Virtually every day when I was a boy, we heard a snippet of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in Peace Corps advertisements: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” It summed up an ethos that sounds almost quaint today when confidence in political institutions has declined and patriotism sounds like a pretext for mere self-interested power. The idealism of the early 1960s, which Kennedy sought to encourage, quickly gave way to urban racial unrest and a costly, unwinnable war in Vietnam later in that turbulent decade.
The 46th U.S. president, Joseph Robinette Biden, comes to the White House during another time of unrest in America. The past 12 months have seen one more series of race riots, nearly a full year of quarantine, and a failed attempt to seize the Capitol by a mob that Donald Trump himself had encouraged. The 18th-century architects of the Constitution anticipated opposition between the executive and legislative branches, but nothing like what we saw last month.
While Trump is now gone from the White House, he still commands the loyalty of a huge portion of the electorate who believe his unsubstantiated claim that the election was stolen. Biden thus comes to office facing an obstacle that few if any of his predecessors had to confront. In his inaugural address, he emphasized his desire to bring Americans together across the seemingly intractable divisions in the body politic: “I will be a president for all Americans . . .. And I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.” A grand way to start off.
As the second Roman Catholic president, who had attended mass earlier in the day, he even cited St. Augustine’s City of God that a nation is defined by shared loves. And while he missed the great church father’s point that the love of God must come before any other loves, Biden nevertheless pointed to what he understands to be the best virtues around which to unite, especially the truth.
I’ve often said that an American president must function as both king and prime minister, and that few have played each role equally well. I believe that Biden’s address was a suitably regal speech, laudably attempting to unite a divided nation – something that his immediate predecessor seemed altogether incapable of doing. But what sort of prime minister will he make? Presidential promises to bridge divisions too often falter over the reality of divisive policies pursued in the Oval Office and in Congress. And these will inevitably hamper his efforts towards unity.
Historically Biden has been a moderate Democrat, shunning the more radical elements in his own party. But over the decades he has also shown himself to be flexible, or, to put the matter more negatively, irresolute, changing his convictions as the times and his party appear to demand. This makes Biden’s actual discharge of his duties somewhat difficult to predict. Will he expand and harden the Democrats’ non-discrimination regime, even at the expense of religious liberty? Or will he refrain from unduly interfering in the institutions of civil society and the standards they maintain as part of their core identities? How he approaches this will determine whether he is genuinely capable of reaching out to his political opponents.
Even Kennedy, for all his inspiring rhetoric of service to his country, saw his popularity slide during 1963 – something that Americans quickly forgot after his untimely death. Because Biden is burdened with an electorate more divided than that which Kennedy faced in 1961, his job becomes that much more difficult. We shall see whether Biden is equal to the challenge.