As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office facing more crises than any other president in modern American history, the stakes for his inaugural address couldn't be higher.
A transition official said that Biden has been working on the speech this weekend with family members and his senior adviser Mike Donilon and that the address will emphasize familiar themes from his campaign: unity, healing and a vision for the many crises the country faces.
Advisers also said the address will echo some of Biden's recent speeches, which have doubled as opportunities to test inaugural themes. As he unveiled his $1.9 trillion economic package last week, Biden said bipartisanship was essential to addressing the economy and the Covid-19 pandemic: "Unity is not some pie-in-the-sky dream — it's a practical step to getting the things we have to get done as a country get done together," he said.
Still, Americans shouldn't expect Biden's speech to be filled with soaring rhetoric. Biden believes he connects with people more effectively by taking a plain-spoken approach, those around him say.
A Democratic source said that while some of the most famous lines in American political history are from inaugural addresses — Abraham Lincoln's "malice toward none, charity toward all," Franklin D. Roosevelt's "only thing we have to fear is fear itself," John F. Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you" — most Americans probably couldn't recall major lines from most of the rest.
There is pressure on speechwriters to "write for history." But Biden's allies say they believe the speech is an opportunity to continue in the leadership role he has been playing throughout the transition — at a moment of crisis, demonstrating to the much wider audience that will be tuning in that someone is firmly in charge. That's why Biden's speeches throughout the transition have often included a simple line: "Help is on the way," according to this Democratic source.
"People are just yearning for a little bit of normalcy and someone who knows what they're doing and has their hand on the wheel. He's really good at that," the Democratic source said. The speech is "going to be Joe Biden," because "unity is part of who Joe Biden is."
"That's what he believes," the source said.
Donilon is a chief architect, as he has been of Biden's message not just in this campaign but in most of his previous campaigns. He is working alongside Vinay Reddy, Biden's director of speechwriting, who worked for Biden when he was vice president.
Biden's challenge will be to reach the voters who are still strongly behind President Donald Trump. He told NBC News' Kristen Welker during the last presidential debate that, if he was elected, he would use his address to say: "I'm an American President. I represent all of you, whether you voted for me or against me, and I'm going to make sure that you're represented."
Aides said Biden is likely to end on a similar note that he has highlighted in almost every speech he has given for the past six months: There is nothing Americans can't do in spite of the challenges if Americans do it together.
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In an interview Sunday on ABC News' "This Week," incoming White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said the speech "will be a reflection of a lot of what you heard from him on the campaign trail, which is that he believes we can bring this country together."
"He believes that we have to bring this country together, that a unified America is the only way that we're going to be able to tackle the massive crises that we're grappling with," she said, adding:
"I think you can expect that this will be a moment where President-elect Biden will really work to try to turn the page on the divisiveness and the hatred over the last four years and really lay out a positive, optimistic vision for the country and lay out a way — lay out a path forward that really calls on all of us to work together."