Biden addresses unity and white supremacy at inauguration. Empathy is his ‘natural octave,’ says Michele Norris

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Joe Biden took the oath of office today to become the 46th president of the United States. It was an unprecedented transition of power. The pomp and circumstance was dimmed by the pandemic. Former President Trump boycotted the inauguration by spending his last minutes in office at Mar-a-Lago. 

It was also unprecedented because of Kamala Harris — the first woman, first African American, and first South Asian to become vice president. 

Past presidents united behind the Biden administration. The Obamas, Clintons, and Bushes all attended, along with the former Vice President Mike Pence.

In his inaugural address, Biden emphasized unifying this country and ending what he called an uncivil war: “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes.” 

Biden also said, “Here we stand just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground. It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not ever.”

Michele Norris, Washington Post columnist and former NPR host, tells KCRW, “While he called for unity, I don’t think that anyone should expect that people are going to lock arms and start singing ‘kumbaya.’ What I think he is basically asking is that people figure out how to work together from opposing sides and try to put points on the board in terms of legislation.” 

Norris points out another part of Biden’s speech that stood out: “I will be a president for all Americans. All Americans. And I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.” She says this is a direct contrast to the Republicans onstage and the previous administration. 

“I'm wondering if there ever has been a president in an inaugural address who addressed white supremacy right out of the gate. … In my mind, I've never heard that before. And that speaks to the challenge of trying to create something close to unity in our country.”

David M. Kennedy, history professor Stanford, says there are two things the president/national leadership can do: “The federal government needs to demonstrate that it can be a competent government that can deliver the goods, not least of all, improving the speed and reach of the COVID vaccine rollout. ... That kind of thing would go a long way to restoring the public's confidence in government.” 

He continues, “We've been living with the legacy of a line uttered in Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address for the last 40 years when he said government is not the solution, government is the problem. And that's kept the long shadow over us, I think, for two generations. And we need to get ourselves out from under that in some way or other.”

Norris says Biden returned to the Capitol today as a veteran — not a visitor — which may help him create a working relationship with the opposing party. “If he can get other people on board to speak to an audience that … [has] a very closed approach to anything that the Democrats have to say, you might see some sort of movement.” 

Norris also points out that Biden has empathy, which she calls his “natural octave.” 

“He is quite good at that. … There was a lot of tough language in the inaugural address today. But there's a gentleness about Joe Biden. And there are a lot of people that are hurting, and a lot of people who are hurting who were supporting, for instance, Donald Trump, but didn't necessarily get empathy from him for the pain that they are experiencing, both economic and even the pain in losing stature in America. And that is the kind of thing that Joe Biden might be able to extend, some sort of olive branch so people are at least willing to perhaps listen to what he has to say and what he has to offer in terms of governance.”