When Joseph R. Biden becomes President of the United States at noon on 20 January, you could forgive him a sense of déjà vu. When he first entered the White House in 2009, then as Vice President in Barack Obama’s incoming administration, he was facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions that would require swift action and a huge stimulus from Congress to resolve. The Republican party had been taken over by a small, ideologically fragile fringe group, which sought to stoke social and political division through lies and misrepresentations. Conspiracy theories abounded.
This time, the Covid pandemic replaces the financial crisis, Trumpists are the new Tea Party, and Q anon and assorted ‘stop the steal’ conspiracists take up from where Birthers began. Same problems, different January. And this time, Biden takes the oath as President instead of VP.
Some other things will be familiar. The ceremony will be outside the Capitol building, as has been the case for most inaugurations since the 1830s. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, will administer the 35-word oath as required by the constitution, swearing in the new President. Biden is expected to use his family Bible for the ceremony, as he follows in John F. Kennedy’s footsteps to become only the second Catholic to occupy the Oval Office. President Biden will give an inauguration speech, but to a small in-person crowd. He will almost certainly echo most of his recent predecessors who sought to use their first remarks in office to reach out to those who did not vote for him, unlike the outgoing President whose inaugural speech conjured up a dystopian image of American carnage, a country “destroyed” by immigration, universal healthcare, anti-racist movements and eight years of progressive Obama policies.
But for the most part, this inauguration will bear little resemblance to any other.
There will be no parade. There will be no inaugural balls in the evening. There won’t even be proper crowds: the National mall will be empty and television and online coverage will provide a proxy. The entire city is on a lockdown, the product of dual concerns over security and the pandemic. And with the exception perhaps of Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration on 4 March 1861 – when seven states had already seceded from the Union and Civil War looked inevitable – it’s difficult to think of a more fraught inaugural ceremony. Now, just as then, Washington DC will resemble a warzone, with tens of thousands of police, military and National Guardsmen patrolling the Capitol and the city, expecting riots, protests and possibly even assassination attempts. Given the reports that some rioters on 6 January may have had plans to assassinate members of Congress, these fears do not seem unreasonable.
Even as Biden takes command of the nuclear codes, the spectre of Trump haunts America.
When he takes office, Biden will inherit a carnage of Trump’s making. Trump’s vice-like grip on the Republican party has only exacerbated the party’s worst failings. As a result of Trump’s routine lying, and the spineless failure of party grandees to stand up to him, and others cynically exploiting unfounded conspiracy theories for their own political gain, confidence in the political system is at an all-time low. Political discourse is broken. Bipartisanship has been destroyed. 147 Republicans in the House voted to block the certification of the election results, in direct contradiction of the clear voice of the electorate which voted in unprecedented numbers for the Biden/Harris ticket. Trump’s part in encouraging a dangerous attack on the Capitol on 6 January left the Democrats in the House little choice but to call for his impeachment. Those impeachment proceedings will distract from Biden’s agenda in his first weeks in office. Although Trump will not be physically present at the handover of power (only the fourth President to refuse to attend the inauguration of his successor), Joe Biden is not yet rid of Donald Trump.
As a student of the 1960s, I can’t help but recall the words of John F. Kennedy, 60 years ago to the day: “United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do–for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.” The line harked back to Lincoln’s “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Any sensible examination of American history reveals that unity as a country has always been difficult to articulate. But rarely has the nation been quite so divided, and rarely have these divisions seemed quite so irreconcilable. There are two large constituencies in the United States, each in its own echo chamber of talk radio, television, social media. It is difficult to see how they can be brought together.
Perhaps he will echo Lincoln’s first inaugural exhortation to friendship between both sides: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” But like Lincoln, I suspect this would fall on deaf ears. Perhaps instead Biden will follow Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural pledge to truth: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.” But truth has been the great casualty of the past four years. Each side has their own truth.
What we do know is that Biden’s theme will be “American Unity”. Whatever he says at his inauguration, he’s going to need a lot of help to achieve that.