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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 TrumpGuardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa wins GOP primary in NYC mayor's race Garland dismisses broad review of politicization of DOJ under Trump Schumer vows next steps after 'ridiculous,' 'awful' GOP election bill filibuster 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 RomneyOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs warn against sweeping reform to military justice system | Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal | National Guard may have 'training issues' if not reimbursed Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Flaming shipwreck wreaks havoc on annual sea turtle migration Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal MORE (R-Utah) calling it “very strong” and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsPelosi quashes reports on Jan. 6 select committee White House advisers huddle with Senate moderates on infrastructure Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda MORE (R-Maine) saying he had “struck the right themes.”  

The previous day, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate GOP blocks voting rights bill Schumer, McConnell spar as GOP prepares to block voting bill Trump has 'zero desire' to be Speaker, spokesman says 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 OssoffOssoff introduces solar energy tax credit legislation Democrats seek new ways to expand Medicaid in holdout states Stacey Abrams calls on young voters of color to support election reform bill MORE and Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockRacial reparations at the USDA Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda Democrats seek new ways to expand Medicaid in holdout states 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 ObamaObama: Voting rights bill must pass before next election The world's most passionate UFO skeptic versus the government Biden plans to host Obama for portrait unveiling that Trump skipped: report MORE, George W. Bush and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWhite House pushes back on claims Biden doing too little on voting rights The Memo: Some Democrats worry rising crime will cost them Boeing's top lobbyist leaves company 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