Opinion | A President Can Govern in Poetry

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The new president wants to raise taxes on corporations, strengthen labor unions, expand Obamacare with a public option, stall the existential threat of climate change and spend $2 trillion on energy and infrastructure. On Day 1, he rejoined the community of nations who’ve agreed to the Paris climate accord.

He envisions a Rooseveltian campaign to get 100 million Covid vaccine shots into the arms of Americans in his first 100 days. There will be ramped-up testing, contact tracing and mobilization of at least 100,000 people to conquer the virus.

It’s a full plate, with long odds. For starters, how does a president who sees the essential goodness in everyone deal with a party whose base doesn’t even believe in the legitimacy of his presidency? How does he bring the conspiracy theorists back to planet Earth, and cool the tribal passions that fueled the insurrection on Jan. 6?

If Biden and Congress succeed at the big ideas, and not just the reversal of wrongful executive orders or unpopular legislation, he will be fondly remembered, even if he serves only one term. What’s more, he may even able to bring enough fresh air into our toxic political atmosphere to realign things.

If he fails, well, I’m sorry to remind you that most Irish poetry is rooted in despair, in a country whose currency for centuries was misery. Still, in Ireland, poets have moved the masses to uprisings and greatness — most notably, the Easter 1916 rebellion that eventually helped lead to a free Ireland.

Thus, on Wednesday, the first message from the Irish president Michael D. Higgins to Biden contained a quotation from the poet John O’Donohue — “Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning.”

In his struggle to overcome his stutter, Biden famously recited the poems of William Butler Yeats in front of a mirror. He has used Heaney’s aspirational lines again and again — in a viral campaign video, and his acceptance speech last summer at the Democratic National Convention, and at a 2013 meeting on the U.S.-Korea relationship in Seoul.

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