President-elect Joe Biden and wife Jill Biden participate in a ceremony in New Castle, Del., on Tuesday, a day before Biden’s inauguration as president.(CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES)
PRESIDENTS THROUGHOUT history have their mandates and missions. Ronald Reagan had his conservative “revolution.” Bill Clinton and his fellow forty-something Vice President Al Gore offered Americans a new generation of leadership, and Barack Obama embodied his “hope and change” message by being the nation’s first Black president.
Joe Biden takes office at noon Wednesday with a less glamorous but arguably more pressing mandate: a return to a more normal time, before Americans, lived in fear of contracting COVID-19, before the leader of the free world attacked and threatened on social media, and before basic facts – such as who got more votes in the presidential election – were considered up for legitimate debate. And it’s definitely harkening for a time before citizens in a nation that holds itself up as the world’s greatest democracy stormed the Capitol with the alleged intent of overthrowing the government
Donald Trump’s unlikely political career began with a preoccupation with Obama, and a determination to erase the former president’s legacy as if it were a dark smudge on history. Biden begins in a similar way, undoing Trump executive orders with his own, and rebuilding the work he did when he was Obama’s vice president.
The incoming president is expected to sign a slew of executive orders in his first ten days to reverse Trump administration policies by rejoining the Paris climate accord, trashing the travel ban on mostly-Muslim nations, and nixing Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military. Biden also is planning to introduce a sweeping immigration reform plan this week.
Combined with promised early action on the pandemic and the economy, it’s an ambitious early agenda, especially as the Senate prepares a trial of Trump on House-passed charges of inciting the insurrection at the Capitol. But it’s less about ushering in a new, bold vision for America than it is returning the nation to a less tumultuous time, experts say.
It may lack flash, but “it’s a big deal,” says Jeff Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “Wouldn’t we all love to go back in time and feel normal again?”
Historically, in American society, “when minorities have moved into new places or positions, whites have either fled or destroyed those institutions. The whole history of the suburbs is basically that sentence,” Engel adds, explaining Trump’s astonishing rise as Obama’s second term waned.
Biden – a septuagenarian white man who promises to unite people – is a natural political rebound, Engel says. “It doesn’t surprise me that we would turn to a stabilizing figure who almost by definition has a lot of grey hair.”
Biden’s presidency will be “restorative” but also “transformative,” says Simon Rosenberg, founder of the liberal-centrist group NDN and a veteran of Bill Clinton’s famed 1992 campaign war room. After four years of a president who had zero political or military experience before he came into power, “it’s now clear that there is no president in our history who has the incredible experience (Biden) has,” Rosenberg says.
“We have someone with the capability of hitting the ground running on day one,” but who also brings with him Kamala Harris, the nation’s first female – and Black and Asian-American person – vice president, as well as the most diverse slate of cabinet nominees in history, he adds.
It’s not an easy transition between the two administrations, however. Historically peaceful, the process has been militarized, with a wide range of law enforcement installed to protect an expanded perimeter around the Capitol where Biden will take the oath of office. Foreign journalists – who at one time might have provided up-close coverage of the swearing-in of the nation’s next president – were instead reporting live on air blocks from the Capitol Tuesday, explaining the stunning turn of events that are forcing Biden to hold a scaled-down inaugural ceremony.
Traditional niceties were thrown out the window: First lady Melania Trump declined to host incoming First Lady Jill Biden at the White House, even though Mrs. Trump – who had openly questioned President Obama’s citizenship herself was welcomed by Michelle Obama in January of 2017. And the Bidens flew on a private plane to D.C. rather than the traditional military aircraft offered by the sitting president.
In the last days and hours before Biden was to replace Trump, the two men operated in separate and characteristic form. Biden appointed or nominated more members of his administration and prepared his legislative agenda. Trump mulled pardons for some while his administration followed through on a record number of federal executions.
The sitting president had no public events on his schedule – just the “many” meetings and calls his press office has said Trump is participating in, without providing any details. Biden was to spend the eve of his inauguration at an event to honor the lives of more than 400,000 Americans lost to the pandemic.
Trump, the first president in more than a century to refuse to attend his successor’s inauguration, hastily arranged a good-bye ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base at which he wanted to include a red carpet and 21-gun salute. Biden delivered a teary good-bye to his home state of Delaware, lamenting that it should be his dead son, Beau Biden, who should be taking the oath of office instead of himself.
Trump was headed to the pricey resort and club he bought, Mar-a-Lago, while Biden eschewed glitzy balls and a parade down Pennsylvania Ave., a recognition of the security and viral contagion risks of holding such crowded events. Instead, Biden’s celebration was to be largely online.
Trump leaves office a defiant but weakened man, with longtime allies revealing new tensions with the president. Vice President Mike Pence is attending Biden’s inaugural, but not Trump’s send-off. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday directly blamed Trump for having “provoked” the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 – a foreboding sign for a twice-impeached president hoping to avoid conviction.
It may never be normal again in Washington, after what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the “stain on our country” Trump has left. But “I do think we’re bigger than this,” the California Democrat told MSNBC host Joy Reid, according to excerpts the cable network released Tuesday afternoon.
“He’s gone now,” Pelosi said. “We have to figure out how to bring people together. That’s our responsibility. Nobody’s better than Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to do it,” Pelosi added. It’s a mandate the last four years require now of Biden.