Joe Biden’s first speech as the 46th President of the United States called for unity in confronting and defeating the challenges of the day, the virus, repairing an economy weakened by the pandemic, the scourge of racial injustice — issues that Valley legislators and stakeholders find critical to residents.

It was a speech that both Democrats and Republicans, and Valley political observers said they wanted to hear, a call for people to work together to solve problems.

“I found President Biden’s remarks to be incredibly honest and hopeful,” said longtime Republican John Meckley, of Milton.

He said he won’t always agree with Biden, but disagreements are normal and healthy.

“We must meet this moment with a renewed commitment to what unites us as Americans,” Meckley said. “I’m certain that I’ll have plenty of policy differences with President Biden. But I respect and accept his call to come together on what we share in common as Americans — a mutual love for our country, for opportunity, for dignity and for the truth.”

President Biden called on us to summon the best in us, Meckley said.

“It’s a national call, yet one that we can and must begin locally by re-engaging as a community by seeing each other as individuals, by treating one another with respect and by letting our ideas compete,” he said. “That can only happen if we — Republicans, Democrats and independents alike — can reject the conspiracy theories that divide us and embrace a collective search for and defense of the truth. In that we can be true to our principles, find common ground and succeed.”

Cautiously optimistic

The Valley’s Republican Congressmen, while cautiously optimistic, reserved judgment on how these challenges will be met.

“The President’s speech was largely about unity,” said U.S. Congressman Dan Meuser, R-9, Dallas, who was in the audience. “Joe Biden, over the years, has always had good words. He outlined a very general plan, but it’s all about execution. So we shall see if they (Democrats) are truly interested in unity. I know we are. I know Republicans are.

“I had no real disagreements with a lot of what he had to say, such as our need to defeat the virus,” Meuser said.

Meuser said he was willing to see if the Democrats in Congress were willing to work with Republicans. “I have my doubts. But I have my hopes,” he said. “I’d like to see people being put ahead of politics, and if that happens it would be the first time since I’ve been in Congress. I’d like to see the rhetoric toned down.” 

Congressman Fred Keller, R-12-Kreamer, also expressed a willingness to work together.

“Our nation must come together around the common values and causes that we all share as Americans,” he said. “Although the Biden administration begins with Democrat control of Congress, the margin is slim, and I hope the president will focus on policies that continue to build on the record high unemployment numbers, economic gains, and pro-growth regulatory environment of the last four years.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress and in this new administration to deliver the promise of this great nation to all its citizens.”

Locals leaders react

The chairs of Union County’s Democratic and Republican committees reacted differently to Biden’s inauguration.

“We’ve turned a very large corner today,” said Democrat Rick Thomas. “Seeing a Black, East Asian woman being sworn in as vice president by a Latina female Supreme Court Justice shows that we can change, that we have changed, and that we will continue to change for the better. I am amazed how far we have moved in my lifetime to so many political leaders who reflect and represent the diversity of our nation.”

We need more of those good changes, Thomas said

“Things can, and will, get better,” he said. “We will always have our differences, but as long as those differences aren’t built on hate, lies and conspiracy theories, we can work toward compromise. We will move toward a more perfect union. There are more ties that bind us than not, we just need to do a better job of accentuating them.

“We can’t just forget the past four years,” Thomas said. “People should be given credit for positive accomplishments. But those who have broken or ignored our laws and our Constitution need to be held accountable. I look forward to a future where we reject the politics of subtraction and division, and focus instead on ways to add and multiply our best ideas. I believe the Biden administration will give us the opportunity for a major positive reset.” 

Republican Carolyn Conner is less sure about the direction she sees the new administration taking. 

“As President, Biden takes the helm of our nation,” said Conner. “We know that America will remain great to the degree she is faithful to her founding principles of life and liberty. Inasmuch as President Biden and his administration remove government’s meddling in the lives of every American and restrain interference in communities of faith, America will stay a beacon of hope to the world. 

Should President Biden ignore fundamental respect for all Americans, Conner said, “We can be sure America’s light will dim and its people suffer. We will pray unceasingly for President Biden and his administration, as we have each President before him.”

What it all means 

President Biden’s overall messages of bringing all Americans together and protecting democracy were ones that most Americans wanted to hear, said Penn State professor of political science Robert Speel, The Behrend College. 

“There seemed to be three overall themes to his speech,” Speel said, citing protection of American democracy, Americans working together to fight for such efforts as ending the pandemic, and restoration of a more widely accepted style of government that includes international alliances and allowing the United States to be an example to the world.

“His message was effective and may for a while lessen some of the fears or anger among those who voted for his opponent last November,” Speel said.

It was good to see Vice President Mike Pence and Karen Pence at the ceremony to represent traditional government continuity and respect for democratic changes of leadership, Speel said.

Like Speel, Susquehanna University professor of political science Nick Clark thought the speech was effective and important.

“President Biden is not as much of an orator as President Obama or performer as President Trump,” Clark said. “But his message was important to the security and healing of the country. President Biden has a history of working with Republicans and people with whom he disagrees. There were moments that were a negative for him in the Democratic Party. But he has a history of it and that was captured in his speech.”

Clark said he does not foresee a new era of bipartisanship, but for President Biden politics is often not personal. 

“The optics of the ceremony and the message he delivered was one focused on the pandemic and how the country needs to rally to overcome the pandemic once and for all,” Clark said. “The Republicans in D.C., including Vice President Pence, contributed to efforts to create a sense of normalcy in the transfer of power.”

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