Biden faces monumental task healing divided country
It won’t be easy.
That’s the sentiment many of President-elect Joe Biden’s allies are expressing as he prepares to take the oath of office and help guide a bruised nation back from its darkest days in recent memory.
But in interviews with more than a dozen allies, confidants and political operatives in both parties, the overwhelming consensus is that Biden — who has scars from his own losses throughout his life — is well prepared to lead the nation as it grapples with a pandemic that has killed close to 400,000 people and is now processing fresh wounds from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
“It won’t be easy because we have only seen this environment once in our history and that was before the Civil War,” former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) explained about the obstacles before Biden as he prepares to become the nation’s 46th president.
Still, Israel and others say Biden is the best equipped to both address the pain enveloping the country and help ease the divide and super-charged rhetoric.
“This is a man who’s been through a lot of hell in his own life,” said one longtime Biden adviser. “But he can draw from a place of ‘I can get through this and we can get through it, too.’ ”
The adviser pointed to the unity theme throughout Biden’s campaign and said the president-elect will aim to make strides in bringing the nation together.
“He’s going to start the process of reminding people that we are more alike than we are different, as corny and cliche as that sounds,” the adviser said. “His whole campaign was about unity. That was his theme when he launched his campaign and when he won the campaign, and it’s a message that resonates even more today.”
Nayyera Haq, a Democratic strategist who served in the Obama White House, said Biden “has already acknowledged the need for accountability” when he takes office.
“Peace cannot exist absent a reckoning with past and recent history,” Haq said. “That is also how you give credit to the people who did not ‘get carried away in the moment’ and storm the Capitol.”
Those close to Biden say that in the coming days — including Wednesday’s inauguration, when Biden will be sworn in before an empty National Mall — he is expected to talk about the fractured state of the nation.
They say Biden is well aware of the need to speak directly to the 74 million people who supported President Trump, and in doing so will aim to draw a stark contrast with his predecessor while also attempting to break the nation’s fever.
“I think it’s OK to say we’re a divided country and we’ve taken some steps back in our democracy but today we’re going to begin to heal,” one longtime aide said. “I think he understands that you can’t move forward unless you start from where you are. And I think he’s the first to truly understand that it’s going to be a long road ahead.”
In a speech Thursday, Biden laid out a $1.9 trillion relief plan, aimed at boosting the economy after a period of record unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. His proposal aims to get the coronavirus under control, allowing for the reopening of schools while simultaneously revving up the economy.
But while Biden’s focus in his first 100 days will center around the virus, he also has to juggle a slew of other issues like climate change and infrastructure. And he’ll have to do all of that with Trump in the backdrop.
“Gone but not forgotten, Trump will likely launch the resistance from day one, and will be abetted by a right-wing media ecosystem long on conspiracy theories and short on facts, stoking the red-blue divide,” David Axelrod, a former Obama adviser wrote last month in an opinion piece for CNN.
Other presidents have entered office in turbulent times. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, inherited a historic economic crisis. Jimmy Carter took over at a time when trust in government had reached all-time lows because of the Vietnam War and Watergate.
More recently, Barack Obama had to contend with the Great Recession.
But historians say Biden is coming in during a particularly dire moment compared with previous Oval Office occupants.
“This certainly ranks with one of the worst moments given the way in which the virus has destroyed so much in this nation, from lives to the economy to social institutions. But he can handle this,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
“The good news is that the government offers a solution to many of the problems,” including stimulus plans and a vaccine rollout.
But Zelizer added that “major crises does not mean no options.”
“Good presidents see the windows opened in these moments,” he said. “And if he can get us through the next six months, with some kind normal by fall, his political capital might actually increase.”
While the nation continues to process the turmoil of recent months, Israel said “there are glimmers of hope.”
“Just the fact that we will no longer have a president taking the megaphone every day to divide us will help the healing,” the former congressman said. “But also, responding to people’s anxieties by distributing a COVID vaccine, reducing the infection rates, and passing a COVID relief bill will demonstrate to Americans that their government is now competent and functioning.”
Still, Biden allies — who would normally be feeling celebratory in the days leading up to inauguration— say they feel anything but.
“It feels very joyless,” the longtime adviser said. “People are just trying to get through it.”