Can Biden’s inauguration ceremony really unite Americans? History suggests so

Ready for a new day
Ready for a new day
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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Only a few days after the US Capitol was the theater for a violent insurgency, the stage is being prepared for a very different event.

On Jan. 20, at noon, Joe Biden will take the oath of office and become the 46th president of the US. Kamala Harris, too, will take the oath as vice-president, and make history as the first woman—and the first Black and Asian American one—to do so.

Presidential inaugurations are big productions, and this one will be, too, although of a very different kind than usual. Where there are typically preparations for the hundreds of thousands of spectators that pour into Washington, DC, to attend the event, this time the focus is on the opposite. The city is discouraging travel because of Covid-19 concerns, and plans are in place to deploy over 20,000 National Guard troops to prevent further unrest. Important landmarks in the city will be locked, and there won’t be crowds on the National Mall, but an installation of 191,500 American flags and 56 light pillars (one for each state and territory) in their stead.

Large parts of the event will be held virtually, including an evening TV program hosted by Tom Hanks. Only 2,000 officials and guests will be at the live ceremony, which is titled after its ambitious goal: “America United.” Yet signs of how disunited the country is will be out for everyone to see, beginning with the fact that the outgoing president, for the first time in 152 years, won’t attend the ceremony, nor will he welcome his successor to the White House.

Still, can a ceremony—and a socially distanced one, at that—truly help foster some long-lost sense of unity, and trust in democratic institutions?

It can, according to Kendra Stewart, who specializes in American political history at the College of Charleston, in  South Carolina. Presidents have tried before—and some have even succeeded.

A brief history

At the core of Inauguration Day is a legal procedure: the oath of office, which is required of the president in order to serve. But though the oath could be a small, procedural affair, it never quite has been. Even at the very first inauguration, George Washington, after taking the oath—and becoming the first democratically elected head of state in modern history—addressed the crowds that had gathered under the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City.

In the 282 years and 44 presidents between Washington and Biden, the tradition has evolved. Much like the party conventions and other important political events, it now involves big theatrical elements, which have developed through the years to cater to audiences following the event first through the radio, then on TV, and finally on social media.

But while the specific program of the events might have changed—there is a significant distance between a speech delivered from a balcony to a show starring Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez—the essence hasn’t. Inauguration Day is a celebration of America’s democracy and institutions, and an opportunity for newly elected presidents to take advantage of their platform, holding the country’s attention as they speak about their plans.

It is, even in times as divided as the current one, an opportunity to address the nation as one. “It’s a PR attempt to try and bring people together, especially those who didn’t originally vote for the president,” says Stewart.

“In any governmental system, symbols, and ceremonies can be a really important way that governments establish, enhance, or hold onto power,” says Claire Wofford, a professor of political science also at the College of Charleston. “Particularly in a democracy, where power moves via procedural, peaceful means, marking that transfer with a ceremony is way to both shroud it with importance and reinforce that the power is in the process as well.”

“United America”

Presidents tend to get a boost of popularity and goodwill immediately after the inauguration, says Stewart, which through history they have tried to leverage to unite the country or help it overcome institutional crises, much like Biden hopes to do this time.

While it’s hard to think of a moment—except for the Civil War—when partisan divisions have been so deep, there have been other times when the country felt divided for other reasons, says Stewart.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, for instance, there may not have been a strong partisan division, but there was much anger and loss of faith in America, a profound disconnect between the country’s institutions and the confidence of citizens. With his historic inaugural speech, FDR outlined his “New Deal,” and began the work of gaining back the trust of his nation, and bring it together in the effort of resolve the economic crisis.

Similarly, after the nation had been consumed by the Watergate scandal and lost trust in politics, Gerald Ford gave an inaugural address in 1974 in which he famously declared that “our long national nightmare is over.” He described the speech as “not an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech—just a little straight talk among friends. And I intend it to be the first of many,” and used it as the first act of a presidency intent on healing the country.

“FDR was very effective, Ford perhaps not as effective,” says Stewart. The question is, how will Biden do?

The show must go on

History will tell, but putting on a big production despite Covid-19 and threats of violence is likely the right move. “I think a formal inauguration ceremony is as important this year as it has ever been—at least in recent memory,” says  Wofford. The vast majority of Americans, she says, will have an opportunity to be reminded that Americans still hold some common values, that their democracy is stable and functioning, and it might be entering a new, less politically virulent era.

Symbolic gestures will try to drive home the will to overcome some bipartisan divisions and move forward for the good of the country. Former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama will join Biden and Harris in honoring the Unknown Soldier, while a virtual parade will be held across the country.

In fact, the limitations imposed on this ceremony might end up enhancing its value. Visuals and symbolism are extremely powerful in enhancing the stature of a president—even when they point to current trouble, as was the case of George W Bush’s 2001 address from Ground Zero. Through the ceremony, including through the ways in which it is unprecedented, Biden can establish both the enormous challenges he is called to face, and his resolution to unite the country to rise above them.

“I completely understand why Biden wants it to happen on the steps of the Capitol, too,” says Wofford. “The symbolic power of that backdrop and his swearing-in, in full view of the public (even if via television), sends a message about both the gravity of power transfer, but also that we are more than just observers of that transfer—we are key participants.”