Biden’s balm of normalcy soothes US
America's quadrennial celebration of peaceful transition of power is one of its more hallowed traditions.
Having said that, I've never been a great fan of US presidential inaugurations. Like American party conventions, there is a slick, confected feel to it, awash as it is in platitudes and hyperbole that come across as overwrought.
However, at critical moments of crisis, a presidential inauguration can take on historic significance.
In 1933, Franklin D Roosevelt reassured a nation reeling from the Great Depression that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
In 1977, Jimmy Carter, an unassuming peanut farmer from Georgia, reassured a nation shaken by the political scandals of disgraced President Richard Nixon with his quintessential American decency.
The inauguration of President Joseph R Biden and Vice President Kamala D Harris on January 20 is another such inauguration.
A global pandemic has turned the world upside down, and the US, one of the worst affected nations, has paid a heartbreaking price with over 400,000 deaths from Covid-19. On January 6, lawmakers hid under desks as the US Capitol was overrun by thugs egged on by the sitting president. The last time the US Congress was attacked was by the British in 1814.
And what of outgoing President Donald J Trump? Attempting to list even a few of his transgressions is as futile as trying to drink from a fire hydrant. Suffice it to say that among his many, many egregious breaches of all norms of decency, he chose to sneak out of the capital, earning the dubious distinction of becoming the first US president in 150 years not to attend his successor's inauguration.
I'm sure I'm not the first person to wonder what it is about the new president that helped him achieve the remarkable feat of defeating Trump, who won more votes in a presidential election than any previous candidate, by a whopping seven million votes.
Biden's appeal has never been about just who he is. It's been more about who he represents and what he is against.
It's hard to recall a time when governing styles and values in the federal government have been in greater contrast than a future Biden administration and the outgoing Trump administration.
Trump was all about riling up his supporters, off-the-cuff tweets, seat-of-the-pants governance, a callous disregard for science and policy, the fanning of flames for a fevered yearning for a lost past of racial dominance.
Biden, on the other hand, represents an America that looks much more like its future. More importantly, his campaign always seemed to me to be a communal project of Obama-era wicked-smart experts and volunteers. Sure, Biden is the face of it, but once he clinched the nomination, from his campaign to the announcement of the members of his administration, all his steps give the impression that the entire effort is powered by a well-oiled machine eerily reminiscent of the quiet competence of the no-drama Obama era. Am I the only one to be amazed that Joe Biden, whose penchant for gaffes was regarded with affectionate indulgence, has not made a single misstep throughout this extraordinarily demanding campaign and transition?
The inauguration ceremony, along with the heartwarming celebrations later, had the hallmarks of the Obama administration. Biden's special sauce is his genuine warmth and humanity.
In one of the stranger ironies in recent times, some of the credit for Biden's appeal must go to Trump. Trump's awful conduct had resulted in such a wacky, scary, dystopian reality that Biden's decency, humanity, kindness, honesty—in ordinary circumstances unremarkable, even pedestrian traits—seem so utterly appealing.
It all came together in the inauguration ceremony and the later festivities. Credit is also due to Republican Party lawmakers—including ferocious partisans like US Senators Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and outgoing Vice President Mike Pence. It is a tribute to the Republican Party that the institutional integrity of US democracy survived the onslaught of Trump and his enablers.
Thanks to the mess left by Trump, the next four years are not going to be a cakewalk for the Biden administration. However, the incoming administration's successful management of Covid-19 vaccination will make its path easier. The early signs are promising.
"Biden's team members intend to use the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up thousands of vaccination sites in gyms, sports stadiums and community center," Ezra Klein wrote in The New York Times. " They want to mobilise the National Guard to. . . ensure that strapped states don't have to bear the cost. . . They want to launch a massive public education blitz, aimed at communities sceptical of the vaccine."
Going back to the inauguration, the most stirring moment for me was the performance of one of America's most popular folk songs, made famous by Woody Guthrie:
"This land is your land, this land is my land/From California to the New York Island/From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters/This land was made for you and me."
The words resonated with particular power because they were uttered by a performer of Puerto Rican descent and had the full endorsement of the president of the United States of America.
I am an ageing first-generation immigrant whose faith in his adopted country was shaken by vicious expressions of xenophobia in the last few years, also endorsed by the (then) US president.
I was close to tears as I heard Jennifer Lopez sing those beautiful words. I really felt, once more, that this wondrous land, America, is my home as well.
Thank you, President Biden and Vice President Harris. Thank you, America.
Ashfaque Swapan, an Atlanta-based writer and editor, is contributing editor for Siliconeer, an online South Asian publication.