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Experts say Biden’s inaugural address had folksy tone, direct message and phrase that will be remembered: ‘uncivil war’

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 20, 2021

President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.  (Patrick Semansky)
President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Patrick Semansky)

President Joe Biden acknowledged the “uncivil war” festering in the United States in his first address Wednesday, but did so in a way that largely avoided the pessimism of his predecessor’s “American carnage.”

That was the assessment of political scientists, former speech writers, language and history experts who took in Biden’s speech along with millions of other Americans distanced physically from Washington, D.C., by a pandemic, but rapt because of the political turmoil that has kicked off 2021.

“He didn’t sugarcoat anything, but he did it in a very positive way,” said Hal Spencer, a former reporter and speech writer for Washington Govs. Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire.

Identifying specific challenges the country faced, many of them from within, while also reassuring the citizenry those challenges would be overcome allowed Biden to critique the previous administration without mentioning former President Donald Trump explicitly, Spencer said. The political moment also allowed Biden to address issues that illustrated societal progress, said Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington specializing in presidential politics.

“He was being very realistic about the divisions that exist and need to be overcome, the forces that are dividing us,” O’Mara said, noting Biden’s explicit mention of “white supremacy and domestic terrorism” as problems that needed to be rooted out in America.

While Trump’s inaugural speech in 2017 largely focused on external threats, arguing that businesses were fleeing the United States, permeable borders were allowing others to take the American jobs that remained and wealth was being redistributed overseas, Biden instead focused on the threats from within, including the pandemic.

Biden argued over and over that unity would be needed to defeat them, a conciliatory tone typical of inaugural addresses, but made more central and poignant by our political moment, said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

“Many of those people who were there today, (Sen.) Ted Cruz and the minority leader in the House (Rep. Kevin McCarthy), contested his election until the end,” Clayton said. “There’s a certain magnanimity on the part of Biden that those people would even be there.”

The desire to unite people, stated explicitly in the speech, was also present in the language used in the speech, said Michael Hazel, an associate professor of communication and leadership studies at Gonzaga University.

“It was simple, but by no means simplistic,” Hazel said.

Biden quoted biblical passages and referenced the works of thinkers including St. Augustine, President Abraham Lincoln and the poetry of Langston Hughes in an address calling for unity. He (and his speech writers) included such appeals alongside plain language, said Kathleen Kendall, a research professor of political communication at the University of Maryland.

“The style was also approachable. He used words like, ‘I, you, we.’ That language is not present in all speeches by political figures,” she said. “That sounds more like a conversation.”

Kendall noted the direct appeal to people who didn’t vote for Biden, and that the president asked them to “hear me out.” That’s a plain language appeal that hews closely to the words of Lincoln in 1861, a speech made a month before the outbreak of the American Civil War and an address that Biden himself called back to with an appeal to “our better angels.”

Spencer gave the speech writers high marks for relaying an important message, while also making it sound authentic coming from the president. There were many instances where Biden called back to campaign themes, particularly his pledge to represent everyone in office, not just those who voted for him.

The phrase “uncivil war,” and a pledge to work to eliminate the partisan, rural-urban and liberal-conservative divide is one that will linger, Spencer predicted.

“It was brilliant,” he said. “It’s a word you’ll hear for weeks to come.”

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