and against Biden’s coming attacks. 

The fragile bourgeois unity that was created by the assault on the Capitol actually presents an opportunity for the working class and the oppressed. Millions are hungry for change. This may encourage the working class and the anti-racist movement not to sit back and wait for politicians to negotiate for their rights. They may decide to win their demands in the streets. The Left must be a factor in the reorganization of the working class and the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement; it is time to promote a great national movement that takes the path of mobilization and the unification of all struggles, so that all the grievances and hardships imposed on the working class, Black people and all people of color, immigrants, women, the LGBTQ+ community become a single cry to conquer all our demands. This is a first step in creating the conditions for a struggle that can go far, a struggle aimed at challenging bipartisan imperialism and tearing out this rotten system from its roots.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.
Ezra Brain

Ezra Brain

Ezra is a NYC based theatre artist and teacher.

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