WASHINGTON — When Joe Biden first arrived in Washington, he was deeply worried America was reaching a breaking point amid a failed presidency, and he believed the country already had the tools it needed to fix the mess.
“What ties us together,” he said, “are the political institutions that have made this country great.”
That was 1973, shortly after Biden was elected to the Senate as the Watergate scandal eroded Americans’ trust in government and deepened the country’s partisan divides. It marked the beginning of a long career in politics that rewarded his faith in institutions and the nuts and bolts of governance.
Forty-eight years later, he is set to be inaugurated Wednesday as president of a nation staring down a confluence of crises: A pandemic that has killed 400,000 Americans, a devastated economy, and a misinformation-fueled political divide that drove a failed insurrection at the Capitol and has large swaths of the country baselessly doubting his legitimacy.
To tackle these challenges, Biden is likely to reach for the same tools he did back then, meeting this new moment of upheaval with the basics of governance, expertise, and a sense of comity that sometimes seems like it’s from a bygone era.
His presidency will be the ultimate test of whether they are the right tools for the moment.
“Joe Biden has inherited the worst set of crises since any president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933,” said David Gergen, who advised four different presidents, including Ronald Reagan. “He hasn’t overpromised. He’s modest. . . . The question now, is, can he gather up the votes to get the big things done?”
Biden comes to the presidency with a long view of government, honed over more than 30 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president. He watched Richard Nixon’s fall, governed through multiple economic and foreign policy crises, and joined Barack Obama’s history-making ticket. As a presidential candidate, Biden stuck to a message about restoring the soul of the nation and the country’s world standing, even when he trailed his rivals.
“He’s lived through a lot of the ups and downs of America,” said former Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who will be Biden’s international climate envoy, in an interview shortly before the election. “He had a fundamental belief about what the country needed.”
Now, Kerry said, “He has as big a presidency confronting him as anybody in modern times.”
The challenges the country faces are at once deeper and more all-encompassing than the ones that cleaved the nation when Biden first got to Washington, and he has called on Democrats and Republicans to work together to solve them. Biden has vowed to bring in experienced veterans and set benchmarks that, taken together, he says would improve American life. Administering 100 million vaccines in his first 100 days. Reopening schools by the fall. Passing another economic stimulus bill, and quickly.
“We didn’t get into all of this overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight, either,” he said last week, while talking about his vaccine plan. “But we will get through it — together.”
Biden’s allies say his devotion to the workaday functioning of government is precisely his strength, and a much-needed antidote to the norm-busting tenure of President Trump, who blew up the rituals of governance and let swaths of the administrative state wither away with unfilled jobs and fallow budgets.
“Biden will do what he does best and that is make things work,” said Chuck Hagel, the former GOP senator from Nebraska who served as defense secretary under Obama. “Many of the people he’s appointed to top jobs were with him in the Senate. They know how it works.”
Biden ran on a relatively simple message of righting the ship of democracy from the threat of Trump, clashing during the primaries with some of his more liberal rivals who argued that the federal government needed sweeping reforms and that seeking common ground with Republicans was often a waste of time.
“Nominating a man who says we do not need any fundamental change in this country will not meet this moment,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said last year.
But in a way, the pile-up of crises since Biden began his campaign has made the low bar of “normalcy” that he initially promised as a candidate look far more attractive. It also appeared to vindicate Biden’s campaign message that Trump represented an existential threat.
“He’s walking in at a particular low for this country no matter your partisanship,” said Scott Mulhauser, who served as deputy chief of staff to Biden during the 2012 campaign. “We’re at a moment where the country is crying out for stability and help and for progress and there’s a real hope and a sense that he can help deliver.”
Biden’s ability to be successful — and the legacy he leaves behind — will depend in part on whether he can get Republicans to work with him. His bargaining abilities, honed over decades in the Senate, were a key part of his pitch to voters, and he often promised on the campaign trail that with Trump out of office, Republicans would have an “epiphany” and find common ground with him during his presidency.
That drew ridicule from Democrats who knew all too well that Republican obstructionism flourished long before Trump, but Biden remains determined to try to get Republicans to join the slim Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to help pass his key proposals.
“Americans elected a closely divided Senate, a closely divided House, and a presidential candidate who said he’d represent everyone,” outgoing Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “So our marching orders from the American people are clear: We’re to have a robust discussion and seek common ground.”
But Biden’s allies are urging him to have a backup plan, since a sudden rush of bipartisan cooperation would represent a break with recent history. Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the number three House Democrat, said talk of working together would not be enough.
“If I were to offer him any advice, I would say to him, take a look at Harry Truman,” Clyburn said, referring to the 33rd president, who desegregated the armed services with an executive order.
“I think that he should lay out, for the House and the Senate, his vision, what he would like to see happen,” Clyburn said. “If he can’t get the cooperation, use his executive authority as Harry Truman did.”
For now, even just the bare bones of governance provides a glaring contrast to Trump, as was evidenced on Tuesday, when the Senate began confirmation hearings for five Biden Cabinet nominees. Turnover in Trump’s administration broke records, with many key agencies lacking permanent leaders.
“We’re confronting an outgoing administration with an unprecedented number of openings of people in acting positions, or positions that don’t have anyone in them, and particularly on the national security side that’s a real concern,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, in an interview. She called the day’s hearings symbolic of experts coming back into government.
“When there is a crisis, it’s very important to have government that works effectively and efficiently and we haven’t seen that in the last four years,” she said.
That chaos came up as senators questioned Alejandro Mayorkas, who has been nominated to head the Department of Homeland Security, which has not been led by a Senate-confirmed secretary in nearly two years.
“We’ve seen this department in turmoil over the past four years with six different secretaries,” said Senator Jon Tester of Montana. “Ale Mayorkas can bring the kind of steady hand that this department needs.”
Just restoring basic governance will not satisfy many progressives, however. Biden will face a restive progressive wing of the Democratic Party, who remain skeptical about his faith in institutions, particularly the Senate and its 60-vote majority rule for most legislation, known as the filibuster.
“If Biden chooses to act on fulfilling his promises, he’s going to have to go far beyond what we have known to be the way America has worked and really deliver a revitalization and reorganization of our democracy and that begins with abolishing the filibuster,” said John Paul Mejia, spokesman for the Sunrise Movement, a grass-roots organization that pushes for action on climate change.
Mejia said he hopes this could be a “transformative” moment for Biden, whose record on criminal justice and other issues he regards with some suspicion.
“The truth is the crises that we’re facing right now in the United States did not come out of nowhere,” Mejia said. “They’ve come from a place of what we understood as ‘normal’ leading us down the wrong path. And Biden has the ability to change all that.”
But on the last day before he officially becomes president, Biden struck a typically hopeful note about the arc of American history and sounded nostalgic for the past. Standing in front of a small group of friends and family in Delaware, he wiped away tears as he recalled waiting with his late son, Beau, for Obama to pick him up for their inauguration 12 years ago.
“As I told Beau at that station waiting for Barack . . . I said ‘Don’t tell me things can’t change,’ “ Biden said. “ ‘They can and they do. That’s America.’ ”