America's 46th president promises a different approach
When Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017, it was with less than universal acclaim. Months of angst about his unexpected electoral victory and schemes to contest it – a wave of not so peaceful protests around the country – numerous House Democrats boycotted the ceremony – negative media coverage of his inaugural address – prospect of sustained “resistance” after the inauguration [which would continue over the next four years]. The inauguration of America’s 45th president, 1/23/17.
There had been much speculation about how Trump might seek to move things to a track by delivering a message of national unity, but his actual message was brief (16 minutes speaking time) and blunt. Inaugural address, transcript, 1/20/17.
The new president began by acknowledging the presence on the dais of four previous presidents (Carter, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama) and thanking his immediate predecessor for facilitating the transition process. Then he outlined an agenda for the real job, which would be to transfer power back to the American people. •For too long, Washington had flourished and politicians had prospered while the people bore the cost and didn’t share in the rewards. That was going to change right here and now. • Great schools – safe neighborhoods – good jobs – infrastructure – world class military – America first – unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism. •No more empty talk, it’s time to get to work. Together, we will make it happen. Some people on the dais and other members of the ruling class probably felt like they had been targeted. And the predominant theme of media critics was that the tone of the speech had been dark and divisive. See, e.g., Donald Trump’s unprecedented, divisive speech, David Von Drehe, time.com, 1/20/17.
Trump’s rallying cry was resentment: resentment of foreign governments and industries, resentment of elected leaders and faceless elites, resentment of the empty factories and haunted cities that define the American landscape as rendered by its new leader. “American carnage” is how he tallied it all up, in a phrase as dark as any spoken by an American president. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, who gave voice to the “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished” of the land, only painted “one-third of the nation” in those terms. To hear Trump, the entire country is a wreck. Many among us were the wreckers.
A very different tone was struck at the inauguration of Joe Biden last week, which occurred in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and two weeks after the breach of the Capitol by protestors (“assault on Democracy”). Transcript of President Biden inauguration address, 1/20/21.
Much was said about the glories of our democracy, common problems, and the need for unity. Several challenges were described; in each case, government solutions seemed to be envisioned versus individual responses.
Media reports on the inauguration were typically enthusiastic. Chris Wallace of Fox News, for one, praised Biden’s 20-minute speech as the best inaugural address he had ever heard – and he had listened to a lot of them. Others on the Fox panel were complimentary too, although several noted that restoring a sense of national unity wouldn’t be easy. Our take was more guarded. OK, the speech repeatedly referred to the need for unity and didn’t attack the president’s immediate predecessor or other Republican leaders, but it still seemed that Biden was talking about them. In any case, “the proof will be in the pudding” caveat was clearly appropriate.
Further discussion follows.
1. Great speech - Given the current pandemic, the USA Today editorial staff characterized national disunity as another illness that Americans needed to address and lauded the new president’s ideas for helping them to do so. Biden vows to tackle the disease of disunity, News Journal, 1/22/21.
•It was time to end the “uncivil war,” lest the country continue to suffer from escalating bitterness, outrage and the potential for chaos. “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path.”
•Biden challenged Americans to strive for unity – as he and his administration concentrated on “delivering results that improve people’s lives.” To this end, the full power of the federal government would be harnessed to attack the pandemic and build back the economy.
•“My whole soul is in this,” the president said, words that "might be just the balm a shaken nation needs" and could establish Biden as "the right man for the moment."
Here was a message conservatives could support wrote a presidential speeches expert (from the University of Virginia and Miller Center], noting the parallels between Biden’s speech and Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural address in 1801. Conservatives like me have hope after Biden speech, Mary Kate Cary, News Journal, 1/22/21.
“We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” Jefferson had said – perhaps pleasing the other side more than members of his own party. Similarly, Biden had avoided “an unduly partisan approach.”
He used the words “unity,” “uniting,” “united” and “union” a total of 15 times in 20 minutes, and referenced the importance of our democracy more than ten times. He gave credit to the heroes who ensured that the attack on the Capitol did not stop our democracy: “It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”
Especially welcome – “at least for those of us in the loyal opposition” – he pledged to be a president for all Americans, and fight just as hard for those who did not support him as for those who did. “He’d be smart to keep that promise.”
2. Veiled accusations – The foregoing comments notwithstanding, there was an aggressive undercurrent in Biden’s speech. This was not a contest between competing ideas or world views, it seemed, but a battle between good and evil. And the real message wasn’t “come, let us reason together,” it was “we’re right, you’re wrong.”
•Our history has been a constant struggle between the American idea that all people are created equal and the “racism, nativism, fear [and] demonization” that tear us apart. The cry for racial justice has been brewing now for 400 years. And Biden likened his own resolve in leading America today to Lincoln’s mindset when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War.
• We currently face “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
•[Recent] weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth [and] there are lies, lies told for power and for profit, and each of us has a duty a responsibility as citizens, as Americans and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.
•”We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue . . .”. This line seemingly classes “red” forces (i.e., Republicans and/or conservatives) as the aggressors in our society. It is actually Democrats and/or progressives (“blue”) who aspire to fundamentally change this country whereas the other side is inclined to maintain the status quo.
3. Lack of reciprocity – The president said he would stand up for all Americans, not just the Americans who voted for him, and like Mary Kate Cary, supra, we find this commitment encouraging.
The right to dissent peaceably within the guardrails of our Republic is perhaps this nation's [greatest] strength. Yet hear me clearly, disagreement must not lead to disunion. [And I] pledge to you [that] I will be a president for all Americans, [who] will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.
Fine words, but how would this commitment be fulfilled in practice? Any plausible reconciliation scenario requires some “give and take,” not just demands about what the other side should do, but the president and his party did not seem to have offered any concessions of substance. The credibility of Biden’s speech could have been enhanced considerably by his commitment to address one or more of the following problems.
#IMPEACHMENT – For reasons previously discussed, impeaching President Trump (now out of office) seems like a bad idea. House Democrats impeach president again, 1/18/21. Yet Democrats still seem intent on demanding a Senate trial of this matter, which is currently scheduled to start in about two weeks. We doubt the results would prove constructive, let alone unifying, and the president could presumably nix the idea if he wanted to.
#LEGISLATIVE PROCESS - There are pending proposals to retaliate against GOP members of Congress for having the temerity to vote against certification of the Electoral College voting, which supposedly made them complicit in an insurrection attempt. Nice try, but various Democrat legislators have cast similar votes in other years and no one ever complained about it. The Democrats’ actions were OK then, although perhaps ill-considered, and the same goes for what Republican legislators (as opposed to rioters) did on Jan. 6. Again, it wouldn’t be hard for the president to gainsay this divisive retribution.
#ELECTORAL REFORM – Although the futility of contesting the presidential election had become apparent by mid-December, there was considerable evidence of electoral irregularities that had potentially tainted the results in half a dozen states. In recognition of these problems, which will predictably worsen if a pending bill (HR-1) in the new Congress gains any traction, SAFE has recommended creation of a national commission to review the claims and recommend reforms that would ensure the integrity of future elections. Final days of the Trump presidency, 1/11/21.
Republican complaints about the voting procedures that were followed in 2020 remain unacknowledged – indeed generally denied as misinformation – by the other side. As previously suggested, serious follow-up of this matter is needed if Republicans ever want to win another election. And it’s encouraging to see signs that some GOP leaders understand the point including Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. Tim Scott, not Ted Cruz, has the right election commission idea, Washington Examiner,1/9/21.
Here’s a News Journal editorial, published in the print edition hours before the inauguration ceremony, which illustrates the “nothing to see here” mindset that would have to be overcome in order to create an election reform commission. Help us heal, News Journal, 1/20/21.
Since your election, Mr. President-elect, America has suffered as Trump and his supporters have exploited the nation’s dangerous political divide with patently untrue claims of widespread election fraud. Content to disregard legally cast mail-in ballots as a measure of the electorate, the incumbent clung to a false narrative that he had secured a second term. In countless court battles, tweetstorms and speeches, Trump drove this false narrative. Servile accomplices in the right-wing press fueled the flames of the president’s staggering lies. As Congress met on Jan. 6 to certify your victory, Mr. President-elect, Trump and his allies urged supporters to assault the Capitol to attempt to change the election’s outcome. As both the House and Senate were disrupted and driven from the Capitol, five people were killed. Dozens who took part have now been charged. The episode, which unfolded live on television broadcasts and digital video streams, was the nadir of American public discourse. After a presidential administration with miraculous talent for finding new lows, we have to change the conversation.
While it wouldn’t be easy for the president to deliver a cure in this case, his support would be consistent with the goal of preserving American democracy that was stressed in the inaugural address.
#FILIBUSTER RULE – With a 50/50 margin in the Senate, negotiations are underway between Sens. Chuck Schumer (now majority leader) and Mitch McConnell (now minority leader) on power sharing. Sen. McConnell has requested assurances that Senate Democrats won’t try to end the Senate filibuster rule (which makes it necessary to have 60 or more votes to force through most legislative proposals) before the 2022 elections, but Democrats have been unwilling to agree. The president should be able to change Sen. Schumer’s mind, but only at the risk of angering left-wing Democrats (aka progressives).
4. Other issues – Several things have happened since the inauguration that underscore our doubts that the Biden presidency will make any substantial progress in restoring national unity.
#EARLY ACTIONS – While presidential words certainly matter, as Mary Kate Cary noted in her previously cited column, actions may prove even more important. Conservatives like me have hope, op cit.
During Biden’s first 100 days, “millions of conservatives . . . will be keeping a close eye – on his first executive orders, his legislative agenda, his staff appointments” – to see if he’s holding up his end of the proposed bargain.
By the end of last week, nearly 20 executive orders had been signed (mostly involving reversal of Trump administration policies), several controversial personnel actions had been taken, and a comprehensive immigration “reform” bill had been unveiled. So why the need to do all these things immediately, and what had happened to the fine talk about cooperative engagement? Details will be discussed in coming entries, but suffice it to say for present purposes that the Biden administration doesn't seem to be getting off to a good start.
#INSURRECTION – There has been no right-wing violence in DC since the January 6 breach of the Capitol, to our knowledge, yet there were still some 25,000 National Guard troops (from numerous states) in DC on Jan. 20. Their presence was apparent at the inaugural ceremony and the wish that God would “protect our troops” was expressed in the penultimate sentence of Biden’s speech.
After the ceremony, it came to light that the National Guard had been cleared out of the Capitol and at least some of them were sleeping on concrete floors in parking garages. Political leaders on both sides decried this situation when the news broke, and no one seemed to know who had given the order that created it.
The bulk of the troops (if not all) should presumably return to the states from whence they came. Rep. Nancy Pelosi reportedly wants a sustained National Guard presence (say 5,000 or more) in DC, however, until at least mid-March. Is the goal to symbolize the purported complicity of all Republicans in the “insurrection” during the impeachment trial? What a way to build unity!
Meanwhile, there has been serious leftist (e.g., Antifa) violence in other areas of the country, notably Portland and Seattle. Similar activity was going on regularly last summer, only to be calmed after polls showed that it was unpopular with voters. The motive of taking to the streets again is apparently to demonstrate impatience because the Biden administration is not moving fast enough to attain progressive goals. Leftist protestors wreak havoc in Portland, Ben Feurherd, New York Post, 1/20/21.
We have yet to see any prominent Democrat leaders coming forth to criticize the revival of Antifa activity.