Originally Published in the Sunday Independent
Joe Biden waited 33 years, seven months and 11 days to be sworn in as president of the United States. From his first presidential run in 1988, to last Wednesday at 12pm, he’s been on a winding path to the White House.
Once he finally reached his destination, it took him a mere 22 minutes to make an indelible mark on the history of the office he now holds.
Biden delivered an inaugural speech that stands above any address since John F Kennedy accepted the torch on behalf of a new American generation.
As a piece of rhetoric, it was outstanding. Many aspects made it commendable: the beauty of its scripting; the vividness of its storytelling; the boldness of its declarations; the intimacy of its delivery. But it was made truly outstanding by the clarity of its objective.
That’s the essence of effective communication – what was the purpose and was it achieved?
Biden’s entire address was, successfully, geared towards establishing and starting the mission of his administration: creating American unity. “Today my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation.”
That clarity means that Biden has set the metric by which his entire administration must be judged. The reality is that he’s set himself an awfully difficult mission.
Polls show 80pc of Americans have an unfavourable view of members of the opposing political party and the percentage feeling very unfavourable has nearly tripled since 1994.
The cynical view is that Biden’s hope to “write an American story of unity, not division” is unrealistic; that Republican voters are out of reach. But Biden rekindled real hope on Wednesday. His rhetoric had an impact, his words mattered.
According to Ipsos polling, 72pc of Republicans and 78pc of Independents rated his speech positively.
At least at this moment, American voters seem willing to answer Biden’s call to “hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart.”
Success with these voters was no chance occurrence. Biden’s speech was crafted to appeal to all sides. He didn’t engage in divisive rhetoric, he didn’t scold or apportion blame. He didn’t play to just his own gallery.
When Biden said that “disagreement must not lead to disunion”, he never said only one side was responsible for the division.
When he said that “politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path”, he didn’t identify any arsonists.
Democratic voters assumed he meant the 74 million who voted for the opposition, but exhausted Republican voters, craving normalcy, were free to apportion blame wherever they so wished.
It is a nuanced approach. Communication alone, though, won’t sew America back together. It needs to be combined with legislative action.
Biden named “growing inequity” as one of the problems facing his administration. It is the issue facing America. Without tackling its source, Biden’s inaugural mission will eventually fail.
Political polarisation is merely a symptom of America’s rampant economic inequality – a weed emerging from the cracks. You can temporarily remove it from view, but without killing the root it will re-emerge in the future.
Since the 1970s, US income inequality has spiralled. In that period the share of the total income that’s earned by upper income households has increased from 29pc to 48pc. Conversely, the middle class’s share has decreased from 62pc to 43pc. And the lower income earners’ share of the collective pie has decreased from 10pc to 9pc.
The problem only gets worse when you focus in on the highest earners. The richest 10pc in America now earn over nine times more than the rest of the country, combined.
Despite the myth of the American dream, the rich have gotten progressively richer, the middle class has collapsed, and the working class has been, effectively, stagnant.
Obvious inequity in income levels has an insidious effect on a society. Not only because of its direct impacts on the individual, but because of the emotions it invokes.
Take air rage.
The possibility of a passenger losing it over a minor issue on a flight can be reliably predicted by a single factor: Does the plane have a first class? Incidences of outbursts increase 400pc in economy when a first-class section exists. They double again if passengers have to walk through the elite section to get to their cramped seats.
It’s not just the size of the seat that matters, it’s also the comparison – the size of the seat when someone else is reclining with champagne 12 feet away.
Mass and social media have increasingly exposed the reality of the different lives Americans live, increasing its detrimental impacts.
Inequality at this level provides oxygen to simmering feelings of resentment, it turns embers into raging flames.
That energy has to be released – and when it is, it has historically often been misdirected.
Resentment at unequal treatment almost always culminates in two disadvantaged groups being pitted against each other.
The rich remain above the fray, while the rest of society divides itself down lines of class or race. Only government action can rebalance society.
To have any hope of building unity, therefore, Biden has to douse the source of the flames – and it has to start in his first 100 days.
Every decision, every piece of legislation, every public utterance, has to be parsed through the perspective of an inequality agenda.
The question, for example, can’t be: Is the removal of the Senate filibuster popular? It has to be: Can you achieve a legislative agenda that’ll tackle inequality, when just 41 Republican Senate votes can block almost any bill?
Judged by the standards of his predecessor, Joe Biden is already a success. He’s an adult taking his job seriously and he showed more coherent moments in his inaugural address than Donald Trump managed throughout his term.
However, that is not the criteria he has demanded of himself and any rational analysis needs to hold him accountable to his own mission.
Joe Biden has spent 50 years at the forefront of US politics. His legacy now depends on his actions matching his own words. In four years, will America be a more connected union?