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“My whole soul is in it.” In a single sentence that sums the emotional weight of President Joe Biden’s inaugural address. Intended or not.

It forces the juxtaposition of the present versus the past. Hope versus fear. Provocation versus consensus. Nastiness versus civility. The truth as opposed to lies.

But it goes deeper than that. When you look at Mr. Biden you see someone in the twilight of their days and certainly their career. At age 78, he’s the oldest person to ever be president. He begins his presidency older than Ronald Reagan was when he finished his two terms. Then, we thought Mr. Reagan was old.

But there is peace in age. And wisdom. And strength. For Mr. Biden ambition is yesterday’s game. He’s been in public life for a half century; he’s not looking ahead for book tours, nor does he need to hit the lecture circuit to make some money. He’s made the run for the presidency three times; he’s all good. When you look at Mr. Biden there is the understanding, without being acknowledged, that the odds are overwhelming he will be in the office for a single term.

That’s freedom of a sort we haven’t seen in a first term president. Ever.

In other times, it would be more a liability than an asset. He loses a little bargaining power in the last year of his term. But following Donald Trump’s four tumultuous years, having his polar opposite in the presidency is what gives us hope. Having a Congress almost evenly split between the two parties gives the weight to political moderates and having a center-left president in Mr. Biden, and one serving a single term, provides us the opportunity to truly get things done, without his actions being second-guessed as political opportunism.

But Mr. Biden’s presidency will be judged less on what legislative accomplishments are secured than how he helps us change the perceptions of ourselves, and how we are perceived beyond our shores. It will be judged by how we talk to one another. How we communicate. It will be judged on whether we can raise our tolerances. It will be judged on whether we can rebuilt a sense of trust. It will be judged on our ability to regain a sense of empathy.

This is the opportunity that Mr. Trump has given Mr. Biden. Be better.

When Mr. Biden says his whole soul is in it, his words have an urgency we haven’t seen as a country since the Great Depression or World War II. It’s framed by a pandemic that has been horrifically mismanaged, costing us tens of thousands of lives, and a sizable swath of the nation’s economy. It’s framed by provocations that have rendered us bitterly divided.

When Mr. Biden said, “This our historic moment of crisis and challenge…” he was referring to the need for truth and for charity toward others, not health care reform or raising the capital gains tax. He’s talking about not only his soul, but ours as well. It’s our battle, too.

These are messages that must first come from our leaders. They don’t come from the bottom up. We have seen, firsthand, the power of lies, and of hate, and of provocation. We have seen the power of a leader who calls for insurrection from his followers. We have seen the affront to our democracy by a president who claimed the election was stolen when he knew it hadn’t. It’s truth through trust that Mr. Biden must establish.

When Mr. Biden says his whole soul is in it, he’s also displaying the sort of strength that comes through knowing loss. And he knows grief and loss at a profound level. Deeper than the loss that any election will ever exact. He’s got nothing to lose. It’s comforting that Mr. Biden’s strength is age-given and not a by-product of youth’s ambition.

by Emerson Lynn

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