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6 Takeaways From President Biden's Inauguration

President Biden sits in the Oval Office at the White House after being sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday.
Jim Watson
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden sits in the Oval Office at the White House after being sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday.

President Biden.

That's going to take some getting used to after these past four years.

The new president was sworn in Wednesday and made an inaugural address aimed at unity. Biden didn't sugarcoat, however, the hurdles to bringing Americans together, and he leaned into the challenges the U.S. faces, as he sees it.

Here are six takeaways from Biden's inauguration:

1. A starkly different tone was set.

If there's one thing that stood out most, it was the tone that Biden struck. Gone was the tension, defiance and grievance of Donald Trump. Instead, America saw a staid and humble President Biden. Instead of igniting flames of division, he was trying to take the temperature down.

"We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue," Biden said. "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, as my mom would say, just for a moment stand in their shoes."

For a significant portion of the country, Biden's speech began a disburdenment of the daily anxiety and unpredictability of the Trump presidency. Some Republicans even praised his speech. For another large group of Americans, though, they are now worried about the direction the country will take.

Overall, as unusual as the day was because of the heavy security presence and the lack of crowds due to COVID-19 and threats, it seemed like Washington was headed for something of a return to normal.

For a day at least, the four years of whiplashhad come to an end, which was summed up well in three very different scenes at the U.S. Capitol on the first three Wednesdays of this January: one of the Jan. 6 violence, one of Trump's impeachment and then one of Biden's inauguration.

2. Real unity will be tough to come by.

Trying to bridge the gap of hard feelings, Biden did something Trump rarely did — reach out to those who didn't vote for him. And he wasn't so naive as to talk about it in a way that showed he thinks it would be easy or happen at all.

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

Certainly, this was no Trump "American carnage" speech. But tone is one thing, and policy is another.

A return to "normal" may mean a return to the same old passive-aggressive polite gridlock mixed with partisan bickering. Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress, but only very narrowly. Biden will likely need Republicans for most of his major legislative agenda items, including his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, a comprehensive immigration overhaul or almost anything else.

And it won't solve the problem of the tens of millions of Trump supporters who are fed and believe a daily diet of false information — and who make up the base of the Republican Party.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell looks on as President Biden delivers his inaugural address outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Getty Images
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell looks on as President Biden delivers his inaugural address outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

3. Biden laid out his priorities.

Speaking of those priorities, Biden listed the policy approaches that he believes would lead to healing in America. They include addressing COVID-19, racial justice, climate change and domestic extremism, including white supremacy. He is the first president to address white supremacy in an inaugural address.

Biden did not shy away from any of those thorny issues. But you can bet that Republicans will find plenty to disagree with Democrats about in how to solve those issues. And what of unity then? More importantly, what of solving those issues when Biden runs into the congressional buzz saw of Republican opposition?

Biden is already wasting no time, signing lots of executive orders on COVID-19, climate change, racial justice, immigration and more.

But there's only so far those executive orders can go.

4. Truth matters again.

When hearing of Trump's falsehoods, exaggerations and lies, cynics and many Trump supporters dismissed the criticism that Trump faced with a version of an all-too-familiar retort: "Oh, come on. All politicians lie."

Well, not like what was seen these past four years. Trump made more than 30,000 misleading claims in four years, according to The Washington Post. That's an average of 20 per day.

What usually happens with a controversial claim is that a politician might take something with a kernel of truth and spin it up. Then it gets litigated in public and in the media, and if that elected official is found to be wrong, most adjust their language to fit within the bounds of acceptability. But Trump could not be shamed.

The news media has to hold leaders of all parties accountable. And Biden will make his fair share of inaccurate or exaggerated claims, and he should be called out on them. But there's more of a chance now for public debates based on a shared set of facts, rather than "alternative" ones that never existed.

5. Inaugurations may have changed permanently.

Biden got out of the presidential limo and walked hand in hand with his wife, first lady Jill Biden, to the White House. For a brief moment, in a tight shot on television, it could have all looked like any other inauguration.

But it was not. The walk was drastically curtailed and more heavily guarded compared with past presidential inaugurations. And while there were some people on the street during the walk, there weren't throngs of people lining the streets.

It's very likely that inaugurations as we knew them have changed permanently. There may be a return of people to the National Mall and even a parade when the coronavirus pandemic finally clears.

But from here on out, these will likely be heavily fortified events.

6. The presidency is overwhelming — for anyone.

Despite his decades serving as a senator in Washington and even his eight years as vice president, Biden was clearly moved by the reality of his new position.

Trump even appeared cowed Wednesday by leaving it. On Trump's exit from the White House, he stopped to talk to reporters. He looked back a few times at the place he would be leaving behind — and even thanked the media.

After walking up to the White House, Biden stood for a moment and looked out from the front portico. He then hugged his wife and held the embrace. They took it in, then turned and with their family walked into their home for the next four years.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.