Joe Biden began his journey to the inauguration by tearing up–over his love for Delaware and missing his late son Beau–displaying the raw emotion that sets him aside from most presidents and, particularly, his predecessor.
While President Trump is always determined to project strength, Biden, in choking up at the National Guard center named for Beau, reminded us of the history of family tragedy that fuels his empathy for others.
The president-elect plans to begin his inauguration day with a nice gesture of unity, having persuaded Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy to accompany him to church–with both of them skipping a Trump sendoff.
That bit of symbolism doesn’t mean the Senate Republican leader will suddenly cooperate on liberal legislation, but it’s a welcome moment in light of Trump’s decision to fly to Florida before the swearing-in.
And McConnell did signal one area of agreement with Biden yesterday by saying of the Capitol siege: “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
And yet what’s remarkable is that with Biden moving into the White House after half a century in politics, he is somehow not the main focus.
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That’s in part because Washington is now an armed camp, the heavy National Guard presence a reminder of the Capitol riot that led to Trump’s impeachment.
That’s in part because there will be no sea of adoring crowds in light of the devastating pandemic, which wrecked the final year of the Trump presidency.
And the media have not yet conquered their addiction to the Trump show, whose run will be extended at least through the Senate trial, or perhaps for the next four years. He leaves office with the lowest Gallup approval rating of any modern president, 34 percent, but also the fierce loyalty of a major chunk of the country.
As history is written by the winners, much of the media is kicking Trump on his way out the door, a New York Times news story going so far as to say that he’ll be the first “pariah” former president. That kind of language will only reinforce the media’s reputation for unrelenting hostility toward Trump, whose self-inflicted wounds prompted even some of his top aides to resign or criticize him.
As for Biden, whether you agree with his politics or not, he clearly doesn’t arouse the same depth of emotion from supporters and detractors. His voters are glad he won, are comfortable with his leadership, but are more thrilled that he sent Trump packing. Joe has never inspired either the adulation or contempt that Barack Obama did, or that Trump has.
And yet, in these early days of 2021, that is the secret of his appeal. The reason why he won the election is that he’s not an ideological warrior like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.
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Biden ran on unity, bipartisan cooperation, a lowering of the temperature. He doesn’t post inflammatory tweets. He doesn’t plan to be in everyone’s face every single day. He didn’t pick flame-throwers for his Cabinet. He believes the country needs a respite from confrontational politics and culture wars.
That may or may not work in the Oval Office–Biden may be a bit too nostalgic for the dealmaking days of the old Senate bulls–but that’s his game plan.
I’ve noted before that I ran into Biden in 2007, as he was starting his second presidential campaign, I asked him how it was going. “If I am the right man for this time, it’ll become known,” he said, gazing into the distance.
He was not. But right now his message does match the moment.
Campaigning is a far cry from governing, especially in these perilous times. Giving nice speeches isn’t the same as concrete achievements. But now Biden will have his shot, both at helping a struggling country and putting the fractious Trump era behind him. It’s a very tall order.