• Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Joe Biden ran on bringing back normalcy. With COVID, riots and a looming impeachment trial, that task just got tougher

Ledyard King, USA TODAY
·7 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

WASHINGTON – Joe Biden rooted his candidacy in the notion Americans want a return to normalcy, a sense of calm, the ideal that – while more work is to be done – people could disagree respectfully after four tumultuous years of President Donald Trump.

But nothing will be normal about the start of this presidency.

Biden will take his oath of office Wednesday in a heavily fortified Washington, D.C., where thousands of National Guard troops stand guard in front of a Capitol that was just assaulted by a pro-Trump mob. He’ll pledge unity as people across the nation still doubt his legitimacy. And he’ll preach calm as the Senate prepares to hold an impeachment trial to decide his predecessor's culpability in the Jan. 6 riot.

The remarkable setting underscores the difficulty Biden faces in uniting a nation reeling from months of political upheaval marked by another presidential impeachment, nationwide racial unrest and a spiraling pandemic that's crippled the economy and killed nearly 400,000 in the U.S.

President-elect Joe Biden calls the violent protests at the U.S. Capitol "an assault on the most sacred of American undertakings: the doing of the people's business."
President-elect Joe Biden calls the violent protests at the U.S. Capitol "an assault on the most sacred of American undertakings: the doing of the people's business."

With a Congress controlled by Democrats, Biden may face pressure to plow forward with a liberal agenda and abandon efforts at reaching across the aisle. But he shouldn't, said Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University.

"He just is on record on so many occasions as advocating reconciliation, mutual understanding, and bipartisanship," he said. "And if he goes right into battle mode, puts on that flak vest immediately, I think much of the sense that this is a decent human being and a good guy would be lost. And that really is his stock and trade … I just don’t think he can do it any other way.”

Americans 'want their government to work'

Trump won in 2016 on a promise to shake up the status quo. His bellicose attacks on the Washington establishment took aim at the very normalcy he said protected elites at the expense of average Americans.

Enter Biden four years later, a former senator who won the Democratic nomination and beat Trump in November as a Washington insider standing up for bipartisanship and federal institutions. An argument, in effect, for a return to normal.

More: 'Completing the job.' Subdued Donald Trump and aides struggle to get to the finish line

"The American people want their government to work, and I don't think that's too much for them to ask," Biden said in the speech announcing his run for president in 2019. "I know some people in D.C. say it can't be done. Well, let me tell them something, and make sure they understand this. The country is sick of the division. They're sick of the fighting. They're sick of the childish behavior."

Biden's challenge will be convincing both the Americans who want bold change from him and those who view him as illegitimate that there is a path of civility and unity that can achieve bipartisan results.

President-elect Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, hugs a supporter during a campaign rally Feb. 9, 2020, in Hudson, New Hampshire.
President-elect Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, hugs a supporter during a campaign rally Feb. 9, 2020, in Hudson, New Hampshire.

His first hurdle will be a Senate impeachment trial that threatens to keep Trump in the spotlight while inflaming the political divisions the incoming president is trying to quell.

Biden has called the assault on the Capitol a "criminal attack" incited by Trump. But he's been careful not to tell Congress whether to impeach or convict. Instead, he has tried to emphasize the work that needs to be done to heal the country.

"This nation also remains in the grip of a deadly virus and a reeling economy," he said Wednesday after the House impeached Trump a second time. "I hope that the Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of this nation."

More: Riot shields, rifles and naps: Photos show National Guard filling Capitol as impeachment hearings begin

Biden is counting on Congress to hit the ground running on key priorities, chiefly a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package. But his agenda will have to navigate a Capitol Hill awash in partisan mistrust. Many Democratic lawmakers are furious at some of their Republican colleagues for their roles in amplifying Trump's baseless claims of a stolen election and are investigating whether a few of them might have assisted rioters leading up to the assault.

"There needs to be accountability," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., told CNN on Friday. "Not just the people who came and wreaked havoc and jeopardized the lives of hundreds and hundreds of people, but on the individuals like the members of Congress and President Trump."

More: Sorry, there will be no return to normalcy under Joe Biden

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee Law School professor who runs the political blog Instapundit, said Biden's efforts to promote unity won't be helped if liberals continue to seek retribution after Trump leaves.

Police push back a crowd of President Donald Trump's supporters after they stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.
Police push back a crowd of President Donald Trump's supporters after they stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.

"If you want a return to normalcy, act normally," he said. "That means ending the talk of making lists and prosecuting Trump supporters, and of prosecuting Trump. You can't have a successful democracy if people feel that their lives and careers are in danger when they lose an election. That's what destroyed the Roman Republic."

Many Trump supporters continue to view Biden as illegitimately elected, a baseless claim the departing president relentlessly repeats. The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol was led by far-right agitators trying to "stop the steal," as Trump himself calls it.

A Pew Research Center poll released Friday finds that nearly two-thirds of Republicans – 64% – believe Trump won the election.

More: The Backstory: Handcuffs, explosives and cries for help. Chilling details from inside the Capitol riot.

"I support him more than I ever did," Doug Gerrard, of Owensville, Ohio, told The Cincinnati Enquirer hours after the assault on the Capitol. "He still speaks for me. He's being attacked by the news media. He's being attacked by the Democrats, I don't think it's for any reason."

There's also concern that Biden's push for normalcy will be competing with Trump long past Inauguration Day, especially if an impeachment trial drags on and ultimately fails to convict him.

"A trial will take up valuable political oxygen," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a tweet. "What will determine the fate of the Biden administration will be getting Covid under control, boosting eco growth, & bringing the country together. A trial works vs all this. Best we turn the corner & get on with the task of, to borrow a phrase, making America great again."

A return to normal, not the past

Biden has tried to instill a sense of normalcy by naming Obama administration veterans and others with deep government or academic ties to his Cabinet and senior positions – unlike Trump, who filled many top jobs with corporate chieftains and political outsiders like him.

And Biden has laid out ambitious goals to confront the pandemic, calling for 100 million vaccine doses administered in his first 100 days and an economic package that extends a financial safety net for families and small businesses. It's already getting blowback from progressives who want bigger stimulus checks and conservatives who say the proposal is a "liberal wish list."

But his task is not simply to heal a nation wracked by COVID-19, racially charged riots and political division but to address the underlying fissures that have allowed those problems to worsen and explode under Trump.

More: Trump leaves White House with his lowest-ever approval rating after Capitol riot, impeachment

His most daunting task post-COVID- might be delivering on racial justice reform. The Black Lives Matter movement, borne out of frustration over police violence and broader discrimination, has prompted Biden to select an ethnically diverse Cabinet and to promise a new normal on that front.

The country can't go back to where it was, said Wendy Mariner, a health law professor at Boston University.

"Much of the country is impatient to return to normal. I am not," she wrote for the American Bar Association following the death of George Floyd in May. "I am impatient for justice. What was normal – injustice for African Americans – is not acceptable."

Contributing: Scott Wartman, The (Cincinnati) Enquirer

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden inauguration: His campaign for normalcy hobbled by riot, Trump