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During Inaugural Address, Biden Calls For Unity Amid Multiple National Crises

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, joins us now to talk through this historic day.

Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: To start, tell us what you were thinking about as you watched Joe Biden take the oath of office and become president today.

LIASSON: I was thinking how improbable this looked last year. You know, he entered the Democratic race as a favorite, but he was all of a sudden thought to be old and out of touch. And his theme, healing the soul of the nation, seemed kind of naive and corny. The Democratic Party was talking about big structural change. But it turns out, Joe Biden was the man of the moment, not just for the Democratic Party, but also for the country. He won both the popular vote and the Electoral College decisively. And the events of the last week have only made his message of healing and unity more urgent.

SHAPIRO: So as you say, he stressed that unifying message through the entire campaign and continued it today in his inaugural address. Do you think that this message of healing and unity can lead to real change, given the challenges that he and the nation face right now?

LIASSON: Well, he certainly thinks so. And the challenges are really daunting. He quoted Lincoln today, saying his whole soul is in this - this effort to unite the country. But then in the next line, he emphasized just the enormity of what he's facing when he said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL ADDRESS)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Uniting to fight the foes, we face anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity, we can do great things, important things.

LIASSON: That is quite a list. He went on later to say we face an attack on democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequality, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis. I mean, I don't think that any modern president has come into office with so many overlapping crises and with the country so deeply divided.

SHAPIRO: So what does he do to address those crises, solve those problems, bridge that divide?

LIASSON: Well, his aides say that he's going to do it by being accountable and transparent and honest - basically, waking up every day and being the kind of president that Americans said they wanted - being competent and empathetic. And first and foremost, that starts with confronting the pandemic. He has a very ambitious goal. He says he's going to manage the hell out of the virus. He wants to get 100 million doses of vaccine into people's arms in 100 days. And that's going to be a huge project. But it also is an opportunity for him.

Some of this he can do without congressional buy-in, without passing legislation. And he's already coming into office with pretty good favorable ratings. They're in the 50s, around 54%. And if he can get a lot of people vaccinated, get the virus under control, he might develop some political capital that will be useful to him when he asks Congress, Republicans in particular, to work with him.

SHAPIRO: You know, Mara, the new president spoke a couple of times about the challenge of truth in this time of disinformation. What was your takeaway there?

LIASSON: Well, he didn't shy away from that. He noted that we are in an epistemological crisis because a big chunk of the country - 70% of Republicans - believe the lie that Donald Trump won the election and it was stolen from him. And Joe Biden really addressed this head-on today. Here's some of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL ADDRESS)

BIDEN: Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth, and there are lies; lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders - leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation - to defend the truth and defeat the lies.

LIASSON: And this is something that Joe Biden cannot do by himself. Republicans have to step up and say those six little words - Joe Biden won fair and square. If so much of - a big chunk of their base thinks he's not a legitimate president when in fact the election wasn't even close, that is a huge obstacle. Two-thirds of the House Republicans and eight senators voted to overthrow the election. So on that one, he can talk about the problem, but I don't know how much he can do about it without Republican help.

SHAPIRO: And that vote was even after the violent riot of January 6, which he also spoke about very pointedly. What was your take on what he said there?

LIASSON: Yes. One thing about Biden's healing message is it's not about moving on. He's talked about how this riotous mob tried to overturn the will of the people, stop the work of democracy, but they failed. It didn't happen, he said. It will never happen - not today, not tomorrow, not ever. I thought that was one of the strongest points in his speech. He also talked about targeting white supremacy and domestic terror, something that's been on the radar of law enforcement for many years, but wasn't the focus of the Trump administration.

SHAPIRO: NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, thank you very much.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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