A new day has arrived, one marked by fear and hope and a sense of otherworldliness. With 20,000 National Guard troops in Washington and a sparse crowd, owing to both the pandemic and security concerns, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. We are breaking it all down in today’s Daily Dose and on a special live edition of The Carlos Watson Show.
Nick Fouriezos (reporting from Washington) and Crystal Rose
1. Turning the Page
Biden took the oath of office before dignitaries and supporters, then addressed the violence at the Capitol just two weeks earlier. “Democracy has prevailed,” he said. Casting himself as a uniter of a divided country, Biden acknowledged that such goals “can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new.” He said he would fight as hard for those who did not vote for him as those who did, and projected a calmer four years of national discourse. “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” Biden said. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
OZY is here to give you a break from the usual talking heads on cable news. Tune into The Carlos Watson Show starting at 6 p.m. ET / 3 p.m. PT for a live inauguration aftershow, featuring fresh insights and hot takes from people like former top Biden aide Patti Solis Doyle, journalist Megyn Kelly and you — our dedicated OZY family — weighing in on this historic day.
The 45th president was a no-show for the inauguration of his successor, and they still haven’t had any direct contact, but before Donald Trump boarded Air Force One for the final time, he wished the incoming administration “great success.” He added that any success would be built on his own accomplishments, took a jab at Biden by saying that he hopes the new administration doesn’t “raise your taxes” and teased a political future: “We will be back in some form.” A Trump spokesperson said the outgoing president did leave a note for his successor, but the contents were not immediately revealed.
4. Peaceful Transition?
OZY Editor-at-Large and Fordham University professor Christina Greer argues that the tightly secured inauguration, two weeks after the attack on the Capitol, should not be revered as a peaceful transition of power. “In response to those who cannot believe America is infiltrated with hate-filled racists and those who are befuddled by their behavior, my question is simply: ‘Where have you been, and why have you not been paying attention?’” Greer writes.
The show of force did have its intended effect: The inauguration was a quiet affair. The few hundred people who gathered were spread out and across the street from barricades. Twenty-year-old Anthony Rojas, who traveled from Dallas, is hopeful, particularly about Biden’s plan to create an easier path to citizenship for many. Jack Curtis from Boston flew a Black Lives Matter flag outside the Capitol despite requests from local BLM organizers that supporters not rally for fear of inflaming tensions. Planned MAGA protests didn’t materialize at John Marshall Park, the designated free-speech zone, and Homeland Security closed it to the public before noon, citing permit irregularities.
There were high-wattage performances from Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks, but the most buzz was around Amanda Gorman, 22, who delivered a stirring poem that captured the moment. “There is always light. Only if we’re brave enough to see it. Only if we’re brave enough to be it,” Gorman said. We first told you about Gorman back in 2017, when she was an OZY Genius Award winner for her big idea: to create a virtual reality museum of young activists.
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Curbing the pandemic will be Biden’s first priority. His $1.9 trillion relief package focuses on $1,400 stimulus checks and a goal of reopening schools while vaccinating 100 million people in 100 days. But Biden is already worried his administration will fall short, reportedly fuming at Jeff Zients, his hand-selected “Mr. Fix It.” Zients inherits the soon-to-be-renamed Operation Warp Speed, which has managed to deliver 16 million doses in a month, well short of No. 46’s proposed pace. Still, Dr. Anthony Fauci and others believe it can be done, and Biden declared he would “move heaven and earth” to achieve his goal.
2. Defense and Reconciliation
Such celestial methods may not be immediately necessary. Biden will first invoke the Defense Production Act, allowing him to compel companies to prioritize manufacturing for national security to ensure enough resources for PPE, testing capacity and vaccine materials. Biden will also need every dime to bring COVID-19 under control quickly. However, with Republicans in the minority again — and bereft of an identity after some jettisoned the free-spending Trump — they may rediscover their fiscal conservatism. If so, Biden will likely resort to the budget reconciliation process to get his trillions with a simple majority, with help from new Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders.
3. Head and Shoulders
Expect that package to become the 3-in-1 shampoo of legislation. While the trillions in relief would mostly be pandemic related, the allure of only needing a simple majority could push Democrats to try to pack in other progressive goals. Some fear backlash, but supporters point to the reconciliation process being used to pass everything from the Affordable Care Act in 2010 to the Trump Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017. Only policies that affect federal spending and revenues qualify for reconciliation, but that could still provide wide latitude for additional unemployment assistance and spending on infrastructure and clean energy.
4. New Climate
It doesn’t take a scientist to recognize that the political climate Biden enters is a heated one. And even though these are more partisan waters than COVID relief — given Republican resistance to heavy-handed environmental policy — Biden is charging ahead with actions designed to target climate change. He is yanking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and reentering the Paris climate accord, among nearly 100 immediate agency actions on environmental policy. Also on the docket: increased fuel-efficiency standards and a halt to oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
5. Pardon the Interruption
President Trump ignored the deliberative process of taking pardon recommendations from the Department of Justice — easing the path to pardons for everyone from Alice Marie Johnson to Steve Bannon. Biden allies are asking that he adopt that particular Trump practice, but use it to rectify prejudices in the criminal justice system. As Trump ended his time in the White House racing to execute federal inmates, Biden could begin with a sprint to free those who have been wrongfully incarcerated. He could also reduce the millions of drug possession arrests that leave people in overpoliced communities with criminal records, making it harder for them to find jobs and housing. There are roughly 150,000 people in federal prisons. What if Biden issued 50,000 pardons or commutations tomorrow?
6. Ticking Clock
The election never ends. With 2022 on the horizon, and a history of midterms being unkind to the parties of sitting presidents, Biden essentially has two years to take his shot at real change. The Democrats’ slim control (a tied U.S. Senate with VP Kamala Harris as tiebreaker) means they likely can’t pass a major minimum wage bump or election reforms without getting rid of the Senate filibuster — which remains highly unlikely. But keep an eye out for big moves like ending homelessness through vouchers, offering paid family leave, and enacting universal pre-K, student debt forgiveness and climate change infrastructure projects.
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Vice President John Nance Garner once described the office as “not worth a bucket of warm spit” (at least that’s the clean version), one in a long line of those to despair at their inconsequential role. But Kamala Harris will enter as perhaps the most empowered VP ever. In addition to her historic status as a Black woman and the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, she will be able to break 50-50 ties, securing Democratic control of Senate legislation. Because of Biden’s age, Harris’ selection inevitably thrusts her into front-runner status for 2024 despite her campaign struggles in 2020. Biden, 78, has made clear he sees her as a governing partner, and both Harris and the Democratic Party will want to accentuate her strengths with clear policy achievements — the question now is which ones she’ll pick.
2. Work Wives?
Sanders has called Biden a “good friend,” but his wife, Jane, describes it more as a respectful relationship “built on work.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren showed a pragmatic side in her presidential run, plus policy chops, that earned Biden’s respect and running mate consideration. Biden is closer to both than his moderate reputation suggests, recently picking two progressive Warren allies to lead the SEC and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while signaling more aggressive Wall Street oversight. He will rely on Sanders and Warren to provide cover with the left as Biden’s more progressive promises will likely stall in a closely divided Congress.
3. He’s Baaaack
One of the big stories of the post-Trump era will be whether those who worked for Trump or cozied up to him in Congress will resume their places in polite D.C. society and not be tagged with a scarlet “T.” One to watch: Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump’s GOP primary antagonist turned golf buddy and confidant, who after the Capitol attack said of Trump: “All I can say is, count me out.” Pre-Trump, Graham was often part of cross-aisle deal-making in the Senate — his immigration stance left many right-wingers calling him “Grahamnesty” — and he was a White House regular during the Obama years. Graham is a fan of power and the spotlight, so watch for him to be in the mix during the Biden era.
echoes of history
1. RSVP: No
Today is not the first time an ex-president refused to attend an incumbent’s inauguration. The acrimony resembles that of the nasty election of 1800. John Adams was bitterly dismayed by his loss to Thomas Jefferson — a messy and uncertain affair that nearly ended in insurrection — and didn’t show for the inauguration. It was the first time parties changed (Federalist to Democratic-Republican), and Jefferson marked the occasion with a call for unity.
2. Depression Era
Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the presidency, the first of four inaugurations, in the midst of a depression in 1933. And what is the biggest enemy during any depression but fear? So the Groton and Harvard alum sized up the moment and uttered the famous phrase: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
3. Troops on Repeat
As bizarre as today may feel to most Americans, the Capitol has been stormed before. Ahead of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861, militia members ransacked the Republican Party headquarters. On Inauguration Day, around 2,000 troops were on hand to keep armed dissidents at bay and out of the nation’s sacred halls. In that fraught moment, Lincoln spoke of coming together. A little more than a month later, the first shots of the Civil War were fired.