President-elect Joe Biden will take the stage for his inaugural address at perhaps the most difficult starting point for a president since Franklin Roosevelt began his first term by assuring a nation scarred by the Great Depression that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
But memorable turns of phrase like Roosevelt’s are more the exception than the rule when it comes to inaugural addresses.
Former President Barack Obama in his memoir noted that singer Aretha Franklin’s showy hat and a glitch in Chief Justice John Roberts’ administration of the oath of office got more attention than his speech in the days following the first Black president’s address, delivered as the nation was mired in recession and a growing malaise over two intractable wars.
Now, with the coronavirus raging, unemployment claims soaring and partisan divisions sharpening, Biden faces a fraught moment as he prepares to deliver a speech that aides say he wants to use to “call Americans to unity.”
“The situation he faces is absolutely brutal,” said Cody Keenan, who served as a chief speechwriter for Obama and assisted with his two inaugural addresses. He added that Biden in many ways is ”the perfect president for the moment, because he is not hyperbolic, he’s not a bomb thrower, he’s surrounded himself with policy wonks who already have all these plans. I think what we are going to hear him talk about is ‘Here’s where we are, here’s what we have to get done.’ I think that’s going to go a long way just to making people feel better.”
With the current mood of the country, Biden’s consistent focus on restoring “the soul of America” may be of greater value to the nation than any soaring oratory, in the view of some Democratic allies of the incoming president.
“It is entirely possible that this inaugural is one we remember for generations to come, because of the gravity of this moment” said David Litt, who served as an Obama speechwriter and wrote the comedic memoir, “Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years.” “But I also think it’s possible that the signature speeches of the Biden administration come at less expected moments and that would be par for the course.”
The inaugural address is as much a celebration of the peaceful handover of power as it is a set piece for a new or reelected president to lay out a vision for the nation. In recent memory, inaugural addresses have followed a predictable structure: The nation has challenges but there is hope to solve the problems if the president’s agenda is embraced.
One tradition dating back at least to Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inaugural is for the incoming president to offer the nation’s gratitude to the outgoing president — a moment of graciousness intended to put aside the strife of the political campaign and signal to Americans that it’s time to come together as a nation.
President Donald Trump won’t be there to hear it. He’s already said he won’t attend the inauguration — the first outgoing president to skip his successor’s swearing-in since Andrew Johnson did not attend Ulysses S. Grant’s inauguration in 1869.
Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush, said there are still ways that Biden’s speechwriting team can continue the tradition of honoring the peaceful transition of power by simply giving a nod to the past presidents and Vice President Mike Pence, who are expected to be at the Capitol for the address.
Biden chief of staff Ron Klain said during a recent event hosted by The Washington Post that the president-elect has been chipping away on the address through the entire transition — taking time every few days to write and rewrite his thoughts. His speechwriting team is led by longtime Biden collaborator Vinay Reddy.
More important than flowery oratory is substantively demonstrating how Biden will take steps to begin unifying a country that remains emotionally raw because of the pandemic and a divisive election cycle that culminated with the violent insurrection at the Capitol, Fleischer said.
“Don’t dwell on today’s difficulties. Focus on tomorrow’s answers,” Fleischer advised. “Soaring oratory is just not Joe Biden. The effectiveness of his speech is going to be much more about what he says than how he says it.”
Edward Frantz, a presidential historian at the University of Indianapolis, said Biden’s daunting moment has parallels to what Roosevelt faced in 1933 as he sought to rally support for his agenda, as well as to Rutherford B. Hayes, who delivered his inaugural address in 1877 after winning by a single Electoral College vote in an election in which he and his allies alleged fraud in several states.
In addition to pushing a message of unity for Americans, Biden should signal to the world that the United States will recalibrate after four years of Trump, Frantz said. That may be easier said than done, though.
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“How do you talk about returning to new normal while also not seeming arrogant about the United States’ position in the world — especially after what’s transpired over the last four years of the Trump administration and also with what foreign observers watched in horror as the riots transpired,” Frantz said. “There really is no parallel to what Biden faces.”
The U.S. Capitol complex temporarily locked down Monday during a rehearsal for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration after a fire in a homeless encampment roughly a mile away sent a plume of smoke into the air and caused security concerns in an already jittery city.
But law enforcement officials said there was no threat to the public and the fire was not believed to be a threat to the inauguration. Local firefighters put out the blaze quickly. The evacuation of some participants and the lockdown were ordered by the acting chief of Capitol Police in an abundance of caution, officials said.
Biden was not participating in the rehearsal, nor were other VIPs who will attend Wednesday’s ceremony.
But the fast decision to lock down underscores the fear that has gripped Washington since the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters and prompted extraordinary measures ahead of the inauguration. Armed protests planned for this past weekend around the country were mostly a bust, but anxiety is still skyrocketing.
U.S. Secret Service tightened security in and around the Capitol a week early in preparation, and the city center is essentially on lockdown with streets blocked, high fencing installed and tens of thousands of National Guard and other law enforcement officers stationed around the area.
But U.S. defense officials, worried about a potential insider attack or other threat from service members involved in securing the event, pushed the FBI to vet all of the 25,000 National Guard troops coming into the area.
President Donald Trump has refused to attend the inauguration, the first time a sitting president has not attended since Andrew Jackson, though Vice President Mike Pence will be there as well as other former presidents.
Capitol police spokeswoman Eva Malecki said there were currently no fires on or within the campus. “Members and staff were advised to shelter in place while the incident is being investigated,” she said in a statement.
Firefighters were called to the homeless encampment shortly before 10:15 a.m., where a woman who lived there had a portable heater with a flammable gas tank, fire department spokesman Vito Maggiolo said. The woman, who was injured but declined medical treatment, told firefighters that the flames spread quickly and her possessions were burned. The fire was extinguished almost immediately after firefighters arrived.
Participants were ushered from the West Front of the Capitol. Those who had gathered for a walk-through, including a military band, were directed to head indoors and moved in the direction of a secure location inside the Capitol complex.
People involved in the rehearsal said security officials yelled “this is not a drill.”
The lockdown was lifted about an hour later.
Five people died in the Jan. 6 riot, including a police officer.
Presidential traditions are usually known for their solemnity and carry the weight of future historical significance. This one began with cartoon turkeys and a reference to lunch.
As he was preparing to leave the White House in January 1989, President Ronald Reagan wanted to leave a note for his successor, George H.W. Bush, and reached for a pad emblazoned with a cartoon by humorist Sandra Boynton under the phrase, “Don’t Let the Turkeys Get You Down.” It featured a collection of turkeys scaling a prone elephant, the symbol of both men’s Republican Party.
“Dear George, You’ll have moments when you’ll want to use this particular stationary. Well, go to it,” Reagan scrawled. He noted treasuring “the memories we share” and said he’d be praying for the new president before concluding, “I’ll miss our Thursday lunches. Ron.”
Thus was born the tradition of departing presidents leaving a handwritten note in the Oval Office for their successors. The missives’ contents start off as confidential, but are often eventually made public by archivists, references in presidential memoirs or via social media after journalists and others filed requests to obtain them.
The 32-year tradition is in peril this year. President Donald Trump has refused to accept the results of November’s election and vowed not to attend Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday. That makes it doubtful Trump will leave behind any handwritten, friendly advice for Biden.
Presidents often write reflectively at the end of their time in office, including George Washington, who stated that he was “tired of public life” in recording why he wasn’t seeking a third presidential term. But historians say Reagan’s is likely the first instance of a personal letter being passed between presidents as they left and entered office.
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“It was a sort of a revelation that a note like this was left,” said Jim Bendat, author of “Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President.” “We’ve come to expect them. It’s a great tradition. It’s one of those new traditions. And the traditions for Inauguration Day are like that — they often evolve through the years.”
The notes are striking in their simplicity given just how big the job of the presidency is. But they are also notable in their camaraderie and common purpose — especially since the handoff of power is often an unhappy one: Reagan to Bush was the last time the country had one president from the same party succeed another.
Despite losing to Bill Clinton in the bitter 1992 election, Bush followed Reagan’s lead, this time on more stately, White House stationary. “I leave a note on the desk for Bill Clinton. It looks a little lonely sitting there,” Bush recalled in his book “All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings.”
“When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too,” Bush wrote in the note, adding, “I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some presidents have described.”
He continued, “I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course,” before concluding, “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck — George.”
Those words were so touching that the new president’s wife, Hillary, later recalled they made her cry.
“It speaks not only to his grace, but ultimately what the presidency should be all about, which is thinking about your country first,” said Mark K. Updegrove, a historian and CEO of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation, who has written about the Bush family. “Though he had been soundly defeated by Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, as a good American, was wishing the new president well.”
Writing to that president’s son, incoming President George W. Bush in 2000, Clinton noted that the “burdens you now shoulder are great but often exaggerated” and that the “sheer joy of doing what you believe is right is inexpressible.”
In his own letter to President Barack Obama eight years later, the younger Bush advised that “critics will rage. Your ‘friends’ will disappoint you,” but ”no matter what comes, you will be inspired by the character and compassion of the people you now lead.”
Bush’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, were 27 at the time. They wrote a sort of kids’ guide to the White House for Malia and Sasha Obama, then 10 and 7. It included such advice as “slide down the banister of the solarium” and “when your dad throws out the first pitch for the Yankees, go to the game.”
In his letter to Trump in 2017, Obama wrote, “This is a unique office, without a clear blueprint for success, so I don’t know that any advice from me will be particularly helpful.”
But Obama did offer some words that now appear prophetic given Trump’s impeachment for inciting the deadly mob violence at the U.S. Capitol. “We are just temporary occupants of this office,” he wrote. “That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions — like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties — that our forebears fought and bled for.”
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“It’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them,” Obama continued.
Updegrove said even if the note tradition stops with Trump, it could easily start again when Biden leaves office. He has already been vice president and spent 36 years in the Senate, where tradition and bipartisan congeniality are strong.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he would do it graciously,” Updegrove said.
Kamala Harris will make history on Wednesday when she becomes the nation’s first female vice president — and the first Black woman and the first woman of South Asian descent to hold that office. But that’s only where her boundary-breaking role begins.
With the confluence of crises confronting Joe Biden’s administration — and an evenly divided Senate in which she would deliver the tie-breaking vote — Harris is shaping up to be a central player in addressing everything from the coronavirus pandemic to criminal justice reform.
Symone Sanders, Harris’ chief spokeswoman, said that while the vice president-elect’s portfolio hasn’t been fully defined yet, she has a hand in all aspects of Biden’s agenda.
“There are pieces that Biden may specifically ask her to champion, but outside of that she is at the table for everything, involved in everything, and giving input and feedback and being a supportive partner to him on all pieces,” she said.
People working closely with Harris on the transition resist the idea of siloing her into any specific issue early on, because the sheer number of challenges the Biden administration faces means it will be “all hands on deck” during their early months. They say she’ll be involved in all four of the major priorities they’ve set out: turning around the economy, tackling COVID-19, and addressing climate change and racial justice.
“She has a voice in all of those. She has an opinion in all those areas. And it will probably get to a point where she is concentrating on some of the areas more specifically,” Sanders said. “But right now, I think what we’re faced with in this country is so big, it’s all hands on deck.”
Harris has been closely involved with all of Biden’s biggest decisions since winning the election in November, joining him for every one of his key meetings focused on Cabinet picks, the COVID-19 relief bill, security issues and more. The two talk over the phone nearly every day, and she travels to Delaware sometimes multiple times a week for transition events and meetings.
Those involved in the transition say both have taken seriously Biden’s insistence that he wants Harris to be the “last voice in the room” on key decisions. Biden is known to turn to Harris first during meetings to ask for her opinion or perspective on the matter at hand.
Biden and Harris knew each other prior to the 2020 presidential campaign in part through Harris’ friendship with Biden’s deceased son, Beau. But they never worked closely together.
Since joining the ticket, and particularly since the election, Harris has made efforts to deepen their relationship and is in frequent contact with the president-elect, people close to Harris say. That personal relationship, according to presidential historian Joel Goldstein, will be key to their success as working partners.
“The relationship of the vice president to the president is the most important relationship. Establishing mutual understanding and trust is really a key to a successful vice presidency,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein pointed to Biden and President Barack Obama’s relationship as a potential model for the incoming team.
Biden and Obama were from similarly different backgrounds and generations and also entered the White House with a relatively fresh working relationship. But their relationship and mutual understanding grew throughout the presidency, and Obama trusted Biden with some of his administration’s biggest endeavors, like the implementation of the 2009 Recovery Act and the troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Harris is said to be looking at Biden’s vice presidency as a guide for her own.
But unlike Biden during his first term, Harris will face constant questions about her political future. While Biden has skirted questions about whether he plans to run for reelection, at 78 he’ll be the oldest president in history, leaving questions about whether he’ll retire at the end of his term. That would make Harris the immediate frontrunner in any 2024 Democratic presidential primary.
Early in the vice presidential vetting process, her potential presidential ambitions gave some Biden allies pause. But since her selection, Harris has proven a loyal partner to Biden, rarely if ever contradicting him publicly.
Still, California Rep. Barbara Lee, who was the first Congressional Black Caucus member to endorse in the primary when she backed Harris, said the vice president-elect isn’t afraid to speak her mind.
“She’s no shrinking violet,” Lee said. “If she believes that one decision should be made versus another she’s gonna weigh in and give her thoughts and opinions.”
Biden has a personal affection for the work of diplomacy and deep relationships with global leaders that Harris can’t match. But aides say she’ll be deeply involved in the administration’s diplomatic priorities simply because of the sheer amount of issues that will take up Biden’s time. She may also be given a particular aspect of the administration’s coronavirus response to oversee.
One of her main priorities early on is certain to be the passage of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that Biden announced Thursday. Those working with Harris on the transition say that while Biden will be intimately involved with ushering the package through the Senate because of his longstanding relationships with longer-serving lawmakers, Harris knows the newer members and can help build fresh relationships in Congress.
The first few months of the Biden administration will be focused on COVID-19 and the economy. But Harris is certain to face scrutiny — and pressure — from advocates to ensure the perspectives of Black and brown Americans are reflected in those policies and the Biden White House’s priorities.
Leah Daughtry, a former chief of staff at the Democratic National Committee, said Harris will make a difference simply by being in the room.
“The fact that Kamala Harris is a Black woman, is a woman of Indian ancestry, is a woman, automatically makes her different from every other vice president this country has ever seen,” she said. “That combination of experiences brings a set of values and lived experiences into a room where they have not previously existed. And that can only be good for this American democracy.”
But as South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn put it, “There will be a lot of weight on those shoulders.”
“Those of us who come to these positions, we come to them knowing full well that we have a burden to make sure that we do it in such a way, that there will be people coming behind us,” he said.
Clyburn also acknowledged that Harris could also be a flashpoint for controversy among the portion of President Donald Trump’s followers who are motivated by racial animus, which Clyburne said contributed to the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“They’re still holding on to a lot of animus about Barack Obama, and they’re gonna transfer it to her, just like they transferred it to others here in this building,” Clyburn said. “And they’re never gonna get beyond that.”
But Harris’ allies say as a child of civil rights activists, and a Black woman who’s spent her life confronting and trying to address racism and inequality, navigating those pressures as vice president will come as second nature for her.
Also read: Kamala Harris makes history
“Kamala Harris didn’t just fall out of the Harvard Law School like Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz or somebody like that,” said Bakari Sellers, referencing two Republican senators who objected to the congressional certification of Biden’s win. (Hawley graduated from Yale Law School.)
Sellers, a former South Carolina state lawmaker and an early Harris endorser, likened her to other civil rights trailblazers
“She comes from the same lineage as Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm and Ella Baker,” he said. “I mean, she’s built for this.”
So what does a 50-50 Senate get President-elect Joe Biden?
Washington has barely had time to process the implications of Democratic control after two Georgia runoff elections that are delivering the Senate to Democrats. Hours after the races were decided, a mob of zealots ransacked the U.S. Capitol and reshaped the national and political landscape.
The unexpected new balance of power giving Democrats only the barest control of Congress has big consequences for the president-elect — easy confirmation of his Cabinet most importantly — but the road ahead for his ambitious legislative agenda remains complicated and murky.
Republicans remain poised to block most of Biden's proposals, just as they thwarted much of President Barack Obama's efforts on Capitol Hill. But 50/50 control permits action on special legislation that can't be filibustered, and momentum for the popular parts of COVID-19 relief could easily propel an early aid bill into law.
With Democrats chairing committees in the Senate and only needing a majority to win floor votes on nominations, Biden is now assured of sealing confirmation of his Cabinet and judicial picks — including potentially for the Supreme Court. It also means controversial choices such as Neera Tanden, Biden's pick for budget director, can look ahead to assuming their posts. Republicans can slow but not stop nominations.
Democrats also have the opportunity to pass special budget-related legislation by a simple majority, an often-arcane process that enabled Obama to finish his 2010 health care bill and gave President Donald Trump's GOP allies a failed chance to repeal “Obamacare” and passage of a tax overhaul bill. Biden could use this so-called budget reconciliation process to pass more controversial elements of COVID-19 relief with only Democratic votes, repeal some of Trump's tax cuts or make federal health care programs more generous, for example.
SETTING THE AGENDA
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer — he'll be majority leader once the two new Georgia senators and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are all sworn into office — now has the opportunity to bring legislation to the floor and force votes. That could permit passage of $2,000 direct COVID-19 relief payments and other aid, for instance, and could mean debates on issues like police reform, immigration and climate change. But passage of such legislation would require support from Republicans, which gives the minority party enormous leverage.
ELIMINATION OF THE FILIBUSTER
Before the November election, pressure had been mounting from the Democratic left to eliminate the filibuster, leading Republicans to charge that Democrats would pack the Supreme Court or give statehood to Democratic strongholds such as the District of Columbia. Moderate Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia says he'll block any attempt to eliminate the filibuster, so party progressives may be wasting their breath on this topic now.
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Unified control of the government by one party almost invariably drives the two sides apart. Recent events — hard-won passage of a $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill and a sweeping override of Trump's veto of the annual defense bill — have been evidence that the vanishing congressional middle can help drive outcomes on Capitol Hill. But issues like increasing the debt limit instantly become partisan, and the political incentives for many Republicans heading into the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election are to vilify Biden and Democrats controlling Congress. Expect a short honeymoon for Biden.
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PROGRESSIVE MESSAGING PRIORITIES
A 50-50 Democratic Senate and bare control of the House grant virtually any individual Democrat the ability to gum up the works. That means impossible-to-pass ideas like “Medicare for All” and a Green New Deal aren't going to be the focus of Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That could, over time, frustrate liberals and cause them to issue demands related to bills that actually can pass like infrastructure spending and budget reconciliation proposals.