Report

President Biden Pledges a Fresh Start for America

With Trump gone, Biden talks up the need for unity and renewal after four years of bitter division.

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th U.S. president at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20.  Saul Loeb/REUTERS
Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th U.S. president at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20. Saul Loeb/REUTERS

Pledging to bring a new spirit of unity to politics, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday, protected by a vast cordon of National Guard troops and police that indicated just how difficult his mission will be after four years of chaos and rage sown by his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Trump, abandoned by longtime allies such as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (who opted to attend church with Biden on Inauguration Day), slunk out of Washington a few hours before the inauguration. Mirroring the only other one-term impeached president, Andrew Johnson, Trump became the first president in more than 150 years to skip his successor’s inauguration. The night before, he sent out a videotaped valedictory in which he touted his administration as one of the greatest in American history but—finally—conceded the presidency to Biden. 

In his inaugural address, which outgoing Vice President Mike Pence as well as McConnell attended, Biden’s main theme was the restoration of some degree of unity, “one of the most elusive things of all in a democracy,” as he called it. 

Facing a sea of American flags set up to replace the crowds kept away by the coronavirus pandemic, Biden declared: “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue. … Let’s start afresh, all of us, let’s start to listen to one another again.” He added: “Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path.” 

Coming just two weeks after a violent assault on the Capitol building incited by Trump that left five dead and summoned 25,000 National Guardsmen to surround the Washington Mall, the inauguration was an affirmation of continuity and, for a brief moment, of unity. Despite numerous threats of violence online, incoming White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told NBC that Biden wanted to be sworn in outdoors, as usual, because “it sends an indelibly powerful message to the country.”

“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue. … Let’s start afresh, all of us, let’s start to listen to one another again.”

For the 78-year-old Biden, the oldest U.S. president ever inaugurated, his swearing-in marked the culmination of a nearly half-century-long political career. Biden had run for president three times before and failed badly, often shrouded in controversy over his frequent missteps and tendency to stumble in speeches. But Biden brings to the presidency a long history of working with Republicans, and he was considered one of the most powerful chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Judiciary Committee. As President Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years, he was considered one of the most influential vice presidents ever, playing a major role in the withdrawal from Iraq, relations with Syria and Ukraine, and many other issues.

Also making history on Wednesday was former California Sen. Kamala Harris, who was sworn in as the first female and Black and Asian American vice president.

Biden has pledged an active hundred first days that would reverse many of Trump’s policies, especially in battling COVID-19. On his first day in office, he rejoined the Paris climate accord that Trump rejected, stopped construction of Trump’s border wall, and reversed his travel ban targeting largely Muslim countries. Biden also sent an immigration bill to Congress laying out an eight-year plan for citizenship for undocumented immigrants—and rejoined the World Health Organization, which had been demonized by the Trump administration in the wake of the pandemic, among other actions. At a news conference Wednesday evening, Psaki said that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, would be attending a WHO meeting on Thursday.

Despite the positive atmosphere on Wednesday, Trumpism is not dead—not by a long shot. The 74 million people who voted for Trump and the 139 Republican House members and six U.S. senators who voted to decertify the election results on false grounds are still out there, threatening to resume what Trump in his final address called “the greatest political movement in the history of our country.” Many do not accept Biden’s legitimacy: Astonishingly, a large majority of Republican voters still see the election as illegitimate. 

But, after four years of angry division, culminating in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the American constitutional system in the end worked. It was Trump who was expunged after one term, not the American republic. It was Biden, a committed constitutionalist, who was inaugurated in a ceremony supported by a majority of Americans. Under Trump, American democracy survived a stress test like none since perhaps the Great Depression. Or, as Biden said in his inaugural address: “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” 

Many do not accept Biden’s legitimacy: Astonishingly, a large majority of Republican voters still see the election as illegitimate. 

Trump left office with his lowest-ever approval rating, just 29 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. In the final analysis, the majority of Americans opted for the rule of law—as did the courts, Pence, and even the chronically recalcitrant Republican Senate leader, McConnell, who on Tuesday bluntly said the violence was “provoked by the president.” More than 100 far-right agitators who took part in the Jan. 6 violence have been arrested by the FBI, and thousands more are swiftly being deprived of their platforms. Just as important, the FBI is now starting to treat white supremacists and other right-wing extremist groups as it treats al Qaeda. 

There were other positive signs of a new determination, both in Washington and Silicon Valley, to change the tenor of debate after the tumult of the Trump years. The events leading up to Jan. 6 and the assault on the Capitol that day have abruptly forced everyone in political power, as well as powerful tech leaders, to confront the real consequences of permitting violent and riot-inciting speech online. In a way no other event could, the violence of Jan. 6 has drawn a bright, clear line that didn’t exist before over the limits of free speech, since First Amendment protections do not permit threats to public safety. That lesson will linger for a long time.

The right-wing social media platform Parler, a major source of communication for Trump supporters, was recently dropped by Amazon Web Services, which called it a “very real risk to public safety.” And while it has reappeared online, Google removed Parler from the Android app store on Jan. 8, while Apple suspended Parler from the iOS App Store over its failure to remove “threats of violence and illegal activity.” 

Much of this will be fought out in court—Parler has already sued Amazon over its ban, and many on the right object to any limitation on civil liberties. But changing the behavior of the online technological giants that have, until now, enjoyed free rein will be crucial if controversial. With Biden and the Democrats in charge of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and their subsidiary platforms will face a new reckoning about hate speech and the relentless spread of conspiracy theories that they have abetted. “Deplatforming” the extremists is the new byword in town, and, as of noon on Wednesday, Trump lost both his Twitter accounts—his personal one, and the presidential one.

Biden and his team have taken up the cause of reining in Big Tech with a vengeance, after the then-Democratic nominee lambasted Facebook last fall for allowing constant attacks on his son Hunter Biden generated by Trump over the younger Biden’s activities in Ukraine and China. Until now, Republicans have been leery of pushing Big Tech too hard, but it took the violence of Jan. 6 and the threats to their own lives, as well as the transformation of downtown Washington into an almost Baghdad-like Green Zone, to change at least some minds.

Biden will likely join the European Union—which he is intent on working with closely in the wake of Trump’s tenure of trans-Atlantic insults—in insisting on new antitrust strictures and rules. Moreover, Republican extremists, with Trump gone, no longer have a clear banner to cling to; conviction in Trump’s second impeachment trial would almost certainly finish his career in national politics, and there could be a second vote to ban him from future office. In the coming years, Trump will likely be consumed by a slew of criminal charges dating back to his days as a real estate developer, led by the Manhattan district attorney and the New York attorney general’s office.

After four years of angry division, culminating in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the American constitutional system in the end worked. It was Trump who was expunged after one term, not the American republic.

Even so, according to Morning Consult Political Intelligence, which tracks sentiment about the United States in 14 other countries, the Capitol riots two weeks ago sharply reduced the share of people with favorable views of the United States from what they were when Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election on Nov. 7. The tracking data indicated that “improvements made over the course of two months in France, Italy, South Korea and Spain were largely wiped out after the Capitol riot,” Morning Consult said.

Republicans may have to reinvent themselves ideologically, and they face a surprisingly united Democratic administration. Though the Democratic Party has shifted leftward, especially in its determination to fight for American jobs, virtually every senior person whom Biden is appointing is a seasoned professional, with hardly an ideologue among them. Republican obstructionism will no doubt resume, especially over Biden’s plan for progressive taxes and deficit spending, but there is also more for the two parties to agree on, especially infrastructure spending.

And the new president knows the inner workings of legislative compromise like no one since President Lyndon B. Johnson. “I think this is a bunch of incredibly highly qualified pragmatists in the new administration,” said former Biden aide Mike Haltzel, who has known most of the senior foreign-policy team for decades. “Biden’s going to make trans-Atlantic phone calls almost immediately.” 

The real question of whether the Republicans as a party are deserting Trump en masse will come in the next days and weeks, especially during the second impeachment trial. In contrast to Trump’s first impeachment trial, which his party lined up in unison against, McConnell has asked his caucus to vote their conscience and has even hinted that he might vote to convict Trump of inciting insurrection. Such a verdict might be the way for traditional Republicans to reclaim their party—or spark an internecine war with Trump’s supporters. Trump has suggested he might start a new “Patriot Party.” But he may already be losing some of his most devout followers: On Monday the far-right “Proud Boys” who helped lead the attack on the Capitol renounced him, saying, “Trump will go down as a total failure,” the New York Times reported.

Meanwhile, if Biden is able to put through his COVID-19 relief package, with another $1.9 trillion on top of the $900 billion passed in the last days of 2020, that will also go a long way to healing the economy—and neutralizing at least some of the anger in society. For now, the formerly fractious Democrats are largely unified over the issue of large stimulus packages, with even the former fiscal disciplinarian Robert Rubin uniting with his former nemesis, progressive economist Joseph Stiglitz, in calling for new deficit spending in an ailing economy.

“Everybody is coming together, at least among the Democrats,” Stiglitz said. “We clearly need to stand up very firmly for the idea that we want expansion.” 

Biden’s nominee for treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, is largely on board as well, according to a source familiar with her thinking, and the Democrats on Capitol Hill will likely have the votes. In prepared testimony Tuesday, Yellen said that with interest rates at historic lows, Congress should “act big.” 

Update, Jan. 20, 2020: This article has been updated to include details of Biden’s first day in office.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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