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OPINION | ALYSSA ROSENBERG: A new presidential tone

by Alyssa Rosenberg The Washington Post | January 21, 2021 at 2:58 a.m.

So this is what it feels like to have a president again.

Donald Trump physically occupied the Oval Office, and commanded too much of the nation's psychic attention, for the past four years. But if the job of the president is to unify the country in good times and console it in moments of despair, then Trump barely even attempted to fill the role.

Joe Biden's conduct during his inauguration underscored the scope of the void Trump leaves behind, and how badly the nation needs someone decent to fill it. In less than 24 hours, Biden demonstrated that silence can be a greater balm than bluster, and that a national call to action can be more fortifying than an invitation to marinate in self-pity.

At a Tuesday remembrance for the more than 400,000 Americans killed by the covid-19 pandemic, the chronically long-winded Biden spoke for just under a minute, less time than it took for Michigan nurse Lori Key to sing "Amazing Grace."

Yet what he said and did carried more force than any of Trump's attempts to demagogue by blathering about the "China virus" or fantastical reassurances that the country was "'rounding the turn" on the pandemic. Instead, Biden told the country simply, "It's hard, sometimes, to remember. But that's how we heal. It's important to do that as a nation. That's why we're here today ... to remember all who we've lost."

Then, Biden, Jill Biden, Kamala Harris and Douglas Emhoff turned to the Reflecting Pool as it was surrounded with simple columns of light and remembered along with the American people. They stood there, taking on the weight of that loss as Trump would not and could not.

Even as he stepped up to fill the role of national comforter, Biden did something more audacious: He asked Americans to join him in reunifying the nation, rather than promising to fulfill that task alone.

He was realistic about the limits of himself and his office, acknowledging that "the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us."

That's a very different message from the torrents of grievance that have flowed from the White House for the past four years.

While Trump constantly lamented how "unfair" the world was to him, Biden's inaugural address emphasized "opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and, yes, the truth." While his predecessor encouraged his followers to wallow in their sense of victimization, Biden asked all Americans to tackle "this winter of peril and significant possibilities."

In the short term, what Biden offered all Americans was less comforting than what Trump dangled before his followers. In the midst of a pandemic, economic catastrophe and a wrenching confrontation with the historical sins of racism, it's hard to ask people for more fortitude and more empathy.

But Biden's request spoke to a deep faith in and respect for people Trump too often treated as mere marks in his con game. Trump's rise was possible because too many Americans have been cut adrift from the institutions that once gave them meaning. Biden's inaugural address offered everyone an opportunity to rebuild both their nation and their own self-worth.

He did so by offering his listeners not only the message that they have personal roles to play in the restoration of democracy, but also a specific argument for how to think about the American idea.

Biden countered Trump's yearning for restoring a lost period of national greatness with a vision of continuous progress. "This is a great nation," he insisted. "We are good people. And over the centuries, through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we've come so far. But we still have far to go."

Biden didn't drive that message home alone.

Country singer Garth Brooks underscored the idea of a collective responsibility when he asked Americans watching at home to join him in singing the concluding lyrics to "Amazing Grace." It was a lovely demonstration of what a chorus of voices can accomplish that even the most powerful baritone solo cannot.

And National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, in her poem "The Hill We Climb," emphasized the sentiment that the American idea is a process rather than a static object. "Being American is more than a pride we inherit," she told the nation. "It's the past we step into and how we repair it."

The magnitude of the damage Biden inherits is formidable. Having a president who grieves along with the American people doesn't erase the country's collective loss. But it is a little easier to acknowledge the scale of the burden, and to carry it a little further down the road, when a leader comes along to pick up his share.

Rosenberg writes for The Washington Post.

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