Rarely has a new American president faced challenges as formidable as those Joe Biden has to confront. An economy slammed by a still-uncontained pandemic. An executive branch crippled by four years of mismanagement and malfeasance. Urgent changes in policy that can't wait any longer. A transition that must deal with the outgoing president's second impeachment. Gravest of all, a country so bitterly at odds with itself that the risk of civil disorder is real.
Millions of Americans crave nothing more than to resume their normal lives and go about their business in peace. Lately, so small a hope as that has come to seem out of reach. Today's inauguration — with its special arrangements in response to the pandemic and to heightened concern over security — is a sobering reminder of what's at stake. It's also an opportunity that must be grasped. The US needs a new start.
Biden is no fresh face, to be sure, yet his experience and temperament could prove well suited to the moment. He's a moderate inclined to seek the broadest possible cooperation, and mending the country will require nothing less. If others do their part, his administration can achieve two overarching goals. The first is relatively straightforward — to restore basic competence in government, so dismally lacking during his predecessor's time in office. The second will be harder — to advance a pragmatic Democratic prospectus while cooling the rancor that threatens to paralyze the country and divide it irreparably.
When it comes to competent administration, Biden's nominations are encouraging. He's named qualified and highly regarded people for the top positions. Most of his nominations should command bipartisan support and be confirmed without delay.
Excellent officials are no use if the president won't listen to what they say. One of Donald Trump's worst failings was pretending to understand matters he plainly didn't, while ignoring or contradicting his own experts (such as they were). This vanity blighted every policy — and as the pandemic surged, it cost thousands of lives. Trump pressed the trait to an extreme. But even by the standards of ordinary sane politicians, Biden seems especially willing to seek and follow good advice.
The harder test for the new president will be to bridge the country's gaping political divide, while moving quickly on crucial priorities such as Covid relief, jobs, infrastructure, education, inequality and climate change. Immigration reform also needs prompt attention; the current system is sapping the country's vitality. The clash between big tech and civil discourse must be handled wisely, while upholding time-tested constitutional principles. And the US needs to restore its global standing — for this country's sake and that of its friends around the world.
Biden can't do all this alone. At least to begin with, he'll have to work alongside the effort in Congress to convict Trump and disqualify him from running again. That process should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible, or else it risks making Biden's difficult job all but impossible. It's good that the new president has a long record of working across the aisle, and understands the danger posed by accelerating polarization. He can speak, if not to die-hard Trump supporters, at least to Republicans who are coming to understand the peril facing the country. A closely divided Congress — and the prospect of midterm elections in two years — adds to the case for seeking allies in advancing his agenda.
Democrats in Congress and across the country need to give the new president space to strike deals on legislation where good deals can be struck — starting with the Covid relief package he announced last week. It's also vital that Republicans turn away from reflexive opposition to everything a Democratic president proposes, and act as partners in government rather than implacable opponents. Their party will need to distance itself from supporters who see themselves as patriotic insurrectionists: That sentiment is poison. If Republicans can't ditch the blend of purblind tactics and outright nihilism that hoisted Trump to leadership of their party, they should neither expect nor deserve to again command majority support in the country.
America needs to change course in many aspects of policy. Just as important, it has to restore confidence in government and the idea of loyal opposition. If it fails in any one of these three, its prospects are poor. Biden will need all the help he can get — and the country should call on Democrats and Republicans alike to do their part.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.