FactChecking Biden’s Inaugural Address


Returning to a time when inaugural addresses promised unity and hope, but few facts, the newly sworn-in President Joe Biden delivered a traditional speech at his inauguration that offered little for fact-checkers.

When he did offer us some facts to check, the 46th president of the United States largely hit his marks on domestic threats, COVID-19 and the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913 in a 21-minute speech.

Domestic Threats

Biden, Jan. 20: And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.

Biden is correct about the rise in “political extremism.” Even before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the Department of Homeland Security warned in its Homeland Threat Assessment report, which was issued in October, about “an elevated threat environment” from political extremists.

“Some U.S.-based violent extremists have capitalized on increased social and political tensions in 2020, which will drive an elevated threat environment at least through early 2021,” the report said. “Violent extremists will continue to target individuals or institutions that represent symbols of their grievances, as well as grievances based on political affiliation or perceived policy positions.”

As for white supremacy, the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a February 2019 report that white nationalist groups increased by nearly 50% in a single year, “growing from 100 chapters in 2017 to 148 in 2018.”

The FBI, which releases annual data on hate crimes, reported 7,314 hate crime incidents involving 8,559 offenses in 2019 — up from 6,121 criminal incidents and 7,321 related offenses in 2016, when Biden was vice president. That’s an increase of 19.5% in hate crimes. In 2016, 46.3% of the known offenders were white, rising to 52.5% in 2019.

At a Sept. 17 hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that “racially motivated violent extremism” is the largest share of domestic terrorism, and within that category those engaged in “some kind of white supremacist-type ideology is certainly the biggest chunk of that.”

The United States is not alone in grappling with white supremacy, which is spreading globally.

In a 2019 terrorism report, which was issued in June, the State Department said racially or ethnically motivated terrorism, or REMT, “in particular white supremacist terrorism, continues to be a threat to the global community, with violence both on the rise and spreading geographically, as white supremacist and nativist movements and individuals increasingly target immigrants; Jewish, Muslim, and other religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or intersex (LGBTI) individuals; governments; and other perceived enemies.”

COVID-19 Deaths

Biden, Jan. 20: It’s [COVID-19] taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II.

We’re quibbling, but Biden would have been on firmer ground had he said there have been more COVID-19 deaths than “battle deaths” from WWII.

According to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard, updated at 12:21 p.m. on Jan. 20, around the time Biden made his remarks, the U.S. had 402,997 deaths from COVID-19 so far (there is some lag in reporting). According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there were 291,557 battle deaths in World War II. There were another 113,842 deaths among service members not in theater. That comes to 405,399 total U.S. deaths in World War II.

Sadly, given the average number of deaths from COVID-19 in recent days, Biden’s statement will likely be true by the end of the day.

Business Closures

Biden, Jan. 20: Millions of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of businesses closed.

As we’ve written, Biden does inherit an economy that has 9.8 million fewer jobs since the pre-pandemic recession peak in February. But the total number of businesses that have permanently closed due to the pandemic — as Biden’s remarks suggest — is currently unknown.

In September, Yelp, an advertising website and mobile app for local businesses, reported that a total of 163,735 businesses using its platform had closed during the pandemic, between March 1 and Aug. 31. About 60% of that total, or 97,966 closures, are believed to be permanent.

Yelp says its “closure counts are likely an estimate of the businesses most impacted, with many others not counted because they remain open with curtailed hours and staffing, or because they have not yet updated their Yelp business pages to reflect closures.” So the data could be an underestimate of the number of short- or long-term business closures.

That same month, economics professor Steven Hamilton — using earlier figures from Yelp and Womply, a data and software company for local businesses — estimated that 420,000 small businesses in the U.S. had closed permanently by July 10.

But at this point, an estimate is all it is. An official count is unavailable.

Women’s March

Biden, Jan. 20: Here we stand where 108 years ago at another inaugural thousands of protesters tried to block brave women marching for the right to vote. And today we mark the swearing in of the first woman in American history, elected to national office, Vice President Kamala Harris. Don’t tell me things can’t change.

Biden was referring to the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913. On March 3, 1913, the day before President-elect Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, more than 5,000 marchers paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in support of women’s right to vote.

According to a Library of Congress essay on the event, “the crowds, mostly men in town for the following day’s inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, surged into the street making it almost impossible for the marchers to pass.” According to testimony later provided in a Senate hearing, “Women were jeered, tripped, grabbed, shoved, and many heard ‘indecent epithets’ and ‘barnyard conversation.’”

In all, 100 marchers were injured and taken to the hospital, and a troop of cavalry from Virginia was called in to control the crowd, according to the Library of Congress essay. Still, the essay notes, many of those in the parade completed the route, and the event provided the suffrage movement “an infusion of vigor.”

The 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was ratified seven years later on Aug. 18, 1920. Since 1964, more women have voted in presidential elections than men.

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