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James Fallows on the message from Joe Biden's inauguration

James Fallows on the message from Biden's inauguration
James Fallows on the message from Biden's inauguration 02:37

James Fallows is a staff writer for The Atlantic Magazine.

Inaugural speeches, especially for new presidents, boil down to telling two stories: Who we are, as a country; and who I am, as the person preparing to lead.

For many significant inaugurations, "Who we are" was a tale of crisis and peril – Abraham Lincoln, on the eve of Civil War; Franklin Roosevelt, in the teeth of worldwide Depression; Barack Obama during another historic economic collapse.

For these presidents and many others, the story was the same: Our country is damaged, but it is not defeated. We must unite and sacrifice if we are to succeed, but we have done that before, and can do it again.

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

That was also the story in this past week's ceremony. It connected Mr. Biden's speech ("We will write the next great chapter in the history of the United States of America – the American story") to the poem by Amanda Gorman ("And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn't mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect"). 

They were both telling the story of becoming that Americans have relied on from the start.

Joe Biden's story of "who I am" was especially powerful for being understated. John Kennedy's story was that "the torch had been passed" to members of his generation. Jimmy Carter's, that of a man would not lie. Ronald Reagan's, of buoyant optimism.

Biden's story was, I will listen. I care. I ask us all to understand one another's vulnerability and losses. And I will give "my whole soul" to the effort of helping our country heal.

We are not even 100 hours into this administration. There will be the first 100 days, and then 1,400 days more. Every obstacle we faced a week ago, is an obstacle still.

But we have all made a start.

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Story produced by Young Kim. Editor: Jaroslaw Ziaja. 

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