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Fast Thinking January 20, 2021

FAST THINKING: Five big takeaways from Joe Biden’s inaugural address

By Atlantic Council


Joe Biden’s inaugural address was a call for unity—and also resilience. “America has been tested, and we’ve come out stronger for it,” he said, vowing to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” What did the speech signal about where his presidency is headed? Fast Thinking hosted a roundtable discussion with five leading experts on international affairs to dissect Biden’s message. Here’s the key takeaway from each.


This was a domestic speech with a global message

  • Carl was struck by how “uniquely domestic” Biden’s address was. His call for Americans to “end this uncivil war” was another way of stressing that his top priority will be “healing the nation [and] repairing the rifts in the fabric of American politics,” he observed. 
  • Yet this might be exactly what America’s allies abroad want to hear. Carl called the domestic repair Biden promised “understandable, necessary, and also a precondition for America taking a stronger role in the world.”
  • It was also “an anti-Trump speech, every single sentence, without mentioning the name,” he added. Europeans are acutely aware of how many votes Donald Trump got in the 2020 election, even if Biden got more. Which makes them wonder: “When history is written, is it going to be Trump or Biden that is the parenthesis?” That “introduces an element of nervousness at the same time as there is sort of an intense hope that the president succeeds, that the healing works, and that we can work together constructively.”

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America is back, but in a new way

  • Ana urged the United States to find a way to lead the world again that meets the challenges of this moment. “We expect twenty-first-century leadership” that is “inclusive,” she said. “It’s not a hegemonic leadership, taking your allies for granted. It has to be different.”
  • She found plenty of cause for optimism in the speech Biden gave today. “It spoke about unity, about truth, about civic responsibility,” Ana said. “It was a very domestic speech that was extremely universal for all of us that believe in democracy, that fight for democracy, and that have this idea of a shining city on a hill about the United States. It’s back.” 

The problems Biden identified are also the world’s

  • For George, the speech was an occasion to reflect on how the threat that the United States faced during Trump’s presidency is one facing all democratic societies. “There is a crisis of democracy in the world, you know, not just in the United States,” he said. “So America has got to lead by example, but it’s got to do it in a muscular sense as well.” Reinforcing democratic principles and the rule of law, he added, should be the start.
  • “Although he was addressing a domestic audience, with some domestic messages, the fact is that the world was listening. The world was wanting American leadership,” George said. “And I think the world was reassured.”

Restoring trust in the US will take time

  • Biden noted in his speech that the divisive forces besieging America are as old as the republic—a reminder that for all the urgency of the moment, healing will take time. Ernie argued that repairing America’s international reputation and relationships will also require patience.
  • He called Biden “almost the ideal person for this rebuilding task.” But he cautioned that restoring the “full trust” of US allies could take “at least one or two more presidential election cycles, frankly, in which the normalcy of our politics can be reinforced.”​​​​​​

Biden told a story of American resilience

  • “I think the country’s had a bit of a crisis of confidence. It’s been a tough four years,” Steve observed. “January 6th and the disruption in the Capitol really, I think, shook the country. And I think what the president set for himself was to reassure Americans that we can have faith in our democratic principles, in our democratic institutions. We can have faith in our values, and if we pull together and are true to those values, as he said, there’s no problem we cannot solve.”
  • This message of democratic resilience, he said, will resonate with “democratic-loving people around the world.”
  • “Yes, it’s only one speech,” he added. “Yes, we’re going to have to see what he does. But tone is important. And I think he set the right tone.”

Further reading

Related Experts: Stephen J. Hadley

Image: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 20, 2021. Patrick Semansky/Pool via REUTERS