During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden vowed to fight for the soul of America. As he formally assumed office as the next US president yesterday, Biden now faces the steep task of repairing a nation’s soul in battered and desperate shape.
Few presidents, if any, have taken power in circumstances such as these: a still-raging pandemic claiming lives and shredding livelihoods, a continuing threat of armed insurrection and a defiant former president who faces a US Senate trial charged with encouraging an attack on his country’s capital.
A Democrat, Biden will preside over a deeply polarised electorate, with millions of voters still believing defeated Republican President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud, and a divided Congress, where gridlock looms as the default and success will come only by compromise.
With that, Biden is under significant pressure to turn his pledges of unity and competence into results — and swiftly.
“He has to stay focused on vaccine distribution and solving the ‘last mile’ problem,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist. “Failure is not an option. Losing that focus is not an option.”
Biden wants Congress to move quickly. His team believes the most effective way to lower the political temperature is through results, not rhetoric — specifically, passage of the $1.9 trillion virus relief package that Biden has proposed as a first step in stabilising the economy, opening schools and ramping up vaccinations nationwide.
The public wants to see a functional government deliver, a Biden adviser said, adding that plenty of Trump voters have been hurt by the pandemic.
“There is a path out of this darkness,” another Biden adviser said, “but we will need support from Congress.”
Unlike other newly elected presidents, Biden will have no crowds to rally him. Instead, he was sworn in with historic Washington resembling an armed camp, the streets deserted due to the twin dangers of civil unrest and Covid-19.
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, likened Biden’s inauguration to Abraham Lincoln’s in 1861, when the United States was on the brink of the Civil War and the new president faced assassination threats.
“The smell of violence was in the air,” Brinkley said.
The nation is not on that kind of precipice, Brinkley added. But the Capitol siege will cloud the early days of Biden’s presidency. After being impeached by the US House of Representatives on a charge of inciting the January 6 assault on the Capitol, Trump faces a Senate trial that threatens to derail Biden’s agenda from the very start and delay confirmation votes for his executive branch nominees.
Biden will enter the White House with more of a tailwind than Trump enjoyed. He has the approval of a little more than half the country — 53%, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling, while Trump came into office four years ago at 46%.
The good news for Biden is that a majority of the public would like him to have a productive relationship with Congress, said Mo Elleithee, executive director of the Georgetown University Institute for Politics and Public Service, which conducted its own poll on civility in government.
Biden’s willingness to work with Congress “is a departure from where we have been the last four years, and I think it would go a long way toward helping people catch their breath,” Elleithee said.
Trump, a neophyte as a politician, stood at odds with the legislative process, often refusing to lay out his own priorities in negotiations. He struggled to harness the power of government to achieve his policy goals.
Biden, conversely, spent 35 years as a senator from Delaware before serving eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president.
Yet Biden will have to contend with narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, which will leave him little manoeuvring room. — Reuters