WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just like that, there’s a new president in town. But even as the torch of our republic was peacefully passed, the weight of the moment wasn’t missed on anyone, especially not on now-President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris — the nation’s first female (and South Asian and Black) to ever fill that role.
As we all know, too well, there are a ton of weighty issues the new administration must rapidly address. As Biden told the small, socially distant crowd assembled at the Capitol, the most pressing issue facing America is something this new administration can’t tackle alone.
“To restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: Unity. Unity,” Biden said in his inaugural address. “My whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation, and I ask every American to join me in this cause — uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity, we can do great things. Important things.”
Americans working together feels like a quaint notion — especially after the Capitol was just temporarily overtaken, at the prodding of former President Trump, by the farthest flung fringe radicals on the right. Tensions remain high, as thousands and thousands and thousands of members of the National Guard remain deployed to protect the nation’s capital from further unrest.
Even the nation’s new, 78-year-old commander-in-chief knows his call for a new era of politics likely landed on many deaf ears.
“I know speaking of unity can sound, to some, like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep, and they are real. But I also know they are not new,” Biden said. “Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal — that we all are created equal — and the harsh, ugly reality of racism, nativism, fear and demonization that have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial, and victory is never assured.”
Still, Biden promised to put party aside and serve his political opponent’s needs — a throwback to how American presidents have traditionally viewed their limited time in the White House — even as he knows today’s hyper-partisan, infotainment-driven political arena leaves little room for many to feel the space to support anything originating from the other political tribe.
“If you still disagree — so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America. 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,” Biden said. “And I pledge this to you. I will be a president for all Americans. All Americans. And I promise you, I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.”
Then, just hours after his soaring address, Biden started going about politics as usual in contemporary Washington: He grabbed a slew of pens and scribbled his name across a stack of more than a dozen executive orders. Many of those are overturning President Trump’s executive orders, which merely overturned President Obama’s executive orders.
That downward spiral for the American government continues — the political tit for tat that provides politicians cover for their sins, but only if they’re repeating the sins of their predecessors. The race to the bottom isn’t good for anyone.
The Constitution explicitly put Congress in the driver’s seat. That makes sense because it’s the branch closest to us, the people. But modern presidents have greedily — and unconstitutionally, according to many scholars — amassed more power in the executive. They’ve been able to do that with ease because most members of both political parties have eagerly shirked their constitutional obligations to declare war or, say, control the nation’s tax policies.
Executive orders are now a new Inauguration tradition, at least when one political party wrests control of the White House from the other. But it’s an un-American tradition, at least according to the founders or even the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by them.
Take DACA recipients. Even though the Supreme Court eventually overturned Trump’s decision to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, those hundreds of thousands of young people couldn’t cheer, because without the force of law, they were left in the lurch, again. So even Biden signing an executive order today reinstating the DACA program is once again slapping tape on the car’s bumper, as opposed to going to the mechanic who has the tools to permanently repair the damage: Congress.
It’s more than just DACA, though. Biden’s also signing orders on coronavirus, pay equity across racial lines, immigration, the environment, and one that’s slated for next Tuesday is intended to move the nation away from private prisons, etc. That’s just with the pen.
In his inaugural address, Biden also promised to rescue the economy from the recession gripping us, tackle systemic racism (“a cry for racial justice, some 400 years in the making, moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer”), repair US alliances abroad, curb climate change (“a cry for survival that comes from the planet itself”), and denounce and confront political extremism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism (“that we must confront, and we will defeat”).
A nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinishedInaugural poet Amanda Gorman
As someone who served in the Senate for 36 years, Biden knows he needs Republican support to truly address any of those sweeping policy areas. And Mitch McConnell knows it, too.
“Certainly November’s elections did not hand any side a mandate for sweeping ideological change,” the GOP leader intoned from the Senate floor Tuesday. “Americans elected a closely divided Senate, a closely divided House and a presidential candidate who said he’d represent everyone. So the marching orders from the American people are clear: We’re to have a robust discussion and seek common ground.”
“Common ground” itself has become a rare commodity in today’s Washington. Hopefully Biden’s decision to carry on this new, if un-American tradition — the seemingly endless battle of presidential pens — doesn’t sour the already tart water here, but it surely doesn’t help.
It’s hard to hear, but one of today’s two dominant political parties needs to step up and lead by example, or this race to the bottom will continue to unravel the very foundation of our system — the peculiar system of checks and balances enshrined in the very document that binds us all together: Our Constitution.
Biden knows that, or, at the very least, said as much in his first address as president.
“We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature,” Biden said. “For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward. And we must meet this moment as the United States of America. If we do that, I guarantee you we will not fail.”
Biden nailed the biggest problem plaguing America: We’ve allowed ourselves to live in cyber and media spheres that look nothing like reality. On our screens, we’re made to believe we live in two Americas — the “us” one and the “them” one. That’s enabled conspiracy theories, myths, distortions and lies to not only be normalized but also to become more real than reality for millions.
“And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured. My fellow Americans, we have to be different than this. America has to be better than this. And I believe America is so much better than this,” Biden optimistically said.
But that culture has now seeped into our beings — on the left, right and center — and it’s something only we, individually and then collectively, can address and transform.
One way to start to rekindle the optimism in ourselves is for us to remember the very bonds that bind us, not the big or small disagreements that we’ve allowed to divide us.
“So today — at this time, in this place — let’s start afresh; all of us. Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” Biden said, to members of his party and the GOP alike.
In order to “end this uncivil war,” as President Biden so eloquently said, we’d all be wise to listen to today’s inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman — a Los Angeles native more mature and wise than her 22 years would lead many to believe.
“We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another,” Gorman said. “And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow we do it. Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”
“For there is always light — if only we’re brave enough to see it,” Gorman concluded. “If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Sadly, we haven’t been brave. We’ve been cowardly. The easiest thing is to focus on our differences, which is why politicians have been empowered — by us — to deftly exploit us, our neighbors, families and friends. As politicians are wont to do, they in turn transformed us into pawns they use to carry out their bidding. But in the process, we’ve enabled them to squander the lavish inheritance left for us by our founding fathers and mothers.
With a political class like this, it’s time for us to be the adults in the room. That’s why it’s time we all join together and focus on what unites us.
Otherwise, we’re surely doomed, because the mountain of pressing problems facing us isn’t something any one president, vice president, political party, pundit or average, hard-working American can surmount.
Though, as a unit — as one America — we’re all but unstoppable.
“Now we’re going to be tested,” Biden told the nation. “Are we going to stand up — all of us? It’s time for boldness, for there’s so much to do. And this is certain, I promise you: we will be judged — you and I — by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era. Will we rise to the occasion?”