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The Memo: Biden strives for common ground after Trump turmoil

The Memo: Biden strives for common ground after Trump turmoil
© AP/Pool

President Biden began trying to put America’s pieces back together again Wednesday.  

It won’t be easy.

Biden's inaugural address was a call to unity. But the circumstances of its delivery — his words echoing across a near-empty National Mall, with his predecessor absent from the podium beside him — underlined the depths of the divisions he faces.

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Biden never mentioned former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE by name. But in topic and tone, his address served to rebuke the 45th president, who last week became the only commander in chief to be impeached on two occasions.

Trump’s second impeachment was for “incitement of insurrection,” culminating in the ransacking of the Capitol on Jan. 6.  

Biden is perhaps the only president since the Civil War who truly needed to affirm in his inaugural that “democracy has prevailed.”

“Let us start afresh,” Biden said. “Let us listen to one another; hear one another; see one another; show respect to one another. Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”

Yet no president, Biden included, really gets to start afresh. He must start from the place where his predecessor left off.

In Biden’s case, that is a country where 400,000 people have died of COVID-19, the pandemic has wreaked economic havoc, roughly 80 percent of Republican voters believe his election win to be illegitimate and America’s deepest wound of racism still lies open.

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Biden has pledged immediate action on several of these areas.  

He will create the position of COVID response coordinator and encourage the public at large to don masks for at least the next 100 days. He has already unveiled a $1.9 trillion package aimed at fighting the pandemic and ameliorating its worst economic impacts.

He has proposed a new immigration plan that provides an eight-year path to citizenship for people currently in the country illegally. By Wednesday night, he had issued executive orders halting new construction of the border wall and revoking Trump’s travel ban, which was widely seen as targeting Muslims.

Biden also announced an immediate acceptance of the Paris climate agreement, an action that gives climate change a priority it never enjoyed under Trump and marks a shift back toward multilateralism rather than “American First” isolationism.

There were some early signs of comity for the new president too.  

Several Republican senators praised Biden’s address, with Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRon Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Romney's TRUST Act is a Trojan Horse to cut seniors' benefits Republicans, please save your party MORE (R-Utah) calling it “very strong” and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMurkowski votes with Senate panel to advance Haaland nomination OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior reverses Trump policy that it says restricted science | Collins to back Haaland's Interior nomination | Republicans press Biden environment nominee on Obama-era policy Republicans, please save your party MORE (R-Maine) saying he had “struck the right themes.”  

The previous day, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRon Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Klain on Harris breaking tie: 'Every time she votes, we win' How to pass legislation in the Senate without eliminating the filibuster MORE (R-Ky.) made his most emphatic break yet with Trump, saying that the now-former president had “provoked” the insurrection, adding “the mob was fed lies.”

Strengthening Biden’s hand, two new Democratic senators representing Georgia, Jon OssoffJon OssoffKlain on Harris breaking tie: 'Every time she votes, we win' Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee Wray hints at federal response to SolarWinds hack MORE and Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockKlain on Harris breaking tie: 'Every time she votes, we win' Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee Bipartisan bill would ban lawmakers from buying, selling stocks MORE, were sworn in later Wednesday afternoon. Their arrival means a 50-50 Senate — a de facto Democratic majority because Vice President Harris, the first woman to hold that office, can cast the deciding vote in the event of a tie.

Still, it will hardly be plain sailing, in Washington or beyond. Much of the GOP still marches to Trump’s drum. The incentives in American politics — to get media attention, raise money or stave off primary challenges — continue to pull politicians toward the extremes.

Then there is Trump. He left Washington on Wednesday morning, becoming the first president in more than 100 years to so ostentatiously snub a successor. Speaking at Joint Air Force Base Andrews as he prepared to depart for Florida, Trump told supporters, “We've left it all on the field.”

While wishing the new administration “great luck and great success,” he also pledged that “we will be back in some form.”

Some of the 74 million Trump voters may be prepared to extend some leeway to Biden in his early days — but many others are sure to remain implacably opposed. The media ecosystem that propelled Trump to power to begin with, fueled by grievance and outrage, is still very much in place.

But Biden’s inauguration did reach for some sense of conventionality and togetherness, even amid such unusual circumstances.

The visual image of three ex-presidents —Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhy is Joe Biden dodging the public and the press? Here's who Biden is now considering for budget chief Pentagon issues report revealing ex-White House doctor 'belittled' subordinates, violated alcohol policies MORE, George W. Bush and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonSenators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China Edie Falco to play Hillary Clinton in Clinton impeachment series Website shows 3D models of every Oval Office design since 1909 MORE — together on the podium restored some semblance of the political normalcy that Trump sought to upend. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office, as he had done for Trump and Obama.

The ceremony sought to reach America’s different cultural camps too, even in terms of its music, which encompassed Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks.

For Biden supporters — and for nonpartisans simply eager to put the rancor of the last four years behind them — Wednesday felt like an exhalation of relief as much a celebration.

Right after Biden’s speech, Amanda Gorman — at 22, the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history — struck a chord with her poem “The Hill We Climb.”

“Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed / a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished,” the poem ran.

The line resonated just as widely, and as emotionally, as anything in Biden’s address.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage