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Analysis

Biden promised to return normalcy. It’s a tall order

President-elect Joe Biden.
President-elect Joe Biden.Chip Somodevilla/Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/G

When Joe Biden places his hand on the Bible around noon on Wednesday, tens of millions of Americans will exhale in relief, grateful that the tumultuous Trump administration has reached its official end.

Biden campaigned on a promise of returning normalcy to the country. No place craves that more than the nation’s capital, the epicenter of the chaos Trump sowed for four years. Even those ideologically predisposed to disagree with the incoming administration say they’re ready for a more conventional government again.

No more surprise tweets upending policy expectations. No more cringe-worthy insults flung at once-trusted foreign allies. Far less lying and unpleasant surprises.

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“I’m looking forward to a boring administration,” said Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, who said he used to dread going on flights because turning his phone back on inevitably revealed “horrors” that had surfaced during the trip.

But getting back to normal, if that is even possible anymore, is a tall order. Biden’s inauguration won’t erase the still-raging pandemic that has already claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Americans — a staggering total that the incoming president’s top adviser says could climb to half a million by the end of February.

There’s a crippling economic crisis to address. The Senate is poised to start an unprecedented second impeachment trial of Trump, for his role in inciting the deadly insurrection that breached the Capitol on Jan. 6.

And millions of Trump-supporting Americans remain mired in a morass of disinformation and conspiracy theory: Nearly two-thirds of Republicans still believe Trump won the election, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Friday.

Still, the incoming Biden administration promises to return Washington to some semblance of business-as-usual, particularly when it comes to advancing legislation and policy more broadly, experts say.

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During the Trump administration “you had no idea whether policy was going to be made through a process, through the appropriate agency, or through a tweet in the middle of the night,” said Tony Fratto, a former senior official in the Treasury and White House during the George W. Bush administration who now advises companies as a partner with the public relations firm Hamilton Place Strategies.

The president’s refusal to rely on the typical decision-making processes “created this subculture of Trump whisperers out there, of people trying to find ways to put thoughts and ideas into the head of the president, because they knew that that’s the only place that mattered for determining the policy of the administration,” Fratto said. “It’s been a very bizarre four years for a lot of people trying to understand what their government is doing and why.”

Fratto said “there is a great deal of relief” at the prospect of the Biden administration returning to normalcy on process and communication — even among people likely to disagree with administration on significant policy issues.

Not only does Biden bring significant political and legislative experience to the job, having served in the the Senate for 36 years and as vice president for eight, he also has assembled a team steeped in the political and policy process, noted Sarah Binder, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution.

That’s a stark difference from Trump, a former reality TV star whose political career began with running for president in 2016. He filled his administration with officials who had little relevant experience and set new records for administration turnover.

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“The chaos and the craziness that came from the top in the Trump administration — that all but, I think, disappears,” at least when it comes to dealing with Congress, said Binder. Trump didn’t understand, or care about, “the art of the legislative deal,” nor did he have much in the way of a legislative agenda during his presidency, she said.

The only legislative priority the Trump administration pushed forcefully on Capitol Hill was the 2017 tax cut bill, Binder said. On other matters, Trump seemed disinterested in playing the role many presidents take on — namely, providing political leadership and support to members of his party so they can take tough votes and “get big stuff done,” she said.

As a result, some of Trump’s supposed legislative priorities became running jokes in Washington for how empty the Trump team’s efforts appeared. The Trump White House launched its first “Infrastructure Week” in the summer of 2017, but what was billed as a serious weeklong discussion of the administration’s $1 trillion plan to fund projects like bridges and roads was subsumed by the latest Trump-driven scandal.

It was a pattern that repeated itself enough to become a Washington punch line.

Trump also repeatedly promised to deliver a “phenomenal” replacement for the Affordable Care Act. The closest he came was a 2017 bill passed by House Republicans that would have dismantled key provisions of the sweeping 2010 health care law commonly known as Obamacare. Trump hosted a Rose Garden celebration with GOP lawmakers to fete the passage of the House bill — then later called the House bill “mean,” helping doom its chances in the Senate.

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Trump continued to promise he would unveil a new health care plan over the next three years. He never did.

But the toxic partisanship that has deepened in Washington over the past four years won’t decamp to Florida with Trump on Wednesday, Binder and other experts say.

“We’re not really back to square one of 2016,” Binder said. “We’re four years further into these kind of severe pathologies going on certainly within the Republican Party and divisions within the Democratic Party as well.” So while the day-to-day chaos of the Trump era should recede with Biden’s arrival, the political paralysis that characterized much of the past four years may not, Binder warned.

The divisions within the Republican Party, and the rest of the country, laid bare by Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and the violent siege on the Capitol, point to a serious crisis for democracy, said Lee Drutman, a political scientist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.

“It’s very hard to walk back to anything resembling normal when we’ve just been through an election in which one party has perpetuated a myth that the election was stolen,” Drutman said.

And it’s a challenge that Biden has limited ability to solve. He said it would help for Congress to pass legislation overhauling voting access, congressional gerrymandering, and campaign finance to bolster democracy — a bill that Democratic leaders in both chambers have said is a priority. Biden also can work to elevate the center-right of the Republican Party, Drutman said.

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Whatever the challenges ahead, Americans got a glimpse Tuesday night of the normalcy a Biden administration may have in store.

As a twilight descended on Washington, Biden and his soon-to-be vice president Kamala Harris visited the Lincoln Memorial to honor the lives lost to COVID-19. A nurse from Michigan, who worked in a COVID unit at the height of last year’s surge, sang “Amazing Grace.”

It was a moment of national mourning presidents are often called on to perform, but that Trump showed no interest in.

Biden offered brief but resonant remarks. “To heal, you must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation. That’s why we’re here today. Between sundown and dusk let us shine the lights in the darkness along this sacred pool of reflection and remember all that we lost.”

Behind him, 400 lights ringing the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool — meant to represent those 400,000 American lives lost — started to glow.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.