Tuesday, June 22, 2021

in-focus

Biden pledges to defeat extremism and culture of lies as he confronts Trump's legacy


The inauguration of President Joe Biden marked the traditional transfer of power that has taken place every four years through two centuries of the nation's history. This year the day was far more than that, a moment both somber and hopeful in a country reeling from a pandemic and economic distress in a capital city locked down by threats of violence from far-right extremists.

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For Biden, Wednesday's ceremonies represented the fulfillment of decades of personal ambition to serve as president. But if it was a day for him to celebrate that achievement, it was also a day to reckon with what the four years of Donald Trump's presidency have done to the country and the monumental task of repair and restoration that is now the new president's responsibility.

Biden ran for president with a pledge to rebuild a sense of normalcy after the chaos and divisiveness of the Trump presidency. But the shocking attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 underscored that a return to normalcy will require presidential resolve in the face of white supremacist threats to democracy as much as or more than customary calls for unity and bipartisan cooperation that long have been central to Biden's makeup.

 

The 46th president did not shrink from the duality of what he called this moment of "crisis and challenge," the urgency of confronting immediate problems that threaten people's health and welfare as well as the deeper, embedded problems of racial injustice and domestic terrorism by those who fear a changing America. 

One measure of how much the attacks of two weeks ago could affect Biden's presidency was the degree to which he confronted those threats directly and repeatedly. "Here we stand," Biden said, "just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground. It did not happen. It will never happen, not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not ever."

Rarely has a nation needed the renewal that is promised with every inauguration. The absence of the president, who became the first in more than a century not to attend his successor's swearing-in, along with the tableau and pageantry on a socially distanced West Front of the Capitol, signaled an eagerness on the part of many, though not all, to move past the Trump years.

 

As expected, unity was Biden's principal theme. But there was nothing soft-edged about the meaning of his words. Instead the appeals for America to come together came with a rhetorical determination to confront the existential threats that rose up under Trump. Kate Masur, a historian and professor at Northwestern University, emailed during the speech that she was hearing echoes of Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address in 1861, a time when seven states already had seceded from the union and the nation was heading toward bloody war. 

That Lincoln speech is often remembered for his appeals for unity, for his summoning up of America's "better angels," his invocation of the "mystic chords of memory" and his plea that the passions of the day not "break our bonds of affection." Much of the speech, however, was a condemnation of the secessionist movement and a steely promise to defend the Constitution and preserve the union.

"In some ways the combined force of right-wing authoritarian and white supremacist tendencies in the United States, plus the media climate and disinformation and people's suffering and resentments, combine to form a more existential threat than we've seen in a very long time," Masur said.

America is not at a point today that it was when Lincoln spoke weeks before the Civil War began, but the "uncivil war" that Biden described is a reminder that what exists today goes beyond familiar talk of political polarization or legislative gridlock to what could be the biggest long-term challenge of Biden's presidency - a country in which a minority of the people reject many truths, hold to Trump's words and, in the extreme, are prepared to fight. 

No president in modern times, perhaps ever, has inherited the collective set of problems that greeted Biden as he took the oath of office on a clear and cold day, and in a few words he captured all that afflicts the country: "anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness."

 

In his inaugural address, Biden sought to follow the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression, said, "This nation asks for action, and action now." Biden said, "We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities. Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build. And much to gain. Few people in our nation's history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we're in now."

Emblematic of that promise to move swiftly were the 17 executive orders awaiting Biden's signature after his swearing-in, with more to come in days ahead. More difficult than signing those orders will be showing that he has a strategy to slow the spread of the coronavirus and to produce and deliver vaccinations to enough people quickly enough to return the country to something resembling life before the virus arrived a year ago. How effective the American people judge that response to be will go far in coloring broader perceptions of Biden's leadership.

The new president also has outlined the $1.9 trillion package to deal with the coronavirus and provide economic assistance to struggling Americans, businesses and state and local governments, to be followed next month by a sizable economic recovery package. On these legislative priorities, he faces a stern test: Can he persuade Republicans to support the package - and how much is he prepared to compromise to win that support - or will he decide to stand his ground and turn to the budgetary process known as reconciliation to push it through with a simple majority vote of his own party?

 

In addition, there are his commitments to an ambitious strategy to combat climate change and the promise to redraw the nation's immigration system, including a path to citizenship for those here without documentation. And mindful of who helped to make him president, and the swearing-in of Kamala Harris as the first female, Black and South Asian vice president, he also noted that cries of racial justice "400 years in the making . . . will be deferred no more."

As he noted Wednesday, almost any of these individual challenges would consume a new administration. He does not have the luxury of ignoring any of them.

The desire for national renewal and rejuvenation also comes with demands for accountability - for those rioters who stormed the Capitol and for a president who, as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, provoked the mob by feeding it lies. Trump's impeachment trial will hover over the early days of Biden's presidency, and while he will not be an active participant, it too will color attitudes of Americans about the state of the nation.

On the day the Capitol was overrun, Biden said the attack and the efforts to undermine the results of the election meant that work of the coming four years must be the restoration of democracy. Presidential historian Robert Dallek, noting the significance of the moment Biden assumed the presidency, said, "What helps him a lot is the villainy of Donald Trump and that Trump has fallen into a ditch. There is nothing like having a failed predecessor to give you a running start."

Timothy Snyder, a historian and Yale University professor, said that until the country is freed from the fear of mob rule in all its forms, whether from violence or intimidation or threats of either, the freedoms that all Americans take as part of the country's basic values will not exist. 

Snyder called this a moment of possible restructuring over which Biden will preside.

"That's the only upside of Trump being president and a failed coup," he said. "It opens a window to do things that are more far-reaching. That window's going to be open, it's going to be open for a little while." 

Biden said Wednesday's ceremonies symbolized not the triumph of a candidate but of the cause of democracy. But if democracy met the stress test between November and Inauguration Day, the system remains under duress. Biden's task, and that of the nation he seeks to unify, is to assure that the forces that threatened democracy are confronted and defeated. 

Published : January 21, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Dan Balz · NATIONAL, POLITICS