Ever the sucker for civic pomp, I’ve attended every presidential inauguration since Bill Clinton’s second one in 1997, regardless of what I thought of the new president — at least until today. Even before security concerns intensified this month, the pandemic meant that this inauguration was not going to involve the peculiar inaugural mix of elite officialdom up front and a mass of shivering political junkies behind. Instead, for reasons beyond the control of the organizers, the event was stark and sparse, with a tiny group of the nation’s top leaders facing an empty expanse encircled by heavily armed soldiers in uniform. This was not an ideal image of the peaceful transfer of power in our democracy.
Yet in its substance, as long as the cameras did not pan out too far, the ceremony nonetheless did radiate a sort of stability. Inauguration day marks a beginning and an ending, but it also marks a continuity. Presidents come and go, but the presidency persists. That continuity was much more palpable in this inaugural ceremony than in the last one, and by design.
On the day of Trump’s inauguration four years ago I wrote around here that the ceremony and his remarks left me with a sense that he was barely aware of the nature of the role he had stepped into:
President Trump’s term seems less likely than that of any modern president’s to be defined by the role of the presidency in our system of government — not just by the limits of that role but even by its general form. Instead, to a greater degree than any modern president, his time in office seems likely to be shaped by his own character and personality. This is not good news.
That worry was borne out, alas. And in this respect Joe Biden is a return to a far more traditional understanding of the relationship between the president and the presidency — an understanding that was bent badly under Barack Obama and then broken altogether under Donald Trump. Biden gestured toward this attempt at recovery by the nature of what he had to say, and the ceremony pointed to it too.
Donald Trump was not there, because unlike every president since Andrew Johnson he chose not to attend his successor’s inaugural. He was not even explicitly mentioned by anyone. Some of Biden’s remarks pointed to the atmosphere of crisis in which he is taking office, but when he got specific he talked about the virus and about the mob that attacked the Capitol, he talked about people who had voted for his opponent in the last election, but he did not speak Trump’s name. Our political leadership came together without Trump to inaugurate his predecessor’s vice president into the presidency — as if to pick up where they had left off.
There is certainly something reassuring about this. But there is also something dangerous about it. The forces that brought Trump to power — the frustration with the nation’s leadership class, the alienation and dissatisfaction, the mix of profound and ridiculous passions that goes by the name of populism — have not been effectively integrated into our political self-awareness, nor have they been addressed, or satisfied, or dissipated. The disordered character of Donald Trump has driven some of his supporters deep into a terrifying realm of self-destructive fantasies, where they have no right to expect to be taken seriously. But most of his supporters, and most of their concerns, have just been left frustrated by both Trump and his opponents. And a sizable contingent of voters on the left is in a populist mood of its own, which will also want a say in what is to come in our politics.
The sigh of relief breathed by those on the inaugural stage this afternoon can’t be the end of their response to these forces. They will need to find a more constructive way to take seriously what is serious in the frustrations underlying our politics.
Biden himself may be more aware of this than most. The theme of his speech was not a return to normalcy, which was how people often described the theme of his campaign, but a recovery of unity. A hunger for unity, for a politics of solidarity alongside our longstanding politics of liberty, is actually a very important facet of the populism that has shaped American politics in this century. The desire for unity has ironically been a driving force behind some of the most divisive forms of populism on both the left and the right lately. That’s because unity is more easily talked about than actually advanced, and it generally can’t be served by defining some group (elites, or immigrants, or the wealthy, or Trump voters) as enemies of unity and calling the country to come together in opposition to them. It must be served by finding a common aspiration, or at least defining an overarching purpose to be achieved by negotiation and accommodation, and helping different factions of our society pursue it together.
Because of his long experience as a legislator, Biden’s approach to this sort of challenge may be more practical than that of either of his predecessors, and this is good. He seems to grasp that one key to the challenge of unity is turning down the temperature of our politics — making it more mundane and less morbidly interesting. His inaugural address was not eloquent or memorable, but it was well suited to this purpose, and to him. He seems to want to make politics boring again, at least to those who are bored by politics.
In fact, if Biden is going to recover some abandoned path on this front, it will likely be by reaching back not just before Trump but also before Obama. Like George W. Bush, Biden enters the presidency with a policy-minded view of what our politics is for, with his party controlling the House but only barely holding a 50–50 Senate, and with a sense of himself as adept at channeling middle-class yearnings and working with the opposition party to craft deals. Also like George W. Bush, however, he is probably not really in command of his party coalition, which teems with passionate malignancies he will struggle to contain. And he will also have to operate in a political environment that has grown much more divided and poisonous since Bush was in power.
Biden starts out with other weaknesses too. He is perceived as a lame duck from day one, as few people expect him to run for reelection at the age of 82. The shuffling to succeed him, especially with a lean and hungry vice president all too ready in the wings, will likely be a problem from the start, and will add to the perception of weakness that will inevitably dog him because of his age and frailty. That perception is also fed by a kind of insecurity that has always colored his political action and rhetoric. Biden is intent on constantly demonstrating both that he is a regular guy with no pretensions and that he is exceptionally smart and well educated. Whether either of these things is true or not, the desperate need to constantly convey them has been behind some of his worst missteps over the years, including some staggeringly bizarre behavior — such as plagiarizing an autobiographical speech by a British politician and getting into fights with voters over law-school grades.
This insecurity is a problem beyond such strange behavior. It suggests that Biden may be easy prey for aggressive activists and staffers who can manipulate his decision process by playing to his neediness. This is an old game among political advisers, of course, but by all accounts Biden has been especially vulnerable to it in the past, and this is a particular problem now since his ability to govern will depend on his ability to resist the pressure to surrender and conform to the left wing of his party coalition.
We can hope that at his age, having achieved an impressive primary victory and led his party to win a general election they could easily have lost, and with little left to prove or gain in politics, Biden may be more immune to these kinds of pressures than he once was. And we can hope too that his underlying decency, to which everyone who has known him attests and which comes across at a distance too, may guide him toward decisions that help to stitch our political culture back together and resist the awful impulses unleashed in our society in recent years.
It is good, in any case, that our new president wants greater unity. Whether he can help our country achieve it, his wanting it matters, and his decency does too. And on his first day, it is surely best to focus on the good, to wish our government’s new chief executive the very best, and to be grateful for the enormous good fortune we all have to share in the privilege of being Americans together.