Joe Biden
Credit: CNBC/Screen Shot

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. committed himself today to ending the country’s divisions. He chose to make that goal the commanding theme of his inaugural address: “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.”

Biden’s commitment to ending this “uncivil war,” to uniting the country, is surely headed to the history books. He gave that two-word phrase to the headline writers but also to those who will record this day for posterity.

Most important, he gave it to the pundits. Bringing the country together is now the scoreboard on which his first weeks in office will be judged.

So, can he really do it? Can he bring together a people split roughly down the middle between right and left? Can he end the spirit of conflict that has driven our national conversation and now divides both houses of Congress?

This is what is so striking about today’s inaugural address, how sharply Biden has defined the terms of how he should be judged starting Thursday morning.

Have you ever heard a new president compare his commitment to a single goal – in this case, national unity – to the degree Abraham Lincoln tied his legacy to the Emancipation Proclamation?

This is literally what Joe Biden did. First, he quoted Lincoln’s words of enduring fidelity to his decision to free the slaves in the Confederate states: “If my name ever goes down into history, it’ll be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”

Biden then matched Lincoln’s words with his own: “My whole soul is in it today. On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”

This is a heroic statement. Think of how it separates Biden in tone, language, and purpose from so many politicians of the day. Most of them, right and left both, think and speak in the metaphor of war. They promise their sides to “fight” for their causes and “never stop fighting.”

They often do it with a closed fist.

Biden today offered himself more as a referee than a pugilist. Associating himself with St. Augustine, Lincoln, and Pope Francis, he promised to serve the people who voted against him with the same fidelity as he shows those who brought him to the presidency.

Let’s assume he means it. If so, Joe Biden is promising to do something Donald Trump never thought of doing–defining his role as this country’s head of state, the leader who speaks to and for all the American people.

What does it say about our new, 46th president that he would make such a grand commitment?

My hunch is he really believes in the cause. Also, he wanted to give a speech with enough clarity and punch to match the one he heard as an 18-year-old.

Without borrowing a single word, there was a cadence in Biden’s speech today that echoed John F. Kennedy’s address 60 years ago.

 JFK: “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom,” John F. Kennedy began his address.”

JRB: “Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause, the cause of democracy.”

Two factors made Biden’s speech a great one for the history books. One, it was like Kennedy’s, singular and monumental in purpose. Two, it was a profile in courage. This country has needed for too long a true national leader as president, someone willing to carry the burden of national unity.

Now we have one.

Chris Matthews

Chris Matthews has worked as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist. He is the author of This Country: My Life in Politics and History and Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.