As I gathered my family to watch the historic swearing in of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the occasion took on a surreal feeling. There were Barack and Michelle Obama, looking like they hadn’t aged a day. And there was George W. Bush, elbowing hello to his old friends. And the Clintons, who in some ways, never seem to have left Washington DC.
It was a throwback to an earlier era, an era before “American carnage.” Gone was the anger and division. No one suggested America needed to be made great again. The air of fraught anxiety had lifted. Even the US Capitol building didn’t show the scars of its insurrection just two weeks ago.
If not for the masks, and the modest number of assembled guests, it could have been a scene from a decade ago.
It was almost as if none of it really happened. Except, of course it did. The last four years have tattooed a trauma on so many Americans, and it won’t fade overnight. There’s healing to do, and Biden has a long journey ahead. But at least for an hour or so at the United States Capitol, there was finally a much-needed respite from the madness, the moment of demarcation that will forever be 2020 — nostalgia for the before, and hopefulness in the after.
SE Cupp is a CNN political commentator.
Van Jones: We just hit the biggest reset button in history
On Inauguration Day, we witnessed the triumph of American democracy.
This month we’ve seen two very different symbols in the Capitol. On January 6, we watched insurrectionists strut through that building with the Confederate flag.
Now here we are. Just two weeks later, Kamala Harris got sworn in as vice president — the first woman and third person of color to do so.
So, whose century is it? Does it belong to the people who are trying to recapture something they’ve lost? Or is there something new happening?
I believe it’s the latter.
Are there cracks? Absolutely. Is there division? Of course. But let’s be clear: we just hit the biggest reset button in history. After four years of horror, America just got a gigantic beauty download. And beauty matters. It heals.
Every person in a position of power knows they’re talking to a different country today than they were yesterday. And for those who spent the last four years spewing nonsense, they know they can no longer do it and get away with it. They feel constrained by what they just saw, and the fact that — from Silicon Valley to Black voters in the South — this country stuck together. We want something different.
Today we heard our President, Joe Biden, speak from the depth of his soul. There was not one part of his speech that didn’t feel like medicine. He acknowledged and honored the cry for racial justice, 400 years in the making. He reached out to young people and people who are suffering. He promised to be a President for all Americans.
Best of all: while this Inauguration is historic and full of firsts, the day has felt refreshingly normal. After surviving the past four years, boring is the new thrilling.
Van Jones, a CNN host, is the CEO of the REFORM Alliance, a criminal justice organization
Jill Filipovic: ‘If only we are brave enough to be it’
It was an inauguration like none in living memory. There was a big first: The first woman, first African American and first Asian American was sworn in as Vice President. And there was a stark challenge: to inaugurate a new president at a moment of profound national vulnerability, after our democracy barely survived a domestic attack and when over 400,000 Americans did not survive a deadly virus.
President Joe Biden met the challenge.
Watching the pomp of the inaugural tradition, I was struck by the new meaning carried by the same words we hear every four years. When Lady Gaga performed the Star-Spangled Banner and sang, “and our flag was still there,” my heart caught in my throat — what a thing to take for granted, that our flag would always be there; what a call to gratitude, to note that yes, even after a mob tore down the stars and stripes and tried to replace it with the banner of an authoritarian, today, our nation’s flag flies.
We did not have a peaceful transition of power. But we did transition from an administration that ruled with vindictiveness, cruelty and prejudice to one that leads with sincerity, optimism and openness. Yes, inaugurations are performances. But this one told the world that while America was bowed by the Trump administration and by attacks from his supporters, we remain, as inaugural poet Amanda Gorman put it, “A nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”
As Gorman read her extraordinary poem, “The Hill We Climb,” she embodied the best of America: “A skinny black girl, descended from slaves,” she said, who dreamed of being president and was on stage to inaugurate one. A young woman who understands that this nation was not made perfect, but believes we can make it better. As the relief and ceremony of today recedes and the real work begins, her final lines offer a kind of North Star to orient us as we walk out of the darkness:
There is always light.
If only we are brave enough to see it.
If only we are brave enough to be it.
Scott Jennings: I’m a Republican and I’m glad for today
As a conservative Republican, I am under no illusion that I’ll be happy with most of what Joe Biden does as President. A few of his expected executive orders and appointments have already given me great concern that his calls for unity are just words to cover up an unwillingness to say no to the more fringe left elements of his base.
But as an American, I am glad for today as it showed, ultimately, that our system held. It was strained, particularly in the last few weeks by Donald Trump’s disgraceful handling of the post-election period, but we now have a new President, a new Congress and a chance, as we do every two years, to begin anew following a free and fair election.
There is relative equilibrium in Washington, with a tilt to the Democrats. Despite not controlling anything, though, Republicans do have an important role to play in guiding the country’s future. There is an urgent need for both parties to unify over two things: distributing the coronavirus vaccine to as many Americans as possible, as fast as possible, and standing against the scourge of political violence.
These are crucial matters. We can’t get back to normal life in America unless we get the vaccine to her people, and our democracy will be further imperiled if we look the other way when anyone — anyone — participates in or incites violence as a means to subverting the will of the people. We are all in this together, and that means accepting that our electoral system produces winners… and losers. It is an urgent matter for all Republicans to hear this message: we lost, but we can win again as long as we let go of the conspiracy theories that have driven too many people absolutely bonkers.
I wish President Joe Biden well and pray for his success. And I hope for a Republican Party that becomes a loyal opposition and presents itself as a viable, responsible governing alternative in the coming elections, even as it helps President Biden tackle the clear and present dangers to the American way of life.
Roxanne Jones: ‘Joy comes in the morning’
“This is the first time in four years I’ve felt like wearing red, white and blue,” my neighbor Pat, a daughter of Kentucky, told me as we watched the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris together.
I know exactly how she felt. For so many years now, I’ve been angry at America. Ashamed of my country. Disgusted at the unrelenting hate and ignorance many of us have spread around the world.
But watching the inauguration today, I had so many reasons to be happy and full of pride for my nation. I’m proud of the record numbers of Americans who turned out to vote, despite the deadly risk of Covid-19. Proud to see Vice President Kamala Harris, our first woman and first Black Vice President.
Watching record numbers of Black Americans who when confronted with unimaginable horrors and injustice, refused to be intimidated and who instead, used their power to sway the presidential election — that makes my heart proud. Together, we even shifted the balance of power in the US Senate. We stood up, spoke up, ran for office and convinced our allies and people around the world that Black lives must matter. That equal justice must matter.
Today a majority of Americans rejected the politics of White power and insurrectionist ideas. And for the first time in four years, I’m comfortable sitting down with my White neighbor from Kentucky and singing “Amazing Grace” together with hope in our hearts for America.
“Weeping may endure in the night, but joy comes in the morning,” President Biden said, quoting from the Bible, in his inaugural speech.
Raul A. Reyes: What made this inauguration so moving
Biden pledged to “fight as hard for those who did not support [him] as for those who did.” This olive branch of healing seemed especially gracious given his predecessor’s refusal to participate in the normal rituals surrounding the peaceful transfer of power.
Sarah Isgur: Biden invited Americans of faith to revisit his political party
But as Christian nationalism has seized the Republican Party, Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th President sought to emphasize the theme of unity — and was filled with what could almost be heard as a repeated invitation for Americans of faith to revisit his political party.
Peniel Joseph: Biden’s hopes for America are revelatory. Now the world waits for deeds
The inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States promises a new birth of American freedom. Race proved central to Biden’s inauguration address — as it should be. He quoted President Abraham Lincoln twice and became the first president to ever acknowledge White supremacy in an inaugural address. “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge,” said Biden. One that could only be met through unity and national purpose.
“This is democracy’s day, a day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve,” Biden observed. He touted his victory as not a personal one, but as a reflection of the power of American democracy. Biden acknowledged the White riot at the nation’s Capitol as a preface to words that called Americans to an aspirational citizenship — bold enough to defeat the forces of racial and political division that have threatened so many of us under the Trump administration.
Biden celebrated the historic election of Vice President Kamala Harris as proof that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. He spoke of the ongoing devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic, but never lost the thread of racial justice, noting in a reference to a poem by Langston Hughes that “the dream of racial justice will be deferred no longer” and observing that the rise of “White supremacy” and racial terror would be confronted and defeated. Biden echoed the words of President Abraham Lincoln in his vow that his “whole soul” would be committed to national political unity.
Such unity must be based on listening to one another, respecting political disagreement, rejecting conspiracy theories and the spread of lies and false narratives that have undermined democracy.
The President’s stirring introduction of his personal and political hopes for the nation centered empathy, respect and understanding in a speech that placed the struggle for racial justice as the beating heart of America’s wounded democracy. The President’s words proved revelatory and compassionate. Now the nation awaits deeds to make those hopes real.
David Gergen: Biden’s strong interior can right the ship
Perhaps in the flow of relief as Joe Biden took the reins today, I am in a bit of a swoon. But I came away from his inaugural address thinking we may finally have a president who can pull us back from the brink. There is something about the man that is compelling — the fire in his soul, his humility, his clear moral purpose.
Most political leaders develop a strong exterior. Biden is one of the few who has cultivated a strong interior.
David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents of both parties and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-founded its Center for Public Leadership.
Nicole Hemmer: From a bleak backdrop, Biden spun out threads of hope
The backdrop could not have seemed bleaker: the event ringed by the National Guard, the crowd shrunk by the Covid-19 pandemic, the echoes of the insurrection still vibrating through the Capitol. And yet, the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris could not have been a more hopeful event.
Julian Zelizer: This was the opposite of the American Carnage speech
During his inaugural address, President Joe Biden defined his agenda as an effort to preserve, protect and strengthen the foundation of our political system. “This is democracy’s day,” the President said. For Biden, this day is about the “cause of democracy.” He vowed to be a president for “all Americans.”
The most important element of his promise came down to unity. President Biden promised that he would listen to everyone and that, even when people disagreed, it was necessary to have conversations. That is how democracy works. The inaugural address followed through on the major themes that have defined his entire run for office. He wants to tell a story of unity and not division.
“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path,” Biden said. “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.”
To achieve this goal, the President faces an awesome task ahead. He will have to contend with a radicalized Republican Party that will have little interest in negotiation, let alone compromise. As he saw on January 6, and during the Obama years, the modern Republican Party has shifted far to the right and most leaders are not willing to break from the party line. They have engaged in a level of toxic, smashmouth partisanship that renders Biden’s style of governing difficult to achieve.
He also must preside in a media ecosystem that has created too much room for sensationalism, partisan journalism and falsehood. In a world of fragmented and uncontrolled information, it won’t be easy getting out his message. The space that we depend on to obtain our facts about politics does not unite us; it stokes division.
Can a president transform the basic institutional dynamics of American politics? The odds are low. But at least, unlike his predecessor, this President wants to give it a try. This was the opposite of his predecessor’s American Carnage speech. After the horrific events of January 6, this should be welcome relief to all Americans who want to get us to a better place.
Frida Ghitis: America’s recent trials only strengthened Biden’s message
President Joe Biden — those very words sound soothing to me– is now in office after the longest four years in Americans’ living memory. In this unique match of man and moment, the American people finally have reason to hope. Biden’s inaugural speech and the entire ceremony embodied a welcomed promise of truth, kindness, decency, competence and selflessness that was so painfully absent from the outgoing administration’s White House.
Biden’s speech was down to Earth, genuine. It wasn’t flowery or pretentious; it was sincere and moving. “This is democracy’s day,” he declared, and who could disagree after the country managed to survive a coup attempt in that same building exactly two weeks before? This, after the outgoing president tried to overturn the result of a democratic election.
Lanhee J. Chen: Biden’s call to end ‘uncivil war’ was what the nation needed
America needed this day. The pomp and circumstance of the inaugural proceedings reminds us that despite a deadly pandemic, racial strife, political disagreement and a deadly mob whose goal was to prevent inauguration from happening, we can still come together to celebrate and honor the peaceful transition of power in our democracy. Today was a celebration of our national story. It wasn’t a celebration that sought to cover over all the problems we face as a country, or one that ignored the painful days we’ve been through. But it was an occasion for us to take a collective breath as a nation and look ahead toward what we all hope are better days to come.
Joe Biden gave a unifying speech that I will remember for his call to “end this uncivil war” that threatens to tear our country apart. If our new president is able to do as he says and restore even some respect to the very real debates we are sure to have with one another, he will have been a success.
I will not agree with many of the policies that Joe Biden will embrace as president. But, as he noted, this disagreement does not have to make us disagreeable. Indeed, I pray earnestly that President Biden will be able to achieve what he promised to do in his inaugural address: to bring us together, lead us out of this dim chapter in our nation’s history, and to be a president for all Americans.
Lanhee J. Chen is the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution and Director of Domestic Policy Studies in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University. He served as policy director to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and senior adviser to Marco Rubio’s campaign in 2016.
Paul Begala: With Biden, we can dare to dream of a united America
A faithful Catholic, Joe Biden began his day by going to mass with congressional leaders from both parties. Today is the Second Wednesday of Ordinary Time in the church’s liturgical calendar. This means we are past the Christmas season, and not yet approaching Easter. But most Americans, no doubt, are hoping that we are in fact entering, if not ordinary time, perhaps a less tragic, less turbulent, less trying time.
President Joseph Biden is the embodiment of Ernest Hemingway’s maxim that, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” He has buried a wife and an infant daughter, then an adult son. He has come back from two failed presidential campaigns, and humiliating defeats early on in the 2020 caucuses and primaries. And he is stronger at the broken places. Another son of Scranton, the late Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey, Sr., who had known his share of setbacks, used to tell me, “the view from the canvas is highly educational.” And Biden got a Ph.D. on the canvas.
In her remarkable speech to the Democratic convention last summer, Dr. Jill Biden told us how being tempered by tragedy prepared her husband for the terrible challenges of our time: “How do you make a broken family whole?” she asked. “The same way you make a nation whole: with love and understanding, and with small acts of kindness, with bravery, with unwavering truth.”
All of those qualities — love and understanding, kindness, bravery and unwavering truth — were present in Bident’s magnificent, magnanimous inaugural address. Speaking with energy, conviction and optimism, Biden made a powerful case for unity, pledging, “My whole soul is in this.”
I believe him. And with Biden’s battle-scarred soul in this, I think the rest of us can dare to dream of a reunited States of America. That would truly make the Biden era an extraordinary time.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House.
Tara Setmayer: The work to repair America begins today
What a difference four years can make.
I, like many Americans and allies around the world, breathed a sigh of relief on this historic day as the country turned the page on the era of Trump’s “American carnage” to begin a new chapter in the American story. As newly sworn in President Biden reiterated in his inauguration speech, it’s a story of “hope, not fear, of unity not division, of light not darkness.”
Biden, at his best a unifier, struck all the right notes as he acknowledged the challenges we face as a country, but also reminded us of the resilience not only of the American people, but also of our democracy itself. He rightly called out the ills of racial injustice, public indecency and untruths and vowed that such forces of darkness would not prevail. Biden reminded us that positive change is possible as he acknowledged the powerful impact of Kamala Harris’ role as the first woman Vice President. This is a moment every American should be incredibly proud of, regardless of what side of the aisle you stand on.
The Biden administration is faced with much to repair, but it’s the responsibility of we the people to preserve and protect our fragile democracy. It may have triumphed this time, but it’s up to us to keep it. That work begins anew today.
John Avlon: President Biden’s defense of democracy in America
Standing in front of the Capitol building which was attacked by insurrectionists two weeks ago, President Joe Biden offered a defiant defense of democracy and American unity in a time of division.
“This is democracy’s day, a day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve,” Biden declared in a clear vigorous voice. It was an inaugural address that was a lifetime in the making but tailored to the massive challenges of our time.
“I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new,” Biden said. “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.” These conflicts between good and evil have taken different forms in different ages, but America has always ultimately forged a more perfect union by listening to the better angels of our nature.
Armed with “history, faith and reason,” he promised to lead by example toward the “the way of unity…the most elusive of all things in a democracy.” He repeated his signature campaign pledge to be “a president for all Americans,” cautioning that “disagreement must not lead to disunion.”
Like all great inaugurals, it was an optimistic speech rooted in the new President’s values. Biden spoke as a middle-class man of faith, armed with a half century of experience in government, animated by the belief that America can be both great and good. Declaring that we will “defend the truth and defeat the lies,” Biden sought to summon the civic and spiritual force of the United States toward the intense array of challenges we face: from disinformation proliferation to the persistence of White supremacy (which gained its first mention in an inaugural address) to the pandemic which has already killed more than 400,000 Americans and still rages. In this “winter of peril and significant possibilities,” Biden promised no quick fixes but instead the power of steady and honest leadership, committed to the common good.
For a country and a Capitol that just endured the most serious domestic attack on our democracy in generations, Biden’s inaugural was met with an almost palpable sense of bipartisan relief by most elected officials in Washington. We now move forward into a new day, together – not naïve about the challenges we face but newly rededicated to the proposition that all Americans are created equal, knowing that our democracy endures and presidential leadership matters. Now the real work of healing — and governing — begins.
John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst.