photo by Sgt. 1st Class R.J. Lannom Jr., courtesy the Georgia National Guard
A sense of national relief was palpable as President Joe Biden took the oath of office this week, and it was not entirely due to the absence of his predecessor.
Donald Trump skipped the traditional appearance by an outgoing president at his successor’s inauguration. He opted instead to throw a going-away party for himself from Andrews Air Force Base as he departed for his Florida home. It is safe to say that Trump was not missed. In fact, Biden never even mentioned his name in the scaled-down, masked-up, heavily guarded ceremonies at the Capitol.
Most, if not all, presidents since the Civil War have enjoyed at least a brief honeymoon period – a national reconciliation that follows a hard-fought campaign. Even Trump enjoyed 12 days at the start of his term when his national approval ratings exceeded his disapproval quotient, according to the scorekeepers at FiveThirtyEight. Reviled rather than merely opposed by most Democrats, along with a significant slice of independents and Republicans, Trump’s approval ratings never emerged from underwater again. They held remarkably steady in the mid-40s until the final two weeks of his presidency. They then collapsed to new lows following the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by a mob seeking to overturn the election results.
Inaugurations briefly open a window when politicking is put aside and the focus turns to governing. Any sensible American adult wants a new president to succeed in making the country better, even if our definitions of success do not fully align. Most of us agree on fundamental goals such as physical and financial security, educational opportunity and equal justice. We disagree mostly over how to prioritize and achieve these ends, and myriad others. That is a basis for discussion and compromise; it is not a cause for anger or hate.
The sense of national relief I mentioned was because Biden seems both acutely aware of this fact and determined to accomplish such discussion and compromise.
“History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity,” Biden declared in his inaugural address. “We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.”
The new president was greeted with a letter signed by 17 newly elected Republican members of the House of Representatives. They offered to seek common ground with the Democratic president. Two were among the 10 GOP members who voted to impeach Trump following the Capitol riot, while 10 were part of the GOP plurality in the House that ill-advisedly voted to challenge some of the electoral votes that put Biden in the White House.
“After two impeachments, lengthy inter-branch investigations, and most recently, the horrific attack on our nation’s capital, it is clear that the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans does not serve a single American,” they wrote. “We hope to work with you to extend targeted, meaningful coronavirus relief for families and businesses, protect Americans with pre-existing conditions, strengthen and modernize our infrastructure, enforce our anti-trust laws against emboldened technology monopolies, and restore our economy struggling in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Despite its cordial tone, the letter hinted at some of the political tussles to come. “Targeted, meaningful coronavirus relief” is code for an objection to the additional $1,400 across-the-board stimulus that Biden and a significant number of lawmakers (including some Republicans) have endorsed. Advocating that relief “for families and businesses” pointedly leaves out the states and municipalities, particularly Democratic voting bastions, which are also demanding vastly increased federal financial aid. The call to “protect Americans with pre-existing conditions” acknowledges that the decade-long fight over the Affordable Care Act is not over. The two parties also have different ideas about what it means to “restore our economy” and how to go about achieving it.
This is all to be expected. Every honeymoon ends, and the business of ordinary daily life inevitably resumes. Trump may be gone – apart from his unprecedented pending impeachment, following his departure from office – but the policy differences that divided Trump and most Republicans from Biden and his fellow Democrats remain. There are deep divisions within the parties as well. For Democrats they are over goals and priorities; for Republicans they remain, mostly, over Trump.
We will get to those arguments in due course. In a democracy, “unity” does not mean virtual unanimity, except in the direst circumstances. The closest we come to “unity” in other times is through respect for differing viewpoints and for the institutional framework through which we resolve disagreements. If and when that ceases, we’ll all know the Biden honeymoon is truly over.