WASHINGTON — The most important week of Joe Biden’s presidency may have happened before it even started, one that deepened the nation’s political, public health, and economic crises and swiftly altered the tools he will have to address them.
Four days in America gave the incoming president the keys to unified control of the government, and laid bare the depth of the division in a country he has insisted he can bring together. The riot in the Capitol brought hints of a post-Trump “epiphany” he has said will encourage Republicans to govern with him, and just as quickly revealed how limited it could be, presenting the president-elect with an early test of his response to a crisis and of his faith in this country’s fundamental decency.
“I think this week is very, very consequential for Biden,” Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, a key ally of Biden, said Friday, “and I think it’s a very consequential week for this democracy.”
Before last week, Biden already faced a daunting challenge, with an outgoing administration that was actively obstructing his transition, an electorate cleaved by the falsehood that he stole the election, and twin crises of the pandemic and its economic devastation deepening their grip on the nation.
Then, in the 96 hours between Tuesday and Friday, Georgia voters elected their first Black and Jewish senators, both Democrats, giving the party control of the chamber. A violent mob, driven by lies and white grievance, shone a black light on Trumpism’s id, forcing a swath of the president’s fellow Republicans to recoil after four years of acquiescence. The drumbeat of crisis continued: On Thursday, a record 4,000 people were reported dead of COVID-19, and on Friday, a grim jobs report showed the economic recovery has all but stopped.
Now, Biden will take office with a slim Senate majority that will embolden him to tackle those crises, in what some Democrats cautiously hope will be a political landscape altered by the increasing isolation of President Trump and the Republicans’ humbling loss in Georgia.
“What has happened in the last 4 or 5 days has really, really lessened the aura of the star of President Trump,” said former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat. “That is a blessing to the country and to the Biden administration.”
Whether or not that lasts, Democrats now have the Senate numbers to confirm his Cabinet nominees and pass new economic relief measures and an infrastructure bill through budget reconciliation.
“We will now turn Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard into a legislative garden,” said Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat.
Biden will face new obstacles and pressures, too. The razor-thin majority will still not be enough to enact his most sweeping plans, and there are already signs that much of the Republican Party remains no more interested in abandoning Trump or working with Biden than they were before last Wednesday.
And the House is steeling to impeach Trump for the second time, all but ensuring that Biden’s presidency will begin with a reckoning that will cut against his political instincts to augur normalcy and conciliation in moments of strife — and could put him under pressure from Democrats to be more aggressive in seeking accountability for Trump.
“What this moment demands is leadership that is clear-eyed about the very real threats we face as a nation and commitment to the truth-telling and bold policy-making necessary to rebuild,” said Representative Ayanna Pressley, the Massachusetts Democrat, who said she was in touch with Biden’s transition team “about the need to take a clear stance on accountability following the attack and a disciplined response that acknowledges the deep threat of white supremacist violence.”
“We can’t just turn the page on this crisis,” Pressley said.
Since winning the November election, Biden has responded to Trump’s obstruction of his transition and lies about election fraud by projecting competence and expertise and by making calls for healing — and he stuck with that message as the riot laid bare the depths of the national divide.
“It wasn’t an epiphany. It was a moment that revealed how radical the Republicans have become,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton historian. “This week, for me, emphasized the difficulty he’s going to have with, ‘Return to normal.’”
It was up to Biden, not Trump, to address the nation first on Wednesday and fill the void of presidential leadership before even taking the oath of office.
He branded the violence an insurrection and an assault while Trump was out of sight and he denounced the Capitol riot as an aberration — even though many Americans see it as endemic to a nation that has often treated the rights of white people as more important than others. He tried to project optimism, declaring “there has never been anything we can’t do if we do it together,” which was a jarring juxtaposition with the mob ransacking lawmakers’ officers and injuring police officers.
By Thursday, he sharpened his rhetoric, calling the insurrection “one of the darkest days in the history of our nation” and urging the nation to recommit itself to the rule of law.
“I made it clear from the moment I entered this race what I believed was at stake was nothing less than who we are as a nation, what we stand for, and what we believe, what we will be,” he said.
Biden will not be the first president to take office in a moment of upheaval. When President Lincoln was inaugurated, Southern states were already seceding from the Union. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office at the depths of the Great Depression. President Reagan was sworn in the day the Iran hostage crisis ended.
“The difference is, this is not just about a national crisis — it’s also about a crisis of the predecessor,” said Zelizer.
There are some indications Republicans have been chastened by last week’s events. Longtime Trump allies, including South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, have denounced him. Senator Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania, a fellow Republican, said on Fox that the president has committed “impeachable offenses.” And Republicans are already paying a political price for Trump’s rhetoric with their losses in Georgia.
Still, there are clear signs Republicans plan to stick with the status quo that brought it to this point. On Friday, Ronna McDaniel, a Trump ally who has amplified his claims about a stolen election, was reelected to chair the Republican National Committee.
“I am mad and I’m not going to let socialism rule this country and I’m going to work with every single one of you to make sure we squash it and we take back the House and take back the Senate,” she said in a speech that made no mention of the connection between Trump’s rhetoric and the violence at the Capitol.
The Democratic Senate victories mean Biden no longer has to depend on Republicans to pass some key parts of his agenda.While many of his priorities will still be subject to the 60-vote threshold established by the filibuster, Chuck Schumer, the incoming Senate majority leader, should be able to pass such priorities as more stimulus relief and an infrastructure bill that have bipartisan support.
“The question, then, is in light of the chaos roiling the Republican Party, whether more Republicans are going to break with the party and try to figure out exactly what they can do to vote with the Democrats,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who worked for Reid. “I for one am skeptical,” he said, pointing out nearly 150 Republicans in Congress joined the effort to overturn the Electoral College vote.
As much as the events of last week shaped the political landscape around Biden, they shaped him, too. During his speech on Thursday, Biden said he had received a text message from his granddaughter, Finnegan, showing a picture of officers decked out in riot gear on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.
“Pop, this isn’t fair,” he said she wrote of the contrast with Wednesday’s less fearsome police presence at the Capitol as the mob approached.
Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, said he thought that text “ought to be at least emboldening” to Biden and an important reminder, as he ascends to the presidency, of something he said during his November victory speech — that Black voters had always had his back.
“I think this reinforced that for him,” Clyburn said. “It said to him, not only do they have your back, but Black folks are in need of you having their backs.”