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The Uncertain Promise of Biden’s Presidency

His message of unity has broad appeal in a shattered country. But does Mitch McConnell care?


Joe Biden’s inaugural address was studded with words and sentences that were hard to imagine any other president expressing at any other time.

A white president, elected with an outpouring of Black votes and with a woman of color as his vice president, dared to denounce “the sting of systemic racism.” A plainspoken leader, who had survived the ugliest postelection period since the Civil War, confronted “lies told for power and for profit.”

But the passage that resonated, the passage that spoke to Biden’s nearly eight decades of triumphs punctuated by suffering, was when the new president said, “Here’s the thing about life—there’s no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days … you need a hand, [and] there are other days when we are called to lend a hand.”

Most presidents ascend to office convinced that they are riding the wave of history, propelled to power by their innate greatness and their flawless political instincts.

This arrogance did not just afflict Republicans like George W. Bush and a more recent GOP president whom I refuse to think about today. It also led Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to overreach in their first two years in office before losing control of the House in 1994 and 2010. This we’re-the-greatest mindset was reflected in the words of Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, when he said before the 2009 inauguration, “Never allow a good crisis to go to waste.”

Joe Biden’s road to power has been far more humbling than perhaps any president’s since Harry Truman. Biden took the oath of office today, 33 years after he first declared his candidacy for the presidency in 1987. Less than a year ago, Biden’s third and final race for the White House seemed doomed to fail after he finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary.

And the deaths. So many deaths, ranging from his first wife, Neilia, and his infant daughter, Naomi, to his beloved son Beau.

Because he has already endured so much personal tragedy, Biden may be the first president since Dwight Eisenhower, the American commanding general in Europe during World War II, who can withstand the pain that comes with presidential missteps. Whatever happens over the next four years, the worst day of Joe Biden’s presidency will not be anything close to the worst day of his life.

This hard-won sense of perspective has, in the past, allowed Biden to transcend unyielding partisanship. And if this were a Frank Capra movie like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Meet John Doe, Republican voters watching at home would have perked up when Biden said, “To all of those who did not support us … take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree, so be it, that’s democracy, that’s America.”

In the Capra version, you would then get a close-up of a white couple at home in Ohio or Montana, with a QAnon coffee cup visible in the background, as they say to one another, “You know, that Biden guy sounds like a straight shooter. Let’s give him a chance.”

Instead, there is reality, 2021-style. And Biden acknowledged this pessimistic outlook when he admitted, “I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days.”

The days ahead may offer a honeymoon period—not so much for Biden, as is the presidential norm, but for democracy itself. There are some Republicans in Congress, even if they wouldn’t publicly admit it, who were scared straight by the assault on the Capitol. These Republicans might have quietly nodded when Biden said, “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path.”

There were moments when it seemed that Biden’s speech was addressed to an audience of one: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. You could hear it in lines like, “In the work ahead of us, we are going to need each other. We need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter.” Biden served with McConnell in the Senate for more than two decades. And the hope endures that Biden has read the legislative mood correctly—and that McConnell will, in the short run, actually listen to his “better angels.”

One of the biggest political questions ahead is whether Mitch McConnell will stand with democracy or whether he will continue to feed the raging partisan fires tearing the nation apart. Part of what motivates McConnell is the fear that corporate America will withdraw financial support from all Republican senators in 2022 rather than just targeting those GOP legislators who objected to the certification of Biden’s election. With the loss of both Georgia Senate seats and the GOP majority on January 5, McConnell may also calculate that this is not the moment for the unyielding resistance that he deployed against Obama in 2009.

So much of Biden’s legislative agenda depends on the ongoing negotiations between McConnell and Chuck Schumer, the new Senate majority leader. The questions pivot around how to share power in a 50–50 Senate and whether McConnell will be willing to limit the use of the filibuster to obstruct Biden’s efforts to fight Covid-19 and rebuild the economy.

Embedded in his rhetoric was a plea for patience from Democrats, particularly those on the left. It was evident when Biden said, “To those who supported our campaign, I am humbled by the faith you have placed in us.” As the gauzy memories of Inauguration Day fade, it is inevitable that Biden will make mistakes, and some of his blue-ribbon appointees will disappoint. This is true of any administration, even during Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in 1933. The crises facing America today are too grave and the canyons of distrust remain too deep for anything resembling political perfection. At some point, important decisions will be made too hastily based on too little reliable information coupled with too little sleep.

If ever there were a moment to cut a president a break, this would be it. Joe Biden comes into office with a big heart, a lifetime of Washington experience, and the wisdom to recognize the challenges ahead. So I want to end with words that I haven’t thought or uttered for four years, “God bless the president of the United States.”