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Biden's plain-spoken appeal for unity might be contagious in a new Washington

Analysis: A weakened Republican Party might find something to grasp in Biden's plea to end the partisanship that stalled so much progress.
President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden and their family walk in front of the White House during a presidential escort to the White House on Wednesday.Doug Mills / The New York Times via AP, Pool

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden heralded the restoration of respectful republican governance Wednesday, simultaneously paying tribute to the power of American democracy and warning that its survival is tenuous.

In an inaugural address short on specifics and long on calls for solidarity, the newly sworn-in 46th commander-in-chief promised, as presidents do, to be a leader for all Americans — those who voted for him and those who did not. He asked for goodwill across partisan and ideological divides, and he will need it with a Congress that is both under the control of his fellow Democrats and almost as narrowly divided between the parties as is possible.

"The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us," he said. "On we the people, who seek a more perfect union. This is a great nation."

Two aspects of Biden's appeal made it uniquely authentic to him: context and consistency. The speech was elegantly humble in delivering a single, inoffensive thought into the collective conscience of the nation: Biden wants unity.

His campaign trail vow to "restore the soul of this nation" focused on a contrast with his predecessor's affinity for stoking the fires of division. Biden's message Wednesday, delivered in his plain-spoken style, tracked with his repeated election-year pledge to view political opponents as friends who disagree.

"We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors," Biden said. "We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. Without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury."

It is possible to understand his election, and his plans for the presidency, as a simple vow to shift back toward entrusting the levers of government to people who believe in the separation of powers, the protection of the political minority and the rule of law. Those are the values he enunciated as a candidate, and they permeated his inaugural address.

"We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed," Biden said.

His backdrop — literally, as he so often says — was the same West Front of the Capitol that was filled two weeks ago by rioters who sought to stop Congress from sealing his election. They vandalized the staging ground for inaugurations, the houses of Congress, and the concepts on which the democratic republic was founded. But, as Biden noted, the republic held.

"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," he said. "It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever."

While Donald Trump used the last moments of his presidency to jet out of town before Biden was sworn in — the first president in more than a century to spurn his successor in such fashion — Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama came to the Capitol to participate in the ceremony. So did all three of Trump's Supreme Court picks, Republican former Vice President Dan Quayle and former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

The effect was a demonstration of what President Warren Harding would have called "normalcy" and of allegiance to the peaceful transfer of power that is so intrinsic to democracy. There were also signs that at least a faction of the Republican Party is open to working with Biden in a pandemic that has claimed 400,000 lives in the United States, a bifurcated economy that has left millions of Americans behind, bitter divisions in the body politic and international crowing over the domestic strife.

"I look forward to working with the new administration on areas where we agree in order to make a difference in the lives of Ohioans and all Americans," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a statement released during the ceremony. "When we disagree, I will do so respectfully."

Notably, Biden did not ask for more than that.

"To all those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward, take a measure of me and my heart, and if you still disagree, so be it," he said. "The right to dissent peaceably within the guardrails of our republic is perhaps this nation's greatest strength. Hear me clearly: Disagreement must not lead to disunion."

It remains to be seen whether Biden can form a governing coalition on the issues at the top of his agenda, including a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package and legislation to rebuild America's infrastructure. And he will try to reach across the aisle while the Senate takes up the House's article of impeachment against Trump.

But there are reasons to think Trump's hold on the GOP is significantly weaker now than at any time during his presidency. Bereft of the power of the White House and denied the social media megaphone that was the foundation of his rise, Trump no longer has as much power to reward and punish Republican lawmakers.

Moreover, a Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday found that Trump's approval rating dropped to 29 percent — the lowest of his term — in mid-January. The poll showed that 60 percent of Republicans approved of Trump's handling of his job, down from 77 percent in August.

Whatever the fate of his presidency, Biden started off with a basic premise about what it means for the problems afflicting the country.

"To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and to secure the future of America requires so much more than words," he said. "It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity."

For one day, at least, much of Washington seemed ready to give him that.