Opinion: The perfect optics on Inauguration Day

This was the opening line of the captivating inaugural poem delivered by 22-year-old poet laureate Amanda Gorman. Her electric presence and poetic eloquence served to set the optical lens through which we would see Joe Biden’s inauguration: light triumphing over dark.

The dark and divisively opposing forces of the past couple of months were always hellbent on raining on Joe Biden’s parade. But perhaps in a sign of the outgoing President’s quickly diminishing influence, gentle snowflakes performed a graceful dance to Earth on cue, just as incoming President Biden was about to make his appearance on the inaugural stage. Then, the sun broke out and beamed brightly over the first few bars of the national anthem.

A mere mask could not conceal Vice President Kamala Harris’ beaming smile. Her glistening eyes told the whole story. In fact, every dignitary on stage displayed the kind of joyful celebration normally reserved for greeting returning war soldiers.

By contrast, Donald Trump’s inauguration speech four years ago was a dreary and dismal affair, laced with rhetoric of “American carnage.”
No wonder that a Council on Foreign Relations policy expert deemed it one of the two worst inauguration speeches of all time (the other being James Buchanan’s, which blamed the country’s persisting problems on the distraction of the slavery debate.) At Biden’s swearing in, the reassuring theme of light and hope took center stage. What he needed to execute was an oratory high-wire act, balancing the stark reality of the “cascade of crises” he said we simultaneously face with the call to write an American story of hope and decency.

It was an oratorical high point for Biden. He used the full range of his voice to underscore both the enormity of today’s challenges and his unwavering belief in the promise of tomorrow. At moments when he was seeking to build confidence and optimism among Americans that brighter days lie ahead, his voice projection dipped lower to create an intimate yet intense heartfelt reassurance. In referencing the January 6 rioters, he declared that stopping the will of our democracy “will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever,” his voice swelling louder with determination and conviction.

The speech captured the spirit of many presidential calls for unity and healing that preceded it. It drew from Abraham Lincoln, whose reference to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 read, “If my name ever goes down in history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.” Biden’s standout line about uniting the country was, “My whole soul is in this.”
It was one part Franklin D. Roosevelt, transforming “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself,” into “together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear.”

It also tapped into the iconic John F. Kennedy line, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” when the President quoted from one of his favorite songs, “American Anthem”: “When my days are through, America, America, I gave my best to you.”

The speech was the kind of enormous olive branch to adversaries that only Joe Biden could wield with any degree of sincerity. It was his call to disarm: “We must end this uncivil war.”
But perhaps the most dramatic optic was the backdrop, the Capitol itself. On Inauguration Day, it was replete with all the majesty and splendor customary of every inaugural that has preceded it. Looking at the pomp and ceremony amidst all the patriotic bunting, it was hard to reconcile that just two weeks earlier, an angry, insurrectionist mob had smashed windows and desecrated the very cradle of American democracy. The fact that there were no visual remnants of that horrific episode helped reinforce democracy’s resilience and the prospect that the soul of the country, what Joe Biden has said many times that he was fighting for, could be reborn.

What perfectly augmented Biden’s message of light triumphing over darkness was the way the ceremonies and its setting were bathed in the sun’s radiance. If Americans are to have faith that the country can successfully unite during a time of multiple crises and divisiveness, then the optimistic optics of the day got things off to a good start.


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