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Inauguration Speech Analysis: Biden spoke of American healing and mentioned the buzzwords Boris Johnson hoped to hear

Joe Murphy
·5-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Wow, what a speech. In poetry and passionate rhetoric, Joe Biden gave the arrival of a new President the sense of occasion that the world had been waiting for.

“Together we shall write an American story of hope not of fear,” he told his country. The repeated theme of unity was the core of his address, most of which was aimed at healing a divided domestic audience.

"Let's start afresh, all of us. Let's start to listen to one another again, hear one another... Every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war,” he said.

Strikingly there was no comfort for Donald Trump but there as an olive branch to his voters. "To all those who did not support this, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward, take a measure of me and my heart,” said Biden. “If we still disagree, so be it, that's democracy, that's America."

That was the offer for Americans, but hugely important messages for the world were also woven into his intricate address.

“We will repair our alliances...we will lead not by the example of our power but the power of our example,” he said. This was his signal that Biden’s America will reverse the withdrawal from the world cooperation that Trumpism emblemised, though did not begin.

Biden vowed to “make America once again the leading force for good in the world".

On the environment, a Biden passion, he spoke of "the cry for survival that comes from the planet itself. A cry that cannot be any more desperate or any more clear”.

That signals an early re-joining of the Paris accord by Washington. It is particularly important to Boris Johnson, who sees multilateral agreement at the Cop 26 summit in Glasgow this autumn as one of the ways that he can harness Biden’s energy and momentum for the UK’s own influence.

Biden dwelled on the coronavirus pandemic, leading a brief silence for the Americans lost to the disease. It is another opportunity for Johnson who is planning to put health co-operation and disease prevention on the agenda of the forthcoming G7 gathering at picturesque Corbis Bay, Cornwall.

Language matters, which is why Whitehall fell silent during the inauguration speech. Politicos and officials scoured the text for clues about what the next four years will mean for the UK.

Boris Johnson laid out the key words to tick off in a special discussion at yesterday’s Cabinet. Climate change. Health. Prosperity. Nature. The ultimate buzzword bingo, with a potential transatlantic relationship as the prize.

The Prime Minister has, by good fortune, two summits to get close to Biden and his sherpas this year. Recovery from the pandemic will top the agenda of the G7, in terms of both health and the prosperity. A successful Cop26 would be a big prize.

Johnson also used the phrase “build back better” at Cabinet, a term that Biden used in his election campaign. They have common ground on the belief in the power of public investment to found economic success and social stability.

In a statement overnight , Johnson cited other UK - US interests as defence, security and "defending democracy". Team Biden will have been reminded that Johnson took a tough line against Vladimir Putin, a leader that Biden once told (to his face) had “no soul”. In addition, they will recall that Britain was a key partner in Barack Obama’s Iran deal, and that Johnson was among European leaders keen to keep it going even when Trump abolished it. On security issues, Britain’s well-funded and professional Armed Forces are a massive asset that no US President can ignore.

The Prime Minister told ministers yesterday that he aims to become a “pragmatic and problem-solving partner” on the world stage. Decoded, the message is simple: If Biden needs backing, Johnson can deliver solutions.

There have been understandable concerns that Biden’s administration might prefer to call other leaders, rather than Johnson. Some of the reasons are personal, such as anger that Johnson jibed at Obama’s heritage when the then president interfered in the Brexit referendum. That Johnson was later called “the Britain Trump” by Donald Trump cannot have helped his standing.

Most of the concern is political. Biden is proud of his Irish roots and will make a point of visiting the Republic early. He and his allies in Congress were appalled when Johnson threatened to break international law on the Irish border issue, and the future president even vented his fury on Twitter. To build bridges, No 10 is considering deploying a special Ireland expert to the embassy in Washington.

The other big reason for concern is that Britain stopped being the “bridge to Europe” when it left the European Union. Will an independent Britain matter if it no longer sits at the EU table? Fortunately, the UK still sits on the UN Security Committee, and the frequent divisions in the EU on foreign affairs could give an opportunity for a smaller but well-armed nation to stand tall.

Tweeting his congratulations as Biden was sworn in, Johnson exuded confidence he can overcome the past and become an essential friend to the new leader of the free world. He tweeted: “America’s leadership is vital on the issues that matter to us all, from climate change to COVID, and I look forward to working with President Biden.”

Today’s speech, with its message of multilateralism and co-operation, gave him the chance.

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