Joe Biden must usher in a new era
In August 1974, Gerald Ford walked into the East Room of the White House to be sworn in as president. It occurred as Richard Nixon left Washington in disgrace, the country was divided, and the economy was weak. Indeed, Ford realized the moment. “I assume the presidency under extraordinary circumstances never before experienced by Americans.” He added, “This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts.”
The nightmare of the Watergate scandal may have seemed ominous at the time. But now we emerge from a darker ordeal that makes Watergate look almost tame. It started four years ago as Donald Trump promised to stop the carnage and ends today as he leaves the carnage behind.
He departs like a graffiti artist on the run. He may finally be gone, but the defacement and vandalism remain, staining the institutions of democracy. The damage is not just to the Capitol, but to the act of governing. So does today signal the last gasp of insurgency or the last gasp of decency? Does Joe Biden usher in a renewal of civil discourse? Or is this a moment before the violent mob storms back and truly overthrows democracy?
The last seven elections suggest Americans are unsure how they want to be governed. In 2008, we elected Barack Obama. In 2010, we elected a Tea Party in Congress to block him. In 2012, we elected Obama to block the Tea Party. In 2014, we added to the Republican majority in the House to block Obama. In 2016, we chose someone different and elected Trump. In 2018, we elected Democratic majority under Nancy Pelosi to block him. In 2020, we rejected him but sent more of his minions to the House.
The future looks murky. A resurgence of Trump in 2024 is less likely now. Meanwhile, the pundits speculate his successor. Will it be Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, or Josh Hawley? Or the kinder stokers like Mike Pence or Nikki Haley? The worry is misplaced. We learned from 2016 that the greatest influence to select a Republican candidate is not at the top but in state officials, local activists, precinct leaders, and media influencers.
They will decide where the party goes, but the signs are not promising. A national poll found that three in four Republican voters believe that Biden did not legitimately win the election. Another recent survey showed that Republican voters are largely unmoved after the violence at the Capitol. Further, the lunatic caucus in the House, with Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Boebert, continue to endorse QAnon, the peddler of antisemitic and racist smut. The extremes now reach beyond the party.
So the real battle for a governable country is not on the fringes but in the middle, where we have voters from both parties who backed Obama, then Trump, then Biden. This is where the suburban women and moderates are. They are the people who recoil at the “defund the police” moment but are revolted by police tactics that have killed African Americans.
Today, Biden channels the inaugural ceremonies of Ford. But we have learned that irony infuses history. The man best known for his calls to console a grieving person now leads a grieving nation. The senator who built his career forging compromise between the right and the left now draws from a bigger toolbox in the White House. The man called “Middle Class Joe” must now fix an economy that was buffeted by the pandemic. Biden will swear to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. The words have rarely been as urgent for the country as they are now.
Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.