If there is anything President Joe Biden’s inaugural speech was not, it was populist.
President Biden’s speech has justifiably won plaudits from across the spectrum, even including the Wall Street Journal. (It’s likely this will be the last time the Journal has much good to say about him, so drink it in while you can, Mr. President.)
One important reason for that was its complete lack of acrimony and finger-pointing. The words and tone of his speech were all about unity, of finding common ground and of dealing seriously and practically with our problems. That’s in contrast to the dark, bitter and just flat out ugly themes that Donald Trump touched four years ago and just kept embracing for his entire presidency.
But, in truth, it is also a contrast to the divisive kind of rhetoric that comes from liberal populists like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And, no, I’m not equating Trump with Sanders and Warren here. Trump is a demagogue, a fool and most likely a traitor. The senators are articulate spokespeople for a large part of the American electorate and I have no doubt that they love their country and are pursuing policies that think are best for it. I despise Trump; I disagree with Sanders and Warren.
Still, populism, whether it comes from the right or left and whether it is over the top like Trump’s or more responsible like Sanders’, is still fundamentally about who you blame for the country’s problems. For right wing populists it’s immigrants, intellectuals and the “mainstream media” (never mind that the Wall Street Journal and Fox News are two of the nation’s biggest news outlets). For left wing populists the enemies are “the one percent”, big corporations (especially big tech and big pharma), and blue collar voters who “don’t understand their own best interests.”
Biden’s speech (full text can be found here) played none of that populist blame game. Instead, he struck the very unpopulist theme of appealing to our better angels rather than defining scapegoats.
In a speech filled with the rejection of populist fury, I found this passage the most moving:
“We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace — only bitterness and fury. No progress — only exhausting outrage. No nation — only a state of chaos.”
Populism is a nasty virus. Joe Biden may be the vaccine.