“Presidential”: An Inaugural Response From A Reluctant Biden Supporter

As the country prepared for the historic swearing-in of Kamala Harris, its first woman, first Black, and first South Asian Vice President; and Joseph Biden as its 46th President; the outgoing President Donald Trump used the opportunity of his farewell address to continue to never say the incoming President and Vice President’s names; and instead make preemptive “I told you so” statements and threaten rather than promise that he and his cronies will be back in power “in some form” soon.

A display that, unlike the pageantry that later unfolded on the National Mall, we should (yet still, some will insist on not) all agree was decidedly “Un-Presidential”.

People did, however, spend much of the day across social media and news media using the term “Presidential” to describe Joe Biden.

To his great credit, in his inaugural address the President did eloquently mention head-on some of the real and immediate problems we face; but most often he used his time to invoke “unity” and “civility” above all else.

In the wake of his remarks, as he takes up the reins of leadership in a nation driving itself toward a terrible precipice, it is ideas like “unity”, “civility”, “being presidential”, and “building back” —and what is signaled when these things are said — upon which we urgently need to think.

When people say Biden’s address struck them as “Presidential” it can be assumed that those saying so mean they feel he seems reliable, honest, straightforward, projecting authority, dignity, and leadership.

Among his remarks yesterday, President Biden said:

“Through civil war, the Great Depression, world war, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice and setbacks, our better angels have always prevailed. In each of these moments, enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward. And we can do that now. History, faith and reason show the way, the way of unity. We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace — only bitterness and fury. No progress — only exhausting outrage. No nation — only a state of chaos.”

“With unity, we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome the deadly virus. We can reward, reward work, and rebuild the middle class and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice and we can make America once again the leading force for good in the world.”

and:

“And so today at this time in this place, let’s start afresh, all of us. Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”

There is a lot in there that genuinely sounds appealing, hopeful and sincere. It’s been so long since we’ve heard a President be those things that it’s almost overwhelming. So many of us are drained and devastated after the last four years. Can’t we just try to find common ground and move on? Is that so unreasonable to ask?

The thing is, if Biden is in fact “Presidential”, as in, “embodying the qualities established by the collective words, actions, and traits of past Presidents” then, while perhaps reassuring in some senses, at a time when trust so desperately matters, by past precedent also makes him not entirely reliable or trustworthy to those of us Americans in historically marginalized groups, who are working class, who are poor or homeless.

For historically, being “Presidential” in both the performative and substantive aspects of projecting those qualities tends to mean a lot of empty words and unfulfilled promises spoken about our struggles, but spoken past us; sacrificing those above-mentioned groups upon the altar of the comfort of the straight, cis, white, upper-middle and upper classes whom their words (often invoking as props those of us that do not fall into all, or any, of those categories) are truly meant for.

His address yesterday continues to show —while dressed up with all the right mentions and platitudes to achieve maximal credibility and appeal with supporters on the left and conservative Republicans alike — that no matter how nicely we dress it up, the form of “healing” and “unity” he’s asking us all to buy into still always comes at the expense of groups of Americans who have just openly suffered for years at the hands of many of whom President Biden is now actively courting with his unity rhetoric.

President Biden has repeatedly signaled, and by his inaugural address reaffirmed, that he plans to drive his agenda around his idea of “Building Back Better”. After yesterday’s speech it is clear we need to never stop asking “Back to what, exactly?”

He and his team are quick to counter critique of that slogan by saying of course they acknowledge things weren’t always good; but even using such a phrase in the first place fundamentally sets a tone, intentionally or not, that all too clearly indicates problems and lack of understanding of how deep those issues run and how immediate and real the cost of the is; and how critical it is to stop orienting ourselves as a nation to solely looking backward toward overly-idealized versions of the past.

Some, from regular citizens up to and including top Democrat leadership, are shouting “Give him a chance to govern before you criticize”. That may seem on the surface like a reasonable ask.

True, his early agenda holds some promising and swift acts in terms of triaging a variety of pressing crises.

It is almost certain that throughout his time in office he will do a number of things that will appeal even to those of us further left already exhausted with the failings of neoliberalism, and those with long enough memories to recall how things often go under Democratic rule.

But when candidate, and now President, Biden has used his platform repeatedly for insisting upon “moving on together” in the same breath as scolding and reprimanding other politicians and concerned voters from within his own party and support base voicing their needs and concerns, it does not inspire great confidence that he is indeed prepared to prioritize need over comfort.

It is, it turns out, kind of a bad look to be a centrist repeatedly telling those in socially/politically/economically marginalized groups that have just paid, and will continue to pay, the lion’s share of the cost of what has happened in our country that they’re the ones being unreasonable for holding an incoming administration’s feet to the fire on life or death issues; and that what we really need is to hear the other side.

For many, it’s easy to look back on the past (either recent or distant) as a nostalgic, less-troubled golden age; but for millions of Americans that “golden age” was just as full of systemic injustice, poverty, racism, homophobia, misogyny, sexism, income inequality, lack of protection for workers rights, lack of access to essential services, issues surrounding where we drew the lines and limits of government and corporate interaction, and many other past issues that remain ever-present concerns.

People of late often say that “things have just gotten more and more divisive” since those “glory days” so fondly being pined for.

That’s certainly an easier, more palatable interpretation of the state of things to believe than that even when it was good for some (including those politicians now waxing poetic about the days of “bipartisanship”) that it was always actually quite bad here for way more people than we’re often comfortable talking about.

A prime difference between “The Good Old Days” and now was that for those in power, and for a majority of voters that elected them (a base that historically was more often than not comprised of far fewer marginalized voices), it was easier to ignore and disregard the experiences of people to whom everything from schoolbooks and national myths to popular media gave little voice at best.

Now, many more people have —thanks to new technology, gradual, still-evolving changes in representation in media and culture, and decades and decades of hard thankless work, often by un-or-underappreciated BIPOC and women — found the means to give themselves platforms to be heard from; even if no one else will grant them.

Despite those elevated voices constantly crying out to the contrary, there persists an almost religious level of Democratic Party devotion toward treating everything as a mere intellectual debate to be had and ideological gap to be politely bridged rather than hills many of us are actively, literally, dying upon.

The stance of Democratic politics which President Biden is again signaling he represents is one of telling people who are on fire that it is fundamentally up to them to appeal to the people who set them on fire in the first place to now help put the fire out; and then to please pretend it never happened for the comfort and convenience of everyone looking on from the sidelines.

He adheres to the sacrosanct nature of an ideal of unity that has never truly existed in any way except in national mythmaking; and swearing by the wildly misguided notion that we all have more in common than we have in terms of differences from each other. Insisting that surely, fundamentally, we must all be decent people deep down. Making appeals to “the Better Angels” within those across the aisle who are always, always willing to play a far more any-means-necessary —and sadly, often far more effective — game than Democrats play.

The cumulative impact of these attitudes and appeals are all no small part of how we got to the historic displays of naked, blatant injustice, inequity, discrimination, and open class warfare we saw on display over the last four years. The centrists among elected Democrats over decades have been complicit in constructing our present circumstances as well, and they need to own it; not say that calls for accountability and changes approach within and without are “too divisive”.

We’ve watched as Democrats have built their platforms again and again upon sweeping under the rug, or putting a nice new coat of paint over anything that might reveal the true nature of the divides in our country; insisting that the better angels will prevail eventually if we give them enough time, if we can just get them to see it out way. Ever working to appeal to notions of “unity” and “order” that don’t in function actually ever resemble either of those things at all.

President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and other less progressive leaders on the left have repeatedly favored making condescending, sweeping generalizations about people and views from within their own party that don’t suit their centrism rather than engaging with the points they disagree with in good faith.

It’s much more expeditious and desirable if they can convince you that everyone to the left of them is a “Bernie Bro” or an entitled (and conveniently for them, endlessly infantilized in media) millennial who doesn’t understand how the world really works.

To convince you people are too “intense”, “loud”, and “brash” to be taken seriously, such as they like to paint people like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. (which, whether they intend it or not always reads as more than a little dog whistle-y when repeatedly leveled at progressive women of color).

To make a show of empty placation toward racial, sexual, or gender minorities whom they deeply feel for but could they just please be a little more polite and patient about everything for another 50–60 or so years when the arc of progress will have finally gotten around to bending toward justice, we promise.

All of this is a faster and easier — and importantly, incredibly successfully sellable to their base — approach than having to truly grapple with how to go about legitimately justifying their entrenched opposition to substantive reform and new legislation which people desperately need them to lead the way with. Make grand speeches about the parts that make you feel good again, steamroll over the parts that don’t.

It is, however, hard to be made to feel good again about the issues plaguing our country at present. They are like a deep, slowly festering cancer that’s been allowed to run unchecked for so long that there’s no easy way to excise it. Is there still a chance that we survive it? Yes. Is our prognosis good? No.

There is no clean, quick healing from that, no going “back”. There is no resuming “normalcy” as if the fact that people you live near and work with aren’t by the millions ascribing to ideology driven by a genuine political doomsday cult and literally worshipping one of the —if not the — most hateful and corrupt people to ever sit in our country’s highest office.

There is no clear line to “unity” to be had, no true path forward without accountability and a massive collective cultural cult deprogramming effort unlike anything seen in our history.

There is no unity to be had with those who genuinely want us to be killed for not being like them. There is —and this should not be a controversial statement, yet here we are — no unity to be had with actual Nazis.

It is unreasonable to ask that we “unite despite our political differences” with those that see us as subhuman and desire to push us ever further aside or outright kill us, as if “political differences” are all that they are.

We would all be served far better if instead of making rose-tinted claims about the past and invoking “unity” by way of building false peace and stability attained through letting ourselves be tone-policed and shepherded from on high by our nation’s “Better Angels” (there’s that phrase again…) and by choosing to not hold to people accountable for what they have done to create this crisis, he had instead said something along the lines of:

“I ask you to help me reunite our country. But in doing so, it is time we redefine what is meant by National Unity; not just in the wake of Donald Trump but also in the wake of our recent and longstanding failures as a nation; moving forward, never backward, toward a more truly just, truly equitable future for all of us. It is time that we reach a place of recovering and healing from our darkest divides, yes; but that way is a path forward, not backward, to a new and better normal. One paved by insisting upon accountability and responsibility and obligation just as much, or more so, than by merely finding within us our own compassion and grace and understanding alone.”

Saying something like that; and then actually doing something significant, necessary, and (dare it be said) radical, about it.

“Okay, well…What is that, then?” one may ask.

And that… is a great question. One that does in fact require quite a substantial national discussion

But if that’s going to happen, it needs to be a discussion.

One that doesn’t begin with lecturing, talking over, or talking down about unearned forgiveness and reconciliation to the people beyond his core base who helped elect Joe Biden. A coalition of desperate need and necessity; one which in his victory speech several months ago seemed to misinterpret as indicating a clear and enthusiastic mandate from the disparate groups he emphatically name-dropped in that speech.

The success of this discussion and any resulting action requires all of the different kinds of people this country has repeatedly failed not to be the ones left paying the bill yet again at the end of the process.

It also requires that President Biden not just insist we must either trust him, or at least stay out of his way.

He and the Democrats must earn trust, not simply being inherently better than Trump, but by changing that distrust of what being “Presidential” as in “like a past President” means to too many of us; and instead build our trust by also mutually trusting that we’ve done a lot of the work already and often probably know what we need better than he does.

Trust is a two way street.

There is a long-standing unfortunate trend of white Americans misquoting/incompletely quoting/quoting in wildly revisionist context Dr. Martin Luther King, JR.; a notable Black revolutionary whom mere days ago we as a nation “honored” the Civil Rights work and anti-capitalist, pro-socialist spirit of by invoking his name in countless sales and marketing opportunities.

But here, brilliant as always in his words, he had something to say that now, as President Biden proceeds to bet the farm on an unattainable and unreasonably purchased version of “unity” and “healing” for the next four years, is as relevant as it was in King’s day. Relevant both for the racial injustice it was addressing then and applicable across today’s “white moderate” political platform writ large:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”

That form of white moderate politics is what the sort of “unity” and “building back” President Biden preached yesterday looks like.

Mr. President, we urge you: please, please build forward better.