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Biden To Take Oath Amid Sharply Divided Nation In The Midst Of Crises

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When Joe Biden takes the oath of office tomorrow, President Trump will not be there, which is a fundamental break with tradition. It underlines Biden's challenge, as he tries to bring Americans together. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

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TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Only two weeks ago, this was the scene at the U.S. Capitol - insurrectionists swarming the platform where tomorrow President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in. Chaos and violence, American flags used as weapons - in this place where presidents going back generations have held up a peaceful transfer of power as a core American ideal.

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RONALD REAGAN: The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries.

KEITH: This was Ronald Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address.

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REAGAN: In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.

KEITH: President after president turned to the man behind him, thanking him for making that peaceful transfer possible, something Joe Biden won't be able to do tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JIMMY CARTER: I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.

REAGAN: Mr. President, I want our fellow citizens to know how much you did to carry on this tradition.

BILL CLINTON: I salute my predecessor, President Bush...

BARACK OBAMA: I thank President Bush...

CLINTON: ...For his half-century of service...

OBAMA: ...For service to our nation.

CLINTON: ...To America.

(APPLAUSE)

KEITH: Even in his dark and divisive inaugural address, President Trump endorsed this tradition.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power. And we are grateful to President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition.

KEITH: President Trump hasn't even congratulated Biden. The transition has been a mess, and there is no way to describe this transfer as peaceful. So as he approaches the rostrum tomorrow to address the nation, Biden faces a moment like no other. Jeff Shesol was a speechwriter for President Clinton.

JEFF SHESOL: There are threads of analogies that you can pull from other speeches, but there's not a boilerplate that Joe Biden can pull from to give him a sense of what to do here.

KEITH: Biden comes into office facing the devastation of a pandemic that has so far killed 400,000 Americans and thrown millions into economic despair. In 1933, FDR had the Great Depression.

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FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: A host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

KEITH: Biden will also be addressing people who believed President Trump when he falsely said the election was stolen. In 2001, George W. Bush spoke to Americans outraged after a contested election decided by the Supreme Court.

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GEORGE W BUSH: Sometimes our differences run so deep it seems we share a continent, but not a country. We do not accept this.

KEITH: Biden also has to respond to the deep rifts in American society exposed by the racial justice protests over the summer and now the riot at the Capitol, with all its racist symbols. The closest analogy presidential historian Russell Riley can find is 1968 and '69.

RUSSELL RILEY: Cities are burning. Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy has been assassinated.

KEITH: Riley from the University of Virginia's Miller Center says even though President Nixon built his campaign on resentment, his inaugural hit notes of unity.

RILEY: It was a country that was torn apart, and Nixon understood that his chief mission was healing. That's not a word that's usually associated with Nixon because of what happened in subsequent years, but certainly in January of 1969, that was something that was preeminent in his mind.

KEITH: It's not how he governed. But in that 1969 speech, Richard Nixon called on Americans to summon their better angels.

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RICHARD NIXON: We are caught in war, wanting peace. We're torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, waiting for hands to do them. To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit. And to find that answer, we need only look within ourselves.

KEITH: Though Biden's task is uniquely challenging, inaugural addresses almost always hit notes of healing, says historian Michael Beschloss.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The founders put an awful lot of responsibility on an incoming president to unite the country when it was badly divided and hurting, as it is right now.

KEITH: Biden's inaugural theme is America united. But in remarks last week, he acknowledged the obvious - America is quite divided.

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JOE BIDEN: We've seen clearly what we face now, and I remain so optimistic about America, as optimistic as I've ever been.

KEITH: Speechwriter Jeff Shesol says these are the trickiest dynamics he can imagine for an inaugural address.

SHESOL: He does have to try to draw Americans together, and yet he also has to show that he is not naive. And I think the typical gauzy appeals to national unity that you get in inaugural addresses really aren't going to wash here.

KEITH: Four years ago, President Trump stood in that spot and spoke of American carnage. Tomorrow, Biden will attempt to move past the carnage of January 6.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.