Joe Biden’s inauguration on 20 January took place amid an unprecedented convergence of constitutional, socioeconomic and public health crises. As a sparse, mask-wearing crowd gathered to hear the new president’s address, a large National Guard presence made plain the weight of the occasion.
It was a mood reflected in the historically exceptional language of Biden’s address, New Statesman analysis shows.
While prior presidents have frequently referred to the Constitution in their inaugural speeches, rarely have such references been so heavy with meaning as they were in Biden’s. “I will defend the Constitution, I’ll defend our democracy,” he said. No president since Franklin D Roosevelt, speaking as fascism took root in Europe and the Great Depression hit the economy at home, has made so many references to the country’s founding document in their inaugural address.
A close reading of the six most recent inaugural speeches shows just how unusual Biden’s speech was in its focus on topics such as democracy, governance and the collective responsibility of citizens to come together. These accounted for more than half of the newly sworn-in president’s speech, with Biden attempting to both extend a hand of friendship to his political opponents and challenge the American people to “step up” in the face of threats – including coronavirus, racism, the climate crisis and “an attack on our democracy, and on truth”.
Biden’s words stand in contrast to his predecessor’s, who spoke about government only when criticising it. Donald Trump railed against “a small group in our nation’s capital” that “has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost”. Trump’s speech also said nothing about the idea of citizenship or collective responsibility, a topic that had been addressed heavily by George W Bush.
Biden’s speech was notably light in terms of the amount of time he spent on foreign policy compared to his predecessors. Just 1.6 per cent of his address focused solely on issues abroad, compared to 26 per cent of both Trump’s and Obama’s first inaugural address and more than half of Bush’s address after 2001’s September 11 attacks.
Instead, Biden’s focus was on home-grown issues. He showed no reticence in naming white supremacy as a threat to the country’s democracy – the first time the term has ever been used in an inaugural address. In addition, the New Statesman’s analysis found that Biden’s was the angriest inaugural address of those surveyed, based on his use of words such as “lawlessness” and “extremism” to describe the state of the country.
Though anger was far from the over-riding emotion in Biden’s speech, the president was unusually forthright in his criticisms of the current state of US politics compared to the far more abstract focus of most prior addresses.
At the same time, no president has ever made so many appeals to unity during their inauguration. “To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America, requires so much more than words,” Biden said. “It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity.”
Biden’s is also the first inaugural address to refer to “extremism”, “nativism”, “pandemic”, “protesters” or “systemic racism”.
While previous inaugural addresses have tended to focus on either foreign policy or the economy, Biden’s is also the first in history to centre on a public health crisis, with “virus” the text’s stand-out word relative to past speeches. The last public health crisis to receive an explicit mention was Aids, in 1993.
The New Statesman analysed all past inaugural addresses using a natural language processing technique to draw out the stand-out words from each speech. For each, words were scored according to their frequency but then downgraded if they also featured frequently in other inaugural addresses. In doing so, the analysis has revealed an inaugural address as historically unprecedented as the combined crisis of health, wealth and democracy sweeping the country.