Joe Biden won plenty of praise for a specific line in his inaugural address on Wednesday.
“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth, and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit,” the new US President said.
“Each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders – leaders who have pledged to honour our Constitution and protect our nation – to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
It was an admirable message, and a particularly relevant one, given the torrent of lies and misinformation we all witnessed from Mr Biden’s predecessor, and the violence those lies eventually unleashed.
But that’s all it was.
In these early days of the Biden presidency, when Donald Trump’s worst deeds are still fresh in our memories, we need to be especially mindful of the difference between a promise made and a promise kept.
High-minded rhetoric is typical of inauguration week in the United States. Whoever is taking power inevitably offers soaring words about bipartisanship, national unity, and all the other warm, fuzzy, unobjectionable things that are easy to promise and hard to deliver.
It’s a very earnest time.
As a general rule, Americans don’t approach politics with quite the same level of jaded cynicism Australians do, which is why they end up with incredibly cheesy productions like the “Celebrating America” program that aired on Wednesday night.
Imagine how most Australians would react to a New Year’s Eve style fireworks display celebrating the election of a new Prime Minister, and you’ll understand the cultural difference I’m talking about here.
We saw it in much of the coverage from US media this week. There is a line between treating these events with the deference they deserve and fawning over them, and that line was crossed a little too often.
“They gave us joy. They gave us fashion. They gave us celebrity. They gave us hope,” MSNBC host Joy Reid gushed after the inauguration.
Her colleague Rachel Maddow said she had gone through a whole box of tissues.
The night before, as Mr Biden visited the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool, CNN political analyst David Chalian said the lights surrounding the scene were “almost extensions of Joe Biden’s arms embracing America”.
It was all a bit much.
Yes, Mr Biden certainly said the right things. By all means, applaud his words. But will he deliver on them? That’s far more important, and the first few days of Mr Biden’s presidency have contained some danger signs.
At an event on Thursday afternoon, where he spoke about the coronavirus and signed several executive orders, Mr Biden got into a prickly exchange with a reporter.
The reporter asked whether the President’s goal of 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations in his first 100 days was “high enough”.
“When I announced it, you all said it’s not possible. Come on, give me a break, man,” Mr Biden shot back.
“It’s a good start, 100 million.”
The President brought it up again on Friday.
“I found it fascinating – yesterday, the press asked the question, ‘Is 100 million enough?’ Week before they were saying, ‘Biden are you crazy? You can’t do 100 million in 100 days,’” he said.
“Well, we’re going to – God willing – not only do 100 million, we’re going to do more than that.”
On both occasions, Mr Biden’s description of the news media’s coverage was false. Some reporting described the target as “challenging”, while some suggested it was not ambitious enough. No one was calling him crazy.
For added context here, the US has averaged over 900,000 vaccinations per day in the last week, which means it is already nearing Mr Biden’s goal of a million each day – before any of his policy changes have taken effect.
So, the President was asked a perfectly fair question. Instead of answering it in good faith, he offered the same kind of nonsense complaint about the media that we all came to expect from Mr Trump.
So much for defending truth and defeating lies.
The new White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, has also fallen short of Mr Biden’s rhetoric this week, despite her own pledge to bring “truth and transparency” back to the briefing room.
“We have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people,” Ms Psaki told reporters during her first briefing.
The next day, she too was asked about Mr Biden’s vaccination target.
“Can you just elaborate a little bit on why the President isn’t setting the bar a little bit higher, given the magnitude of the crisis?” a reporter asked.
“Well, none of us are mathematicians, myself included, so I asked our team to do a little math on this,” Ms Psaki said.
“So, the Trump administration was given 36 million doses when they were in office, for 38 days. They administered a total of about 17 million shots. That’s less than 500,000 shots a day.
“What we are proposing is to double that. To do about one million shots per day. And we have outlined this objective in consultation with our health experts.
“It is ambitious. It’s something we feel is bold.”
It wasn’t as bad as Mr Biden’s answer – the figures Ms Psaki offered were not wrong – but they were selective. They included the earliest days of vaccine distribution back in December, when much lower quantities of shots were being administered.
The Biden administration is not, in fact, proposing to “double” the current rate of vaccination. It is aiming to add about 10 per cent more shots each day.
Ms Psaki is not Sean Spicer, or Sarah Huckabee Sanders, or Kayleigh McEnany, all of whom lied repeatedly and egregiously in that same briefing room.
The answer above is an example of normal political spin, which twists and manipulates the truth instead of ignoring it entirely.
And Mr Biden is not Donald Trump, insofar as he does not constantly spew falsehoods like an out-of-control firehouse.
It was refreshing, for example, to hear a President finally treat the pandemic with the seriousness it requires this week, and be frank with Americans about how dire the situation currently is.
Is that enough, though? By the President’s own standards, set out in his inaugural address, the answer is no.
Here’s another line from that speech: “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
Just because Mr Trump and his staff fell so far short of acceptable standards does not mean we should now lower the bar for everyone else.
We’re three days into the new administration, and we have already seen Mr Biden and Ms Psaki manipulating facts to suit their arguments.
Hopefully, now that inauguration week is out of the way, we can start to critique this presidency with the same rigour as the last one.