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Biden calls for unity in a deeply divided nation

In his inaugural speech Wednesday, President Biden spoke of unity in a country now facing a torrent of crises. James Fallows, a journalist, long-time writer for The Atlantic and former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, joins Judy Woodruff for reaction to the history-making day.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more on this history-making day, I'm here in our studio with James Fallows, who's been watching at my side here as the inauguration events have unfolded. He is a journalist. He's a longtime writer for "The Atlantic" and former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter.

    Jim Fallows, thank you, and thank you for being here all day as we watched everything happen.

    As you think back on this speech, a lot of different remarks, and we use some excerpts of it earlier, what is ringing true to you?

  • James Fallows:

    So, what strikes me, we were talking earlier today about how every inaugural speech — excuse me — is essentially two stories, the story of who we are, we, the country, and the story of who I am, I, as the person who's taking over responsibility.

    I think that the new President Biden answered both those stories clearly.

    The story of who we are is a country with very severe problems right now. And he sounded quite realistic about the pandemic, economic polarization and collapse, political friction, and the realm of untruths, but, also, just to continue, that we're a country with problems, but that can be better, that can get better. So that's the story of the country.

    The story of himself is somebody who is plainspoken — it was not a highfalutin speech.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • James Fallows:

    Empathetic, knows that fate can deal you an unfair hand, and wants to compromise.

    I think the line that stuck with me is, "My whole soul is in this," the exercise of pulling us together. So, that stays with me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We come back to the theme of unity, how it's almost desperate, Joe Biden is almost desperate to bring the country together.

    He kept coming back to that again and again in these remarks and in remarks he's made in the days and weeks and months of his campaign and after the election.

  • James Fallows:

    I think something that is effective about his rhetoric — again, it's not going to be inscribed in the oratory books.

    But he has been the same person over the past 40-plus years and the past six months, from the Democratic Convention through the election, essentially saying: I want to represent everybody. I recognize this is a diverse country. I will do my best to convince you. If you disagree, OK, but we are better off if we're all together.

    And I think that was a theme that went through even the symbolism of having the former presidents from different parties going to Arlington, the wonderful poem from Amanda Gorman talking about the process of becoming for this country.

    So, I think we had from President Biden a notably faith-inspired speech. It was clear that he was a man who takes his religion seriously, and thought that his duty of his secular faith now was to help bring a divided country together.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's — you started out by saying this is not a person, in so many words, of soaring rhetoric, soaring oratory.

    But it felt real. I mean, it felt like this is who Joe Biden is, as you said.

  • James Fallows:

    Yes, both those things are true.

    There's a kind of rhetoric that would be authentic to Barack Obama, or to Bernie Sanders, or to Elizabeth Warren. And if Joe Biden read those words, that would sound inauthentic to him.

    I felt as if we were hearing somebody in his own voice, his own sensibility, his own word choice, his own emphases. And so it seemed like a real person we were seeing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jim Fallows, you have looked at a lot of presidents and what they have said in their inaugural addresses.

    How much have those addresses sent a signal that told us, told the country something about the way they would govern?

  • James Fallows:

    We can look back four years, when Donald Trump had his American carnage inaugural, which was, unfortunately, a signal.

    I think, for most inaugural addresses, they do give a new president some kind of margin of error, some honeymoon from a public, saying, we recognize what you're trying to do. You're telling us who we are, who you are. We're going to look for the best.

    And I think that Joe Biden did that, at least for today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jim Fallows, who has watched a lot of inaugural speeches, has written some himself.

  • James Fallows:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you very much.

  • James Fallows:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Appreciate it.

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