How can a new president restore a sense of normalcy at a time nothing seems normal?
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. takes the oath of office Wednesday amid crises that rival the worst in American history, earning comparisons to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933 during the Great Depression and as storm clouds gathered over Europe. Or Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 as seven Southern states seceded and the Civil War loomed.
But challenges can also be opportunities. Those earlier times of catastrophe forged pivotal moments and presidencies now heralded among the nation’s most consequential.
“He’s going to enter office at perhaps a more precarious time for our nation than we’ve seen in the past 150 years,” said David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “That star-spangled banner still waves, but over, perhaps, a land of the cynical and a home of the scared.”
Most Americans agree. In a USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll taken last week, a 52% majority said Biden faces the biggest crises of any president in memory. Just 6% thought he faced fewer crises than most new presidents.
The toll of the coronavirus pandemic is still growing, now taking the lives of as many as 4,000 Americans a day even as vaccines are being distributed. The economic consequences of the pandemic are reverberating, leaving millions out of work. Demands for racial justice continue to rise. A national manhunt is underway for members of the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 in an effort to overturn the results of the election.
“Our country feels very out of control to me,” said Sandi Bethune, a 71-year-old retiree from Oakland, California, who was called in the poll. A Biden voter, she is hopeful he’ll be up to the task of leading in a fraught time. “I think he’s able,” she said, noting his experience as vice president in the wake of the financial meltdown in 2008. “I think he has the leadership skills.”
Presidents often face crises they didn’t expect, noted Jimbo Selph, 39, an auto mechanic from Callahan, Florida, who voted for Trump. “There is no handbook or playbook that … tells you what to do, step by step,” he said in a follow-up interview. “You have to do what you have to do when those times show up.”
There are lessons both from history and from the past two weeks for what Biden needs to do once he is in charge.
Here are five of them.
1. Project optimism
Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will take the oaths of office standing on the steps of the Capitol, as their predecessors have done.
But little else will look the same.
The officials arrayed behind them on the West Front are expected to be socially distanced and sporting masks. The National Mall in front of them will be nearly empty, closed for the first time ever, instead of filled with exuberant supporters. Surrounding the area will be thousands of armed troops, there to ensure the peace.
“It’s more like a wartime inauguration than a normal inauguration,” said Alvin Tillery Jr., director of Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy. “It’s going to look a lot more like FDR and the economic crisis of the Great Depression or Lyndon Johnson and the crisis of the civil rights movement.”
As a result, he said, Biden’s speech needs to be “a much more stirring defense of the institution of democracy” than the typical inauguration address – or the typical speech by Biden, usually a plain-spoken person.
At times of crisis, the uplifting language of presidential inaugurations has been the most remembered.
“First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” FDR declared as he opened his address in 1933. Lincoln closed his speech in 1861 with an appeal to those who had greeted news of his election by breaking away from the union.
“We are not enemies, but friends,” he said. “We must not be enemies.” He called for a day when Americans would be touched “by the better angels of our nature.”
2. Look past the elephant in the room
That would be Donald Trump.
To the list of the week’s unprecedented moments, add this one: Biden takes office as his predecessor awaits his impeachment trial. The House has approved a charge against Trump for incitement to insurrection, the second impeachment of his tenure. The Senate trial will begin soon after Speaker Nancy Pelosi sends the article of impeachment to the other side of the Capitol.
That will present challenges of both optics and logistics. Biden wants the Senate to quickly consider and confirm his nominees for the Cabinet and other senior posts, and he plans to begin dispatching prospective legislation to Capitol Hill on his first afternoon in office. As a practical matter, the Senate trial will compete for time and attention with those priorities.
Trump impeachment:A politically perilous Senate trial could threaten Biden’s agenda
The second is symbolic. It’s hard for Biden to claim a fresh start when the previous president hasn’t left the stage. That said, Biden may need to get accustomed to that. While former presidents have generally made an effort to step away from the spotlight, at least for a while, there’s no indication that Trump plans to follow in those footsteps.
All he can do, Biden has said, is let Congress do its work while he does his.
3. Hit the ground running
On his first day in the job, Biden plans to begin with the most far-reaching set of executive orders and actions of any president at the start of his tenure.
Ron Klain, the incoming White House chief of staff, has outlined in transition memos what Biden plans to do on the first day and the first 10 days of his tenure. They amount to a declaration of how different the new administration will be from the old one on immigration, the environment, international alliances, health care and more.
On Day One, according to a document first reported by Canadian CTV, Biden plans to rejoin the Paris climate accord, extend a moratorium on evictions and student-loan payments, rescind the Keystone XL pipeline, reverse Trump’s travel ban on mostly Muslim countries, and send a sweeping immigration bill to Congress.
“They’ve got to hit the ground running,” said Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, co-author of “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974,” published in 2019. “History shows us – most of these periods of reform, you get a two-year window” to get big things done. That was true for FDR’s most ambitious Great Society legislation and for Ronald Reagan’s conservative agenda.
The party in power typically loses ground in the first midterm election of a president’s term. Which means that in 2022, Democrats risk losing their narrow majorities in the House and the Senate.
4. Breach the partisan wall
There are limits to what a president can do by executive action. To put in place his proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, for instance, Biden needs to convince Congress to pass legislation and appropriate funds.
The Democratic majority in the House is the narrowest majority either party has held in two decades. The Senate is split 50-50, under Democratic control only because the vice president will be able to break ties.
That means Biden will need united Democratic ranks and, at times, the support of at least a handful of Republicans. He’ll need to navigate between his party’s most progressive voices, generally from solidly blue territory, and the moderates from both parties who represent the nation’s purple states and districts.
Kruse calls the notion that congressional Republicans will agree to compromise “naive,” citing President Barack Obama’s failed appeals across party lines during debate over the Affordable Care Act. But Barker said Biden’s long experience in the Senate and his personal demographics – a white, centrist, 78-year-old man born in Scranton, Pennsylvania – could help.
“If Biden cannot make a dent in this polarization, then who can?” the American University political scientist said. “If working-class Joe can’t gain their trust, then who can?”
Some of the early signs are problematic, though. In the new USA TODAY Poll, more than 7 in 10 Republicans said they didn’t believe Biden had been legitimately elected, a belief pressed by Trump and debunked by independent fact-checkers.
5. Lower the temperature
Biden’s message: Normal times aren’t here at the moment, but they will be back.
The late-night tweets, the raucous rallies, the revolving door of top advisers, and the smashing of norms that were the hallmarks of the Trump administration have left many Americans exhausted and alarmed. In the USA TODAY Poll, 1 in 4 Americans described their own emotional outlook these days as mentally unhealthy or the worst it’s been in a while.
Biden takes office amid “a perfect storm – the pandemic, polarization, our economy and social-justice issues,” said Samar Ali, co-chair of Vanderbilt University’s Project on Unity and American Democracy. “We have a vaccine for one of those things. We don’t have a vaccine for the others.”
In his inaugural address and during his opening days, she said, Biden “needs to restore trust in democracy, governance and ourselves.”
No small task, that.
Contributing: Sarah Elbeshbishi
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