February 12, 2021 [LINK / comment]

Return to normalcy? Joe Biden becomes president

Three weeks ago, the United States of America underwent what was certainly the most hostile transfer of power in history, testing the resilience of democratic institutions. Until the very end, many people wondered if Donald Trump would somehow try to cling to power, but in the end he faced up to reality and departed. The sight of moving vans at the White House in the days preceding January 20 was a big relief.

Biden's inaugural address was well-received but not especially stirring or noteworthy. As expected, the dominant theme was restoring national unity, declaring, "On this January day, my whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation." He identified the common foes our nation faces as "anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, and hopelessness," but the means to accomplish the goal of unity were not spelled out very clearly. Biden lamented what he called the "uncivil war" between political sides, but overall the tone was positive and hopeful, with an olive branch extended to other countries. No more "America First" isolationism, as Trump had heralded in his 2017 inaugural address. (Biden's full speech text appeared in the Washington Post.)

As long as the television cameras focused on the platform around the podium, it appeared to be a normal ceremony. But when the cameras panned toward the Mall, where many thousands of people ordinarily gather to watch the inauguration, all that was visible were acres full of flags representing the people who have died of covid-19 over the past year. (It was an ironic contrast to Trump's 2017 inauguration, which he boasted had a bigger crowd size than either of Obama's inaugurations, notwithstanding aerial photographs showing that the opposite was true.) The inaugural parade was extremely subdued, with no more than a token number of people watching from alongside Pennsylvania Avenue.

What honeymoon?

Once upon a time, in the good old days of American politics, there was a bipartisan tradition by which the losing party would extend a measure of courtesy and deference to new presidents, usually for 90 days or so. Biden will not get any honeymoon, however, and indeed one of the far-right pro-Trump members of Congress introduced a measure calling for Biden to be impeached on his very first day in office. Such an absurdly vengeful gesture was nothing more than pandering to the political base.

There was a hopeful sign when ten Republican senators joined to try to bargain with the Democrats over Biden's proposed $1.9 billion covid-19 relief package. They sought to reduce the amount to $618 billion, in recognition of the fact that the federal budget deficit is already in the trillions of dollars, and the national debt is soaring over $24 trillion, a crushing burden that will stifle future economic growth. Unfortunately, they couldn't narrow the gap, and Biden decided to proceed with his plan without Republican support. (Now that Kamala Harris is vice president and exercises the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, the Democrats can do many things without support from the minority party.)

There are many signs that life in Washington is returning to "normal," such as regular press conferences with White House aide Jen Psaki. Under Trump, press conferences were few and far between, especially in the year or so after Stephanie Grisham took over from Sarah Huckabee Sanders in mid-2019. Joe and Jill Biden attend Sunday mass at a Catholic church in Georgetown, and they sometimes stroll around the neighborhood -- under tight restrictions, of course. Such symbolic gestures are like a breath of fresh air to Washingtonians, many of whom probably felt like they were being occupied by an enemy country when Trump was president.

While I admire Biden's casual personality and his earnest demeanor, especially when compared to his predecessor, I am quite wary of his economic policy agenda and have only modest hopes for his administration. Pushing for a $15 minimum wage and huge welfare benefits poses a big risk to the U.S. economy. Remember inflation? The people he has chosen for his cabinet seem qualified overall, and there aren't any "closet radicals," as far as I can tell. Fears that Biden would be a mere stalking horse for a left-wing cabal plotting the overthrow of American capitalism were a big part of what motivated the January 6 agenda, but I figure there is less than a ten percent chance of such a diabolical scenario unfolding. Biden's amiability is offset by his habit of blurting out absurd or insensitive things from time to time. Some say it is a side-effect of trying to overcome his early childhood stuttering. Biden used to be famous for outrageous gaffes in his public speeches, but thus far he seems fairly well under control. His record of misrepresenting aspects of his personal background or even plagiarizing speeches is well-known, and I'm sure he has professional handlers to prevent such things from happening again.

What I wrote on the day that Trump was inaugurated four years earlier (January 20, 2017) is worth repeating, as I plan to likewise cut some slack toward President Joe Biden:

As dubious as I am of President Trump's agenda and suitability to lead the country, I also have deep reverence for the institutions of American government, so I plan to give him the benefit of the doubt at least for the first few weeks of his presidency. During this "honeymoon" period, I hope he acts in a way that unifies the country.
White House

White House, taken on February 10, 2012. Two blocks to the northeast, McPherson Square was being occupied by left-wing protesters, the "Occupy D.C." campaign was affiliated with "Occupy Wall Street."

Biden's executive orders

President Biden issued a record number of executive orders during his first week in office. (Many conservatives mocked him for having once said that President Trump's frequent use of executive orders was a dictatorial practice.) Most of them aimed at reversing policies enacted under the Trump administration, and Biden is using the slogan "Build Back Better" to characterize his policy agenda, in contrast to Trump's "Drain the Swamp." Here is a partial list of some of the most significant ones, in rough chronological order.

Trump exits "swamp"

Then-President Trump and then-First Lady Melania left town the morning of January 20, taking Air Force One southbound to Palm Beach, Florida. This was the first time since 1869 that the departing Chief Executive failed to attend his successor's inauguration. (That was when Andrew Johnson, who had been impeached the year before and barely survived a vote to convict, refused to pay respect to incoming President Ulysses S. Grant.) Fortunately, outgoing Vice President Mike Pence did attend the ceremonies, lending a thin veneer of institutional continuity to the transition.

Trump's failure to acknowledge the results of the election reflected intense disfavor toward Joe Biden and the Democrats, perhaps not that much different from the time when outgoing President Herbert Hoover largely refused to cooperate with his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the long four-month transition. (Inauguration Day was on March 4 back then.) Hoover's contempt for FDR, and the mutual distrust, almost paralyzed the U.S. government at a critical time during the Great Depression. (Ronald Shafer wrote an article on that intensely awkward episode in the Washington Post on November 10.)

During his last day in office, Trump issued more than a gross (a dozen dozen) controversial pardons -- 144 altogether, most notably to his political allies such as Steve Bannon who were in legal jeopardy. That was expected, as virtually all presidents over the past thirty or so years have done essentially the same thing. From Marc Rich (the wealthy campaign donor pardoned by Bill Clinton) up through the present, it just gets worse every four years. But for Trump the worst part was signing an executive order rescinding his January 2017 executive order that banned former executive branch employees from lobbying government entities in Washington, or working for foreign governments. That belied the reformist pretense of Trump's "drain the swamp" slogan.

Incumbents who lost

If Donald Trump had been re-elected, it would have been the first time in U.S. history that four consecutive presidents were elected to two terms. Instead, Trump became the first incumbent president to lose a re-election bid since George H.W. Bush (Sr.) in 1992. Here is a complete list:

  1. John Adams (1800, lost to Jefferson)
  2. John Quincy Adams (1828, lost to Jackson)
  3. Martin Van Buren (1840, lost to Wm. H. Harrison)
  4. Grover Cleveland (1888, lost to B. Harrison)
  5. Benjamin Harrison (1892, lost to Cleveland)
  6. William H. Taft (1912, lost to Wilson)
  7. Herbert H. Hoover (1932, lost to F. Roosevelt)
  8. Jimmy Carter (1980, lost to Reagan)
  9. George H. W. Bush (1992, lost to Clinton)
  10. Donald J. Trump (2020, lost to Biden)