WASHINGTON — In the 11 weeks since Election Day, the collision of crises confronting President-elect Joe Biden have gone from staggering to almost unimaginable.
More than 170,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 during that stretch alone, sending total U.S. deaths soaring past 400,000. The deep partisan divisions roiling the nation boiled over into violence during the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, threatening America’s long history of peaceful transitions of power and resulting in the second impeachment of the outgoing president. The economy has steadily weakened, with employers cutting 140,000 jobs just in the month of December.
It falls now to Biden, as he is sworn in on Wednesday, to both level with Americans about the deep trouble facing the nation and cast ahead to a brighter future. He will do so knowing that millions of Americans wrongly believe his election was illegitimate, fueled by the lie perpetuated by President Donald Trump.
Trump himself won’t be there to witness Biden’s swearing in, having decided to defy tradition and leave Washington Wednesday morning ahead of the inauguration.
Taken together, it’s as grim a moment as many Americans can remember and far from the celebration Biden, 78, likely imagined over the decades he has pined for the presidency. There will be no cheering crowd spread out before him on the National Mall when he takes the oath of office as a consequence of the pandemic, but there will be 25,000 National Guard troops securing the streets of Washington in response to the Capitol siege.
Historians have put the challenges Biden faces on par with, or even beyond, what confronted Abraham Lincoln when he was inaugurated in 1861 to lead a nation splintering into civil war or Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he was sworn in during the depths of the Great Depression in 1933.
But Lincoln and Roosevelt’s presidencies are also a blueprint for the the ways American leaders have turned crises into opportunities, pulling people past the partisan divisions or ideological forces that can halt progress.
“Crises present unique opportunities for large scale change in a way that an average moment might not,” said Lindsay Chervinsky, a presidential historian and author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.” “The more intense the crisis, the more likely the country is to get behind someone to try to fix that — the concept of uniting in war or uniting against a common threat.”
But by some measures, Roosevelt and Lincoln had advantages Biden does not. Roosevelt’s Democratic Party had solid majorities in Congress, helping him power through his expansive agenda. Lincoln’s Republican majorities were added by the secessionist push that dwindled his opponents’ ranks in Congress.
Biden, meanwhile, will have the narrowest of Democratic majorities in Congress; in the 50-50 Senate, it will fall to soon-to-be Vice-President Kamala Harris to break any ties. The Republican Party faces an existential crisis of its own making after the Trump era, and it’s deeply uncertain how much co-operating with the new Democratic president fits into its leaders’ plans for their future.
Still, Biden has signalled he will press Congress aggressively in his opening weeks, challenging lawmakers to pass a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package to address the public health and economic crisis — all but daring Republicans to block him at a moment when cases and deaths across the U.S. are soaring.
Biden’s ability to get that legislation passed will significantly shape both his administration’s ability to tackle the pandemic and his overall standing in Washington. He’s staked much of the promise of his presidency on his ability to court lawmakers from across the aisle, touting his long working relationship Republican senators and the reputation he cultivated as a dealmaker while serving as President Barack Obama’s No. 2.
But Washington has changed rapidly since then, a reality Biden’s advisers insist he is clear-eyed about. Unlike Obama, he will quickly flex his executive powers on his first day in office, both to roll back Trump administration policies and to take action on the pandemic, including issuing a mask mandate on federal property. He’s also pledged that his administration will vaccinate 100 million people against the coronavirus within his first 100 days in office, laying down a clear marker to judge his success or failure.
Linda Belmonte, the dean of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and a professor of history, said that while Biden would be “naive” to think Washington is the same as it was when he was a senator or even when he left it as vice-president, the experience he brings to the job will be invaluable in this moment.
“We don’t have time for a learning curve,” Belmonte said. “I cannot think of a modern president that has faced a more daunting landscape.”
On the eve of his inauguration, Biden took stock not only of the challenges ahead but the path the nation has taken to get to this moment. As the sun set on the National Mall, he stood before the imposing memorial to Lincoln and called on the nation to remember the 400,000 Americans who have died from the coronavirus.
“To heal we must remember,” he said. “That’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation.”
Editor’s Note — Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for The Associated Press since 2007. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC
Julie Pace, The Associated Press