It was the restoration of the old order. Literally. At seventy-eight-years-old, Joe Biden is the oldest president in American history. President Biden’s inaugural speech was also old-fashioned. His speech had an emollient, even religious, character to it. It was suffused with calls for unity and bipartisan compromise. His delivery was calm and forceful as he pledged, “My whole soul is in this.”
With the National Mall destitute of onlookers, the scenery for Biden’s address was about as somber as his address. Only two weeks ago a motley crew of white nationalists, anti-Semites, and the merely credulous had penetrated the Capitol in the delusion that it could impede Biden’s installation as the nation’s forty-sixth president and secure a second term for Donald Trump. It failed. Instead, Biden’s legitimacy was strengthened, not weakened, by the untoward events that took place.
Donald Trump ended up presiding over an empty White House in the final weeks of his presidency and exiting Washington absent the pomp and circumstance he had craved. In a remarkable turn of events, for the first time since the nineteenth century, the sitting president refused to attend the inauguration of his successor. Melania refused, or wasn’t allowed, to give Jill Biden a tour of the second floor of the White House. Former Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump had earlier warned not to be a “pussy,” did attend the inauguration as did House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Trump seemed to be looking for a MacArthur-type line of “I shall return.” Instead, he merely announced, “Have a good life, we will see you soon” as he headed off to Florida with Melania, where they will live at Mar-a-Lago.
But the likelihood of another Trump term seems faint. How good a life he himself will have may be wondered. His political and financial brand has become toxic. Deutsche Bank has waved Auf Wiedersehen to him. He can’t host golf tournaments as corporations peel away from his company. Nor is this all. Trump’s apparent physical frailty was underscored as he clutched the railing to stabilize himself as he spoke briefly from the stairs leading to Marine One. The latest chapter in the Trump saga is not going to play out like the movie The Revenant, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a frontiersman who comes back from near-death to mete out revenge against his foe.
Despite Trump’s habitual braggadocio about the great state of America and the firm foundations he is leaving behind, Biden inherits a welter of problems, ranging from the pandemic to fiscal woes to internal division. “To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words,” he declared. “It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.”
Whether Biden can achieve that lofty goal is another matter. He’s banking on his decades of service in the U.S. Senate to overcome the divisions that have plagued other presidents. Just as division requires dividers, so unity will require unifiers. Biden would have to work with Sen. Mitch McConnell and other Republican Senators to achieve any lasting legislative accomplishments on tax policy and immigration, to name just two hot-button issues. Already McConnell and Chuck Schumer have stalled on how to operate the Senate with a 50-50 division that appears to mirror the larger divide in America itself.
At the same time, Trump, who pardoned a slew of his associates on his next to last day as president, will be facing an impeachment trial. He might consider testifying himself if the Senate takes up the trial. It would be a way for him to grab the spotlight. The problem of course is that his loose way with facts might mean that his testimony would tend to inculpate rather than exculpate him. For Biden, the conundrum will be that impeachment can stymie not only his push for new legislation but also unity. Trump’s followers are not apt to look kindly upon the spectacle of a second impeachment even as Democrats demand it.
But Democrats and Republicans would be wrong to underestimate the scale of Biden’s ambitions. The enormity of the problems confronting him offers a big political opportunity. Thirty years after he first ran for the presidency, Biden has finally achieved his goal. In both foreign and domestic policy, he will aim to become one of the most influential presidents in American history.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.