Joe Biden won the election, but whether he wins the transition is another question. The peaceful transfer of power always tests an incoming president, but this time promises to be particularly perilous.
The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating, taking lives and jobs as it spreads. The incumbent, President Donald Trump, has only reluctantly agreed to the transition and knows how to dominate the national conversation. He seems determined to deny his successor’s legitimacy and appears to be planning a 2024 campaign rally on Inauguration Day.
In the transition time remaining, I believe Biden needs to establish two kinds of legitimacy. He should show the nation that he possesses the competence to plan an administration, in order to create substantive legitimacy. And he should perform important ceremonial rituals, in order to establish symbolic legitimacy.
As a scholar of the presidency, I’ve written about John Kennedy’s transition, which culminated in his superb inaugural address. Biden seems unlikely to match that rhetorical achievement, but he is off to a solid start.
This One’s Different
The president-elect has sought to craft his substantive legitimacy through comparison and contrast. One of these presidents, Biden suggests, is not like the other.
This is not an unusual strategy. Democratic political consultant David Axelrod long ago coined the opposites theory of presidential elections, noting, “Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have.” President-elect Biden appears to assume that he won at least in part because voters rejected Donald Trump, and so he has reinforced the difference between the two during the early transition.
When the election hung in the balance, the former vice president waited for the results with the rest of us. Unlike Trump, Biden refused to declare victory, noting only that “We feel good about where we are.” His humility contrasted to Trump’s behavior throughout his term.
When the result became clear, Biden not only promoted national unity in his Nov. 7 speech, he also shared the stage with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. That was a perk denied Biden on election night in 2008 and an indication that he planned to govern not as a rogue individual but as part of a team.
His first staff and cabinet choices have reinforced the teamwork theme. “Competence is making a comeback,” the Associated Press declared in its analysis of Biden’s national security selections. The president-elect quietly made his decisions, with no public auditions or press leaks. He introduced them as a team in a sober setting. Each gave remarks emphasizing their commitments to morality and honesty.
For example, his nominee for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, movingly told the Holocaust survival story of his stepfather, announcing a moral mission for the United States in the world. Avril Haines, nominated for Director of National Intelligence, said she would speak truth to power, “knowing that you would never want me to do otherwise and that you value the perspective of the intelligence community, and that you will do so even when what I have to say may be inconvenient or difficult.”
Joe Biden is clearly determined to dissociate his administration from the previous one, which was characterized by neither moral commitment nor faith in truth. He is crafting his substantive legitimacy by demonstrating his belief in teamwork, morality, competence and experience. His administration, he claims with these choices, is ready to lead.
Biden is among the most experienced candidates elected to the presidency. Yet assuming the office will be difficult, even for him. He has been a senator and vice president, but he has not been in charge.
To become the president requires ritual.
A president is both the legislative leader and the head of state, the equivalent of a British prime minister and the queen in one. The trappings of the office make the office. Americans need to see Biden invested with the presidency, much as a Prince of Wales becomes the king by assuming the robes and powers of his office in a ceremony.
The inaugural ceremony on Jan. 20 is a ritual of transition that transforms “Joe” into a head of state, into Mr. President. The inaugural address gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his presidential capacity, to unite partisans as one people, and display himself as their leader.
The Founders understood the human need for political ceremony at times of transition. George Washington learned of his first election to the presidency on April 14, 1789 and soon left his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia for the then-capital of New York City.
Washington’s journey turned into a grand celebration of the new nation. In Trenton, New Jersey, for example, 13 young women, dressed in white, walked before him, strewing flowers from baskets as he rode underneath a magnificent floral arch. Washington was no longer a gentleman farmer nor even a general. He was about to become the president and these sorts of rituals marked the way.
Biden is unlikely to undertake such a journey from Wilmington to Washington, although Axios has reported that Biden could ditch the recent inaugural tradition, “the typical flourish of arriving in Washington on an Air Force plane, pulling in instead on the same Amtrak train he rode to and from Delaware for 30 years as a senator.”
If Biden is to establish his symbolic legitimacy as a rightful president of the United States, he will need a ceremony displaying that legitimacy, one that looks and sounds like those of his predecessors. This will be hard in a pandemic, as the campaign showed. He was unable to campaign as a candidate normally would or give his election night speech in front of a roaring crowd, as, for example, Barack Obama did in Chicago’s Grant Park in 2008.
Now, it seems unlikely that he will be able to take the oath in a large ceremony or enjoy many of the traditional trappings of a presidential inauguration. Biden has said his inauguration could “resemble the Democratic National Convention.”
Although the 2020 convention was successful, it didn’t look like the traditional inaugural ceremonies. As a model, it would deprive the nation of many of its comforting rituals. It would substitute a small, televised ceremony at the Capitol and virtual activities from around the nation.
The president-elect and his advisers will have to find ways to make these new traditions authorize his presidency as well as the old ones. I do not envy them this task.