President Joseph R. Biden Jr. took the oath of office shortly before noon Eastern time on Wednesday, and in his low-key manner ended an era in which the evil in the U.S. government could not be overestimated, and started a new one that promises to be better.
It’s now up to Biden and his incoming team to make sure they use their powers for good. Simply not being a mendacious and corrupt would-be autocrat is an awfully low bar to reach. The times call for inspired leadership and an aggressive platform of reform.
There have already been some indications that Biden understands this. Political speeches are usually more symbolic and aspirational than grounded in reality, but symbols do matter. In his inaugural address, Biden name-checked some critical issues that progressives have been pushing for years: systemic racism, White supremacy, the climate crisis, and the United States’ loss of standing around the world.
But he also mentioned “unity” eight times, and therein lies the challenge this new administration is going to face.
For a career Washington politician, Biden has managed to remain largely consistent in his politics, hewing toward wherever the political center of the Democratic Party was at any given moment, and using his affable charm to work across the aisle to get policy done.
Those days are gone, and it’s best Biden recognize that, not least because of the then-unprecedented hostility and obstructionism he saw from Republicans when he served as vice president in Barack Obama’s administration.
Since that time, the Republican Party has shown itself to be an extremist group opposed to actual democracy. When the GOP’s Congressional caucus had the opportunity a week ago to say that it was, you know, wrong for a sitting president to instigate a violent insurrection against the government, all but 10 of them said “no.” And a significant number of Senate Republicans likewise will not vote to convict the former president.
Biden has a majority in Congress—one that is full of self-important and triangulating career pols who sometimes need to be dragged kicking and screaming into serving the people rather than their donors. The Democrats’ razor-thin majority includes everyone from progressives like U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to red-state moderates like U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and U.S.Rep. Henry Cuellar.
The high likelihood of Biden not seeking a second term in 2024 could help free him from the grip that money has on politics, but he’s still going to have to be the leader of a party prone to infighting and interest-group politics. That means getting those moderates on board for real reform, and getting progressives to accept results that might be less than what they’d hoped for.
Yet the Democratic Party also is not the same as it was even four years ago. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, chaired by U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan, has 95 members, making it the second-largest ideological caucus in Congress, and comprises 42% of the Democrats’ House membership. Their influence on policy in the new administration will be substantial.
In this era of extreme partisanship, “unity” is a meaningless concept, especially when one of the two parties has become opposed to the basic idea that the people should be able to select their leaders in a free and fair manner.
And one word was missing from Biden’s speech: accountability.
We just suffered four years of endemic, overt corruption, and cruelty, overseen by a president who by any reasonable measure is a con artist, a sexual predator, a money launderer for organized crime, and a traitor to the United States. We saw the creation of concentration camps for immigrant children, deliberate attempts to deprive Black people of the right to vote, the militarized response of police to demonstrations that included snatch-and-grab operations by unidentified federal officers in unmarked vehicles, and the use of the U.S. government to punish political opponents, including an unprecedented violent coup attempt against Congress on Jan. 6. Those were only some of the most egregious examples of malicious lawlessness in the past four years.
There can be no unity without accountability for those crimes. And yet the pressure will now be enormous—on Biden’s administration, on Congressional leaders, on national media—to “move on,” “for the good of the country,” and “let bygones be bygones.”
The problem is, we are still a nation in crisis. A far-right-wing movement that sought to overthrow our democracy extends not just to those who breached the Capitol building, but to those who enabled and supported them, including members of Congress and the former president and his administration. If they remain unpunished, the message that will be heard is not “unity,” but “it’s just politics as usual.”
I’d like to think Biden was sincere when he said, “If we do this, then when our days are through, our children and our children’s children will say of us: They gave their best, they did their duty, they healed a broken land.” But that means we can’t let our response to the past four years to be politics as usual. There needs to be a very public accounting of the damage done, and criminal charges should be brought where warranted, no matter whose sense of decorum might be upset.
Compelling evidence has emerged that the violent mob may have had support from members of Congress. Accountability for them may look like expulsion, at the bare minimum. When Congress members like Ocasio-Cortez were fearful of being killed not just by rioters, but also by fellow members of Congress, that’s an indication that a full house-cleaning is in order.
Biden needs to recognize that reality. There’s no unity without accountability, and extending a hand to those who would just as soon stab it is the height of foolishness.
Biden also should not ignore those who enabled his success—not the stereotypical former White Democrat who switched sides in 2016, but Black Americans, especially women, and those progressives who have kept injustice front and center during the previous administration.
Biden may have won the popular vote by 7 million votes, but the winning margins in key states were delivered by a massive get-out-the-vote effort among those groups—the same groups targeted by voter suppression and intimidation for decades, and whose votes were the subject of dozens of frivolous lawsuits seeking to overturn the election results.
Their support is not automatic. Hillary Clinton learned that the hard way. They elected Biden not just because of who he was not, but presumably because they want to see “Build Back Better” mean a true rebuilding of the country into one that embraces a reckoning with past sins and creating justice for everyone. Lip service was never enough, but it will be especially insulting now to see a return to the unfair system we hoped we’d left behind.
Amanda Gorman, the first National Youth Poet Laureate and the youngest ever to read at an inauguration, was an inspired choice for Biden’s inauguration, and her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” vividly captured the moment we face as a nation:
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
History has its eyes on us.
It may feel like a new day in America, but it is, to paraphrase another onetime leader of a nation in crisis, not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning. History indeed will be the judge of how we move forward now.