For all those, myself included, who have ever said that a return to normalcy might not be good enough, we must now apologize.
After watching Joe Biden’s inauguration day, with all its grace notes, beginning Tuesday night with the 400 lights surrounding the Reflecting Pool reflecting the 400,000 COVID deaths that have never been formally grieved, I have to say that normal feels great.
Normal feels, well, surprisingly normal. I’d forgotten. I think we’d all forgotten.
Normal may seem like a strange word to use, given all that was different in Washington due to the pandemic and due to threats of domestic violence. It may seem strange, too, given the important history that was made, with Kamala Harris as the first female vice president and the first vice president of color and of South Asian descent. So much was different. Virtual parades. Virtual celebrations.
But normal it was, if in a virtually unusual way.
Normal means finally getting to exhale as the transfer of power turns out to be peaceful, even if peace required the presence of 25,000 National Guard troops. It means not an end to difficult times — they are ever with us — but an end to mockery from the White House, to trolling from the White House, to gratuitous insults from the White House, to endless lies from the White House.
Normal means a president, Joe Biden, accompanied by three former presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Jimmy Carter, at 96, couldn’t be there. Donald Trump, in a snit, had already slunk out of town, although he apparently left a letter for Biden that the new president called “generous.” But with Trump already behind the walls of Mar-a-Lago, normal also meant that no one honoring the nation’s dead would be thinking in terms of “losers” or “suckers.” That Trump was not there among the former presidents is telling. It’s an informal club he’ll never be asked to join.
For a president, normal doesn’t mean easy. History tells us, as the pages of newspapers remind us, no president gets a turmoil-free term. There is no telling how well Biden will do with his turn in the Oval Office or, at this point, what kind of president he’ll make.
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What we do know is that he won’t be Trump. Not only did Biden run on that promise, he was elected with a margin of seven million votes on that promise. The promise will begin on COVID, which, Biden allows, will get worse before it gets better. But you’ll see action. You’ll see, if Biden is up to the task, vaccines getting into arms. You saw, during Biden’s speech, a moment of silence for victims. To heal, Biden said, we must not forget.
What we also know is that Biden’s swearing-in was as much about us as it was about the new president. A page — OK, a virtual page — had turned. The inaugural speech spent a lot of time on unity, but it wasn’t a naive speech. Biden noted himself that a call for unity “can sound to some like a foolish fantasy.” And yet it could not be more clear that none of what he’s facing will be easy, and that goes beyond COVID, beyond a shattered economy, beyond economic inequality, beyond racial injustice, beyond immigration issues, beyond even climate change.
As he takes office, Biden’s greatest challenge is to take on the ugly and dangerous polarization of the day. People were divided — naturally — on the best line from Biden’s speech. Was it Biden, invoking Lincoln, saying that his “whole soul” is dedicated to the project of healing the nation? Or was it his call to end our “uncivil war”? This polarization didn’t begin with Trump, and it won’t end with Biden. If Biden can help move the needle, even a little, it would be meaningful.
In any case, don’t expect a sudden surge of political comity — that’s not happening — or for Mitch McConnell to suddenly go all puppy dog on us. It was said long before Trump, and before Biden or McConnell, that politics ain’t beanbag. The challenge is to begin to find a way toward a truce, meaning that opposing opinions can be spoken without anyone saying, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” much less insurrectionists storming the Capitol.
Nevertheless, it is notable that McConnell did say Trump had “provoked” the insurrection, that Trump and others (presumably those like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley) had “fed lies” to Americans about a rigged election. I assume this move by McConnell — a radical turn — gives Republicans license to vote against Trump after an impeachment trial. The question is what will McConnell do himself and not just on impeachment.
Biden’s first non-ceremonial actions as president spoke loudly of what he thinks needs to be done. Just as Trump tried to erase anything connected to Obama, Biden signed a long list of executive orders meant to begin to erase the stain Trump has left behind.
And so America rejoins the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization. Biden orders masks to be worn at all federal installations. He fortifies DACA. He signs orders addressing systemic racism. He ends the Trump ban on travel from many majority-Muslim countries. He wants a review of Trump’s backward-moving regulations on the environment and public health. He strengthens the independence of the Justice Department. He revokes Trump orders on the Census. He stops work on the border wall and on the XL pipeline. He extends the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. There’s more.
And we hope he moves beyond presidential reliance on executive orders and is able to get actual legislation passed. Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress. Of course, in the Senate, control is tenuous, a 50-50 tie favoring Democrats only because Kamala Harris, as vice president, would cast any tie-breaking votes. But in most cases, it takes 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate due to the filibuster. You want, say, medical care reform? Find 60 votes first. On his first day, Biden sent an immigration bill to Congress. Find 60 votes first.
It’s not an original thought, but one worth repeating, that Trump began his presidency with his American Carnage speech. Those who didn’t vote for Trump were left wondering what carnage he meant. Now we know. Trump left only carnage in his wake. It will be many years before anyone forgets what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and what Trump said, before he was advised never to say it again, that he has “love” for the rioters.
Biden’s presidency, on the other hand, began with the words of Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet. It is without argument that she stole the show Wednesday.
Her words on healing: “We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
And on the riot at the Capitol: “We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it. Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, It can never be permanently defeated.”
She went on to say that “history has its eyes on us.” I have written before that historians will be working on the Trump presidency for a hundred years. But they’ll save at least a little space for what comes after. What comes after is now. And for the moment, now feels remarkably, yes, normal.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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