Change country:
Ideas | The Atlantic
Ideas | The Atlantic
Why Israel’s Vaccine Success Might Be Hard to Replicate
One nation has already provided more than a quarter of its people with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, outpacing every other country in the world and more than sextupling the percentage in the United States. During one recent three-day period, in fact, it administered a dose of the vaccine to a higher percentage of its population than the U.S. has altogether. Nearly three-fourths of those over age 60 have gotten their first shot. And most of the population could be vaccinated by the end of March, which would be earlier than any nation except, perhaps, tiny Palau and the Vatican. The government is now preparing “passports” for the twice-jabbed that will exempt them from quarantines.It’s the kind of standout success one would expect from the now-familiar stars of the global response to COVID-19—Taiwan, South Korea, or New Zealand. But it’s actually been achieved by Israel, in several respects a surprising country to be the world’s front-runner on vaccine distribution. A 2019 Johns Hopkins study ranked Israel an unspectacular 54th among 195 countries in terms of preparedness for a pandemic. After initially appearing to vanquish the coronavirus, Israel has since suffered some of the world’s worst outbreaks—something that remains true as it celebrates its vaccine advances. And during a pandemic in which public trust in government has emerged as arguably the most consistent ingredient across countries for success in combatting the virus, public confidence in Israel’s political leaders is dismally low. The Israeli government currently has the distinction of being one of the most unstable in the democratic world.[From the September 2020 issue: How the pandemic defeated America]So how exactly has Israel pulled off this unlikely feat? The answer traces back decades to the embryonic health infrastructure created before the State of Israel even existed. That, in turn, should serve as a sobering reminder for Americans: Nations faring well against the virus are drawing on preexisting strengths, not flexing muscles suddenly conjured amid the crisis or, say, a change in administrations.The countries that have performed best against COVID-19 have been those “that in general have good public-health infrastructures—and we [in the United States] just don’t,” Helene Gayle, the head of the Chicago Community Trust and a veteran of the CDC, told me.“There’s a big lesson from this, which is: You’re not going to be ready for a pandemic if you don’t have your data systems in place, your surveillance systems, your state-level funding for the infrastructure, so that you can distribute [vaccines] effectively and fast,” argued Gayle, a co-chair of a recent study on how to equitably allocate COVID-19 vaccines.And as the world shifts from focusing solely on containing the virus to rolling out vaccines as well, the key determinant of success is morphing from the credibility of the government to the credibility of the health-care system. As the scholars Jeremy A. Greene and Dora Vargha have observed, vaccines are at least in part “technologies of trust” that rely on people “maintaining confidence in national and international structures through which vaccines are delivered.”The apparent paradox of Israel being both a “vaccine champ” and a “contagion chump,” as the Israeli journalist David Horovitz memorably put it, becomes less mystifying on closer inspection. Whereas some countries that did better in flattening the curve of coronavirus cases, such as Australia and South Korea, at first proceeded cautiously with plans to approve and procure vaccines, because they felt they had the virus under control, pandemic-battered Israel didn’t have that luxury. What the Israeli government felt instead was urgency.Ahead of elections this March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cast himself as the face of the country’s vaccination campaign (he got Israel’s first COVID-19 shot) and its dealmaker in chief, negotiating directly with Pfizer’s CEO and reportedly paying Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna top dollar to receive doses quickly and at scale when global supplies are tight.Netanyahu recently announced an agreement with Pfizer that will send hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses to Israel per week. Israel, in turn, will serve as something of a national clinical trial—or, in the prime minister’s words, a “global model state for the rapid vaccination of an entire country.” It will send Pfizer anonymized medical information about the effects of the vaccine on the population and on curbing the epidemic. The statistical data could yield lessons not only for Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies as they continue to develop COVID-19 vaccines, but also for other countries and international organizations working on their own vaccination campaigns.But the story of Israel’s success is arguably more about distribution than procurement. As Dany Bahar, an Israeli economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., recently observed, focusing on what the Israeli government has managed to negotiate overlooks why it was in a strong negotiating position in the first place. It could present itself to pharmaceutical companies as an attractive “pilot country” for an effective mass-vaccination program for its 9 million–plus people because of its small size and the “vast public health infrastructure” that the state has invested heavily in over the past seven decades, building on a tradition of socialist-minded worker health-care cooperatives that preceded the state’s founding.[Read: Where year two of the pandemic will take us]As Bahar noted, the modern manifestations of these cooperatives are Israel’s four nonprofit health-maintenance organizations, or HMOs, which offer health care to all citizens through an individual mandate and social-security payroll contributions, share a single electronic medical-record system, and benefit from a “centralized chain of command” that allows them to implement plans across the nation’s range of medical facilities. These HMOs don’t just help cover medical expenses; they also operate clinics and provide doctors.“When it comes to understanding the early success and—perhaps as importantly—the reason why pharma companies trusted Israel in its ability to implement this massive endeavor, it comes down to its public-health system, inherited by those in power today,” Bahar argued.The semiprivate, publicly funded HMOs, which don’t respond to the same profit incentives that private insurance companies in the United States do, are present not just in big cities but also in more remote and disadvantaged locations such as “poor, smaller Arab towns or Bedouin villages in the Negev” desert, Bahar wrote to me in an email. “The contrast in my mind here was rural America, which will be hard to vaccinate if people there have to drive one and a half hours each way to the closest CVS or clinic.” (In this regard, Israel benefits immensely from being a much smaller country than the United States.)The HMOs have helped make Israel’s health-care system one of the most efficient in the world. And crucially—and in contrast to public sentiment regarding the government and other aspects of the health-care system such as surgery or queues for services—confidence in these health funds is widespread; roughly three-quarters of Israelis say they trust their HMO physician, and 90 percent say they are satisfied with their plan. This trust matters, because the HMOs are at the forefront of the vaccination campaign.To execute that campaign, the Israeli Ministry of Health has acted as a hub for receiving the vaccines from drugmakers and distributing them to the HMOs. The HMOs tapped into the country’s digital medical records to determine the order in which population segments needed to be vaccinated, and speedily set up hundreds of vaccination centers across the country.While Israelis must be members of an HMO, they can choose which one and have the option each year of switching to another if they are unhappy with the services they’ve received. “The competition between these HMOs facilitated a much more efficient vaccination rollout,” as did additional competition with independent hospitals, Cyrille Cohen, a professor at Bar-Ilan University and member of a coronavirus vaccine advisory committee to the Health Ministry, wrote to me by email. It helped foster what he called “‘vaccinal capitalism.’”Cohen told me he got his shots by tuning into regular updates on the news about which demographic group was eligible to be vaccinated next. He logged into his account on his HMO site when he learned it was his turn, chose a vaccination center based on his location, and scheduled an appointment. “Thirty seconds after confirming, I got a text on my cell with all the info, including date, time, place and already a second appointment for [the] next shot, exactly three weeks apart,” he told me. It all took “less than two minutes.” There are alternative options if you don’t use the internet or prefer to get your vaccination at a hospital rather than through your HMO.As Bahar sees it, Israel’s HMO infrastructure and medical-record system have enabled it to achieve two of the three requisite goals for a staged national vaccination program when supplies are short: targeting shots to the people who most need them and ensuring that those who are eligible can access the vaccine for free. But he told me that what he sees as the third requirement—a public understanding that the vaccine is safe and that the whole population must be vaccinated to end the COVID-19 crisis—still depends on the confidence in government that was so essential for countries to beat back the virus during the pandemic’s first phase.Israel has also performed well on this third front. “Only 9 percent of the population has declared that they won’t get the vaccine,” which is low compared with many Western countries (including the United States) and in keeping with the practical, “start-up nation” mentality of Israelis, Cohen observed.But he added that Israel’s success looks more uneven when you zoom in on the specifics, noting that vaccination rates in the Arab population and Ultra-Orthodox populations are only half those of the general population. Misinformation and a lack of trust in Israeli authorities, among other challenges, are tamping down rates among both groups.Israel’s vaccination drive also doesn’t include Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as Israeli and Palestinian authorities each accuse the other of shirking their responsibility for these populations. Even when you zoom back out, Israel’s successful procurement of vaccines raises broader questions about the inequitable global distribution of vaccines between rich and poor countries that may only grow more pronounced in the coming months.While the Biden administration has ambitious plans to invest $20 billion in a new campaign to vaccinate the nation through federally supported vaccination sites, the reality is that there are limits to what a country can do if it neglected to invest in the prerequisites for an effective response until the crisis was already upon it."We would never think, Let’s wait until we’re in the middle of a war to fund our military. But we do that all the time with our public-health infrastructure” in the U.S., said Gayle. “That’s the backdrop against which we are now trying to do what is the most complex public-health implementation that we’ve ever had, which is getting this vaccine rolled out and effectively given to diverse populations.”[Read: The] long haul of vaccine results is just beginningTo make progress, the United States would do well to play to its unique strengths, just as Israel did with its HMOs. To cite an example that’s especially relevant now, as new coronavirus variants emerge around the world that could undermine the effectiveness of vaccines: The United States has so far sequenced only 0.3 percent of its COVID-19 genomes—a process that would help it track the virus’s genetic changes—even though the U.S. has more genomic-sequencing capacity than any other country, according to Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine. It currently ranks a middling 43rd in the world on percentage of COVID-19 cases sequenced. When it comes to combatting the coronavirus, America has the science in spades. But that scientific knowledge has repeatedly been detached from its public-health response.The United States has failed at every stage in the fight against COVID-19, from its inadequate diagnostic testing and genomic sequencing to what now appears to be its botched vaccine rollout, Hotez told me. “There was never a plan to vaccinate the American people,” he argued, noting that the military-led logistics for the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed seem to have been “all about loading boxes off UPS and FedEx trucks and keeping them cold,” rather than focused on fashioning efficient, effective, and equitable systems for getting the vaccine doses in those boxes into Americans’ arms.“The states put in place an adult-vaccination infrastructure that was basically just the pharmacy chains and the hospitals, maybe a few community clinics,” Hotez said. “It was not nearly adequate for the task at hand: to vaccinate three-quarters of the American people. And we’re backed into a corner now because, since we failed to even attempt to do COVID-19 control, we’ve put all of our eggs in the vaccine basket.”The way out might be leaning more on the few institutions that still retain high levels of trust among Americans—the equivalents of Israel’s HMOs. In a new survey, the communications firm Edelman identified a striking dynamic in the United States (and many other countries): Although public trust in government is low, trust in business and particularly people’s employers is higher, even across the country’s political divide. That argues for the U.S. government to work more closely with the private sector on vaccinations, as Washington State’s health department just announced it will do by establishing a “Vaccine Command and Coordination Center" in partnership with companies such as Starbucks and Microsoft.But the fact that this public-private innovation is happening at the state level is revealing. The federal government’s decision to send vaccines to states but then delegate the administration of the vaccines to under-resourced local authorities has produced a bewildering, disorganized patchwork—what often amounts to public health by happenstance. In contrast to Israel, far more doses have been distributed across the United States than shots given. Americans are scrambling to track down doses however they can—whether a tip from their mail carrier, a text from a friend, or a trip to the grocery store to buy Hot Pockets. Even when they are deemed eligible to be vaccinated, too many Americans are finding that maxed-out appointments, crashing websites, and endless hold times mean they can’t avail themselves of the opportunity. Cyrille Cohen’s two-minute sign-up this is not.Israelis know exactly where to turn for their vaccine: Their familiar HMO, which provides for all their family’s primary-care needs. Many Americans, even when their time for a shot has finally come, don’t know what to do or where to go. Employers, having built up trust and personal connections with their employees, could potentially fill that void in the United States.Israel has “a system of community clinics and community public health. We don’t do that. I mean, what do we have? We have Sam’s Club and Rite Aid and Walgreens and hospital chains,” Hotez said. In the U.S., “it’s all privatized. And it works for some things. But for an ambitious undertaking to vaccinate the American people, it’s an abysmal failure yet again.”
How to Not Bury the Past
Until the day that a violent mob stormed the Capitol building, it seemed possible that Donald Trump would be able to shuffle into postpresidential life without facing any real consequences. President-elect Joe Biden had indicated his anxiety over a potential prosecution of the former president. Commentators muttered about the political divisiveness of pursuing Trump after he left office. Better, perhaps, to look forward, not backward, as President Barack Obama famously said of potential lawbreaking under the Bush administration.Then, after being egged on by the president on January 6, pro-Trump rioters broke into the Capitol and terrorized staffers and members of Congress. The House of Representatives impeached Trump a second time—setting in motion a process that, if successful, could bar him from seeking the presidency in 2024. According to The New York Times, the overwhelming mood of Democratic politicians and activists lurched toward support for investigations, prosecutions, and other forms of accountability. As law enforcement continued searching for rioters, the very same Republican politicians who had earlier been stoking chaos frantically backpedaled, issuing statements calling for “unity” and “healing.”The country does deserve unity and healing following the Trump presidency, but they won’t come from ignoring the destruction that has transpired. Accountability—a public reckoning for Trump and those who enabled his abuses—is the way forward. One path is prosecution, which can provide punishment to perpetrators. But another, complementary approach is truth commissions, which center on the voices and experiences of victims.Imagine a commission convened to investigate family separations and the administration’s policies forcing people seeking asylum in the United States to wait in dangerous, squalid conditions in Mexico. This investigation could seek not only to hear testimony from the victims, but also to understand how the recent history of American immigration law and policy enabled these horrors. The value of a truth commission, in part, would be in establishing a common public understanding of the Trump administration and the damage it caused, without which the nation will not be able to move in a new direction. Other potential subjects for such a commission include the administration’s embrace of lies about the integrity of American elections, leading to the attack on the Capitol, and its catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic.[From the October 2020 issue: America’s plastic hour is upon us]Truth commissions are particularly well suited to addressing societies divided not merely by political differences but by wholly different understandings of history, as ours is. They gained prominence in the latter half of the 20th century as a means by which countries emerging from periods of violence or political upheaval could come to grips with past abuses. Commissions typically seek to provide victims of wrongdoing with an opportunity to speak and be heard, and to find the public respect and recognition they have been denied. As Kelebogile Zvobgo, a political scientist who studies truth commissions at William & Mary, told me, the violence in the Capitol showcased exactly the “lack of shared understanding of past and present” that makes a commission necessary.The most widely used definition of a truth commission comes from the human-rights scholar Priscilla Hayner, a senior mediation adviser for the United Nations. Commissions, Hayner writes in her book Unspeakable Truths, are temporary bodies established by the government to study past abuses, rather than monitor an ongoing crisis. They tend to focus on patterns of abuse over time—long histories of racialized violence, for example—rather than isolated events. “The past is an argument,” writes the Canadian author and politician Michael Ignatieff, “and the function of truth commissions … is simply to purify the argument, to narrow the range of permissible lies.”Some scholars contend that, in order to constitute a truth commission, the process must be linked with a political transition: the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, perhaps the most prominent example of such an organization, was formed at the end of apartheid. In recent years, though, some established democracies—such as Canada and several American states—have also begun to make use of commissions in facing the uglier aspects of their pasts. In 2013, Maine created the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission to study the state’s removal of Wabanaki children from their families beginning in the 1970s. And in 2019, the government of Maryland established a body dedicated to investigating the history of racist lynchings across the state from 1854 to 1933. Arguably, the first—and only—national truth commission in the U.S. was established in 1980, to examine the World War II–era internment of Japanese Americans. More recently, members of Congress have put forward proposals for truth commissions to deal with legacies of racial violence against Black Americans and other people of color, along with policies that forced Native American children to attend boarding schools away from their communities.Weeks before the election, the historian Jill Lepore argued that the idea of a truth commission after Trump would minimize those earlier, historical wrongs: “Coming to terms with centuries of dispossession, enslavement and racial violence is a very different matter from reckoning with four years of a democratically elected president,” she wrote in The Washington Post. This underestimates the predation of the Trump administration—especially given that the Republican Party has now tossed aside its commitment to democratic elections going forward. But rather than separating Trump’s abuses from “centuries of dispossession,” an American truth commission might be better conceptualized as an investigation beginning with Trump and stretching backward. In many ways, Trump represents something genuinely new and warped, but he is also an extension of the uglier parts of the country’s character. “You’d need to contextualize Trump as part of the through line” of abuses over history, Zvobgo told me.The most obvious way to establish an independent commission would be through the legislative branch: the federal investigation into Japanese American internment was created by an act of Congress. But that commission had support from both Democrats and Republicans, a notion that seems far-fetched now. Even if Democrats manage to somehow push through a bill along a razor-thin majority—or if a commission were established by other means, perhaps an executive order—a post-Trump investigation pursued along partisan lines could be doomed from the start. This is the irony: The exact conditions that led to and sustained the Trump era—white grievance, a polluted media ecosystem, and political polarization—are the same conditions that will likely prevent a truth commission from succeeding.[Read: Is American healing even possible?]These problems are already apparent. Right-wing commentators have compared suggestions for a truth commission to threats of “totalitarianism” and “the guillotine.” It’s all too easy to imagine how Fox News and Newsmax would turn Trump supporters against even the most painstakingly fair commission—and how former administration officials could use this fury as a cover for refusing to testify, denying commissioners the participation they would need from perpetrators in order to succeed. A truth commission may be needed now in America to reestablish what Ignatieff calls “the range of permissible lies” about the country’s history, but how it would work is hard to see precisely because so many liars have stopped asking for permission.“I just don’t think the country is ready” for a truth commission, Adam Kochanski, who studies transitional justice at McGill University, told me. In his view, the political divisions are too deep: “A lot of groundwork needs to be laid first in order for a truth-commission process to be successful and for the truth to stick.” Before a national truth commission can be possible, Kochanski told me, work needs to be done around restoring trust in government and “reestablishing truth.”Even so, “there’s never a ‘good time’ for transitional justice,” Zvobgo argued to me in the aftermath of the riot. “We just need to go for it.” Likewise, when I first spoke with him shortly after the November election, Joshua Inwood told me that a national truth commission is “probably a long shot.” An associate geography professor at Penn State University, where he has studied American truth commissions at the local and regional levels, Inwood found that U.S. commissions tend to do best when they enjoy strong grassroots support—which would be challenging to organize countrywide. When we spoke again after the Capitol riot, he remained cautious about the feasibility of a national truth commission, but felt that such an organization could help Americans “at least begin to have conversations about a shared set of facts and a shared reality.”If a truth commission does not emerge, other strategies exist for ensuring that wrongdoing is not forgotten. After the Capitol riot, a surge of energy has poured into shunning the Republican politicians who egged on the violence. Commentators have suggested that figures such as Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley be shunned for their role in precipitating the siege of the Capitol, and home-state newspapers are calling on the legislators to resign. The day after the riot, Simon & Schuster announced that it would no longer publish Hawley’s upcoming book.Social sanctions such as these are powerful in their own right, argues the political theorist Jacob T. Levy. After the 2019 resignation of Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen—who was crucial in implementing the family-separation policy—the Niskanen Center, where Levy is a fellow, announced that it would refuse to associate with Nielsen or any organization that gave her an institutional home. Such shunning is “an important fallback when official impunity has been granted,” wrote Levy in the months before the election. His view is that, at a minimum, officials who engage in abuses of power “should not have their time in office counted in their favor by any institution making any decision about conferring status and prestige.”[Read: The man without a country]“It will take serious effort to shape the understanding of the election into ‘Trump was specifically rejected, for good reason that we should remember,’” Levy told me over email. “Without some widespread and visible ongoing rejection of those who served in the Trump administration, I don’t think we get any norm-rebuilding at all, just pious hopes.” A truth commission, he said, could help provide a documentary record to supplement that process, but the work ahead remains the same.And then, there is the question of prosecutions—a possibility that might have seemed far-fetched before January 6, but now appears somewhat plausible. Biden told reporters in August that prosecuting a former president would be “probably not very … good for democracy.” Yet Trump’s recent dangerous behavior undercuts one of the key arguments against, at a bare minimum, looking into possible criminality on the president’s part, not to mention that of other officials who may have committed crimes. As my colleague Paul Rosenzweig wrote in The Atlantic, “the promise not to prosecute after a term ends is part of the price we pay for the routine peaceful transition of power”—but now that Trump has already broken his side of the bargain, why make that payment?For this reason, justified investigations of Trump and his associates would help support the Biden administration’s effort to redraw the lines of what is and isn’t acceptable, and recommit the country to the much-battered principle that no one is above the law. And if a case ended up in court, it would set out the truth of Trump’s actions in the judicial record in black and white. This is a different form of justice than that offered by a truth commission, but it is also a form of healing, a way of saying that Trump’s vision of America is not the only way for the country to be.In the short run, any of these measures could risk making the country’s social and political divisions worse. Republican lawmakers have threatened as much with their arguments that any efforts to hold them accountable for the Capitol riot would be divisive. Yet that may matter less than it seems. Truth commissions are often referred to as “truth and reconciliation commissions,” but, Zvobgo told me, scholars have begun to split truth from peacemaking in recent years. “Truth can be a foundation,” Zvobgo said, “for education, commemoration, trials, reparations”—all worth pursuing in and of themselves, whether or not reconciliation results. Reconciliation that forfeits truth is not a trade worth making in the United States today. No solid foundation can be built from forgetting. The challenge will be to avoid the temptation of polite forgetfulness and insist instead on acknowledging and uncovering what happened under Trump, and who was responsible.
Why Biden's Inaugural Address Succeeded
Political speeches follow a surprisingly simple set of rules—or at least the successful ones do. Newly sworn-in President Joe Biden observed them all in his inaugural address. Although his 20 minutes at the lectern are not likely to be parsed and studied for rhetorical flourishes, with this speech Biden accomplished something more important: He signaled how he will approach this job and this moment in history.The first rule in political rhetoric is authenticity. Does the essence of the speech—its vocabulary, its rhythms, its cadences, and its tendencies toward “plain” versus “fancy” tone—match the essence of the speaker? Does the rhetoric call attention to itself? Or does it mainly serve to transmit the mood, intention, and ideas the speaker hopes to convey?Martin Luther King Jr. was modern America’s greatest rhetorician. But the very words and cadences of his speeches that have gone down in history—“I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the promised land”—would have sounded forced and stagey from most other prominent Americans. They would not have rung true even from the first Black president, Barack Obama, whose single greatest speech—his “Amazing Grace” elegy for the victims of the racist gun massacre in Charleston, South Carolina—was delivered at the historic Mother Emanuel Church, where King himself once spoke.[David A. Graham: A sermon in America’s civic religion]Obama’s eloquence, as I once argued here, is in the paragraph-scale development of ideas, rather than the sentence-by-sentence coinage of standalone phrases. The American politician I can most imagine presenting a Martin Luther King speech and sounding authentic would have been Barbara Jordan, the late Democratic Representative from Texas—who indeed gave a very King-like speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1976.When it comes to rhetoric, many politicians would love to be considered another King, another FDR, another Jordan, another Churchill. But the wisest of them aspire to sound like the best possible version of themselves. (And the wisest of speechwriters aspire to make their own work invisible—to serve, in essence, as glaziers, creating transparent panes through which the speaker’s intent can be most clearly seen.)Joe Biden sounded like the best version of himself on Inauguration Day. Few if any of the sentences he uttered will be chiseled into marble. The exception illustrating the rule was Biden’s summary statement about foreign policy: “We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” This line, which he has used in other speeches (and which Bill Clinton also used in his speech nominating Obama back in 2008), was both a distillation of a swing away from Trumpism (as Fred Kaplan observed) and a handy case study of the rhetorical technique called chiasmus, or reversing terms. (Homely example: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s …” High-flown example: “Ask not what your country can do for you …”)But the speech in its entirety was admirably plain and direct, and therefore plausible. It sounded not like John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama or Franklin D. Roosevelt or any other Democratic president, but like Joe Biden. It sounded like the vice president who served loyally for eight years under Obama, like the candidate who struck and stayed true to a “Can’t we just get along?” tone from the start of his 2020 campaign, like the president-elect who would not rise to the bait of Donald Trump’s taunts or sink to the depths of his discourse but instead calmly reasserted his plans to address the nation’s crises. (But it also sounded like the person who had learned from the bitter fights Obama had when trying to get his legislation and nominees approved, and from the assault on the democratic process itself launched by Trump and many of his allies.) The speech’s tone matched the speaker, and thus the tone was right.[Daniel T. Rodgers: America desperately needs a new age of moral leadership]The second rule in political rhetoric is realism. A speaker must seem to understand the world in which the listeners live. By definition, a president, prime minister, or other leader operates from a privileged and powerful perspective. But the effective ones open their ears, their minds, their hearts—and ultimately their voices—to the hardships of their society, and also the long-term hopes. This is why virtually every effective speech in a time of crisis follows a three-part sequence: empathy, for the pain, fear, uncertainty, and suffering people are going through, for instance at the beginning of the Great Depression, after surprise attacks like those at Pearl Harbor and on 9/11, and during civil unrest or a pandemic; confidence, about the strains and struggles the society has withstood before, and thus about the hope of success again; and a plan, about ways to turn things around. (“In our first 100 days, we will …”)If a speaker omits the first part, listeners feel that their government is hopelessly out of touch. If a speaker omits the second, it’s all the harder to make progress. Despair is a poor motivating tool. And without the third, hopeful promises are “just talk.”Joe Biden made good on all parts of this formula. His speech was coldly realistic about the bleak prospects ahead—from the pandemic, from economic collapse, from the climate crisis, from the assault on democracy and truth. He called for a moment of silence in memory of the 400,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19, “a silent prayer for those who lost their lives, for those they left behind, and for our country.” In calling repeatedly for “unity,” he seemed aware of forces who do not share that goal. He summed up the larger situation, again with trademark plainness of language and non-sugarcoating of reality: We face an attack on democracy and on truth. A raging virus. Growing inequity. The sting of systemic racism. A climate in crisis. America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But then Biden switched to the theme of becoming, which has been at the heart of all great American rhetoric. The idea of the endless process of improvement links the authors of the Constitution’s ambition to form “a more perfect Union” to Abraham Lincoln’s appeals in all of his major addresses, to Martin Luther King and “I have a dream,” and to virtually all of the presentations at Biden’s inaugural ceremony, including the memorable poem by Amanda Gorman (“A nation that isn’t broken / but simply unfinished”).On the campaign trail, Biden frequently fell into the pattern of saying “Folks, we’re better than this.” The proper formulation—the realistic and convincing formulation—is “We should be better than this. We can be better.” What I think of as “conditional optimism”—not the naive assumption that things automatically will get better, but the determined conviction that they can– was the central motif of his speech, and of all the presentations of the day. As Biden put it: We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era. Will we rise to the occasion? Will we master this rare and difficult hour? Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world for our children? I believe we must and I believe we will. And when we do, we will write the next chapter in the American story. Memorable line by line? No. Effective and right for the moment? In my view, yes—and, again, absolutely in keeping with the day’s explicit and symbolic presentation as a whole. And fortunately, Biden did not have to belabor the “Here is my plan” part of his presentation, both because his speech was already getting long, by inaugural-address standards, and because a few days before being sworn in he had given a very detailed address about what he proposed to do. The third rule in political rhetoric, which applies to most speeches but above all to inaugural addresses, is to tell two stories. One of those stories is “Who we are.” The other story is “Who I am.”“Who we are” is the story of the country: where it stands along history’s arc, what it can hope and what it must fear, what its strengths and shortcomings are. “Who I am” is the story of the person taking responsibility to lead.[John Dickerson: Boring is better]The “who we are” part of the saga is as listed above: a nation that is unfinished rather than broken, that is bloodied but unbowed. The “who I am” was an explicit and implicit presentation of a man who understands others’ suffering, who himself knows the unpredictability and cruelty of fate, who thinks of the country as us rather than us and them: We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility. If we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes just for a moment. Because here is the thing about life: There is no accounting for what fate will deal you. There are some days when we need a hand. There are other days when we’re called on to lend one. That is how we must be with one another. I cannot remember a presidential address in which the values of the speaker’s faith were as evident as in this one—and not through loud exhortations of piety but through statements and commitments reflecting compassion and empathy. The one line I wrote down as soon as Biden said it was this, playing off a quote from Lincoln upon his signing the Emancipation Proclamation: Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation. My whole soul. The president for whom I worked long ago, Jimmy Carter (whose absence from the ceremonies Biden graciously acknowledged in his speech), similarly based his campaign on the need for moral balm, after a disastrous decade. He was (and is) deeply spiritual, but I don’t remember him so plainly talking about devoting his whole soul to the nation’s cause.Joe Biden might not prove to be the right person for this moment. As I argued recently in this magazine, he takes office facing more emergencies than any predecessor since Lincoln. But his own story and his version of the country’s match as well as any president’s could at the beginning of a term.
1 d