Inaugurations are always a moment of hope and warmth, followed by the cold, messy reality of governing.
And that’s particularly true with Joe Biden taking office. It’s like going from the dulcet tones of Lady Gaga to the gruff monotone of Mitch McConnell.
The stories on President Biden’s first full day in office–and the media’s first full day without Donald Trump–have a bracing tone, as if journalists suddenly remembered that the country is suffering through extremely hard times.
“Biden Confronts a Confluence of Crises,” blared the New York Times banner headline.
And even if Biden somehow dons an FDR cape, no president would have the superpowers needed to vanquish the pandemic, revive the economy, achieve racial justice and heal the deep divisions that reached their depressing peak in the Capitol siege. It’s a long slog ahead.
Biden acknowledged all these problems and more in his unity speech, but the predominant emotion that swept across the media landscape on Wednesday, fairly or unfairly, was relief that Trump was gone. By yesterday, there was the sobering recovery from that high.
Every candidate faces the transition from poetry to prose, as Mario Cuomo once put it, using the cumbersome tools of government bureaucracy to move mountains. Biden certainly didn’t sugarcoat the task ahead. He has talked about the coronavirus more than any other issue, and on the day he assumed power, the country set another one-day record, with the pandemic claiming the lives of 4,367 Americans.
As the president put it in an expectations-lowering Covid speech yesterday, “We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and it’s going to take months for us to turn this thing around.”
But just as the Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover for half a century, Biden and his allies will undoubtedly say, at least for a year or two, that Trump left him a crippled country.
Dan Balz writes in the Washington Post: “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.
CBS’ John Dickerson, writing in the Atlantic, said: “Joe Biden has a real shot at being a boring president. It will require constant work…
“A president who tries to fit this mold might not keep the country riveted, but he will be effective. A presidency based on ratings or the trill of the news alert, by contrast, is as distinct from the vital requirements of the job as ‘The Apprentice’ was from the habits of effective corporate governance.”
National Review’s Rich Lowry, writing in Politico, says Biden has set himself up for failure on the unity front. He says the media are more polarized and “the parties have become ever more purely arrayed in ideological, cultural and geographical opposition to each other. These differences can’t be bridged simply by good faith and goodwill.”
Lowry wrote: “On substance, Biden is not going to pursue a consensus, bipartisan agenda, but a progressive one. That is his right. He’s a Democrat who has always been in the center of gravity of his party, which has steadily moved left over the decades.”
That’s true; elections have consequences. Biden wasn’t saying he didn’t expect disagreements, he was arguing that they can be resolved in a more civil fashion. Maybe that’s a fantasy. Biden’s belief is rooted in the endless negotiations he had as a senator and vice president, but that world has changed.
It was also fascinating to see Jen Psaki, the new White House press secretary, draw praise for conducting a normal, and somewhat dull, briefing with reporters. Drawing inevitable comparisons with Sean Spicer’s largest-crowd-ever debut, Psaki won over the room by professing her “deep respect for the role of a free and independent press.” So “enemy of the people” is now officially retired.
A former top spokeswoman in the Obama administration, Psaki is very smooth behind the podium, deflecting questions (such as on the Trump impeachment trial) that she had no desire to answer. She said on one of the morning shows that Biden has stressed the importance of “tone,” so while I’m sure there will be combative briefings, they probably won’t turn nasty. Maybe most of them won’t be televised.
To me, the best part of the prime-time Biden special–other than the Springsteen song–was the video of three former presidents chatting about unity and a peaceful transition. George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton each phrased it differently, but they were on the same page. Maybe the boring business of sluggish government will be a relief after all.