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On the first day of Joe Biden’s presidency, he submitted to the office.
Before and after his speech — the moment that will be replayed in news snippets and printed in history books — Biden went dutifully through ceremonies and rituals and signaled the importance of national unity.
Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, could not be bothered to even attend the inauguration. He was the fourth president in the nation’s history to skip an inauguration after losing an election, and the first since 1869. It was one last big middle finger to political norms at the end of a presidency full of them.
Trump’s absence was amplified when former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all accompanied Biden in a somber visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in tribute to fallen members of the U.S. military.
Biden’s decision to highlight sacrifice and duty on his first day stood in stark contrast to Trump’s first day as president in 2017, when he boasted about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. He always stood outside the presidency — its expectations and obligations — rather than coming underneath it and allowing the office to loom larger than his personality and ego.
What creates such different types of leaders?
Joe Biden has spent almost 50 of his 78 years in elected office. Trump, of course, had never held any political office before he was elected president in 2016. He was the first president to have never served in office or the military prior to his election.
Until now, many Americans for decades had seen inexperience in politics as a positive thing. Jimmy Carter’s ascent to the presidency in 1976 was fueled in large part by his insurgent campaign against the Washington establishment, and American politicians since then have often railed against insiders as an easy way to earn favor with voters.
Trump called himself “the only true outsider ever to win the presidency” in his farewell address on Tuesday.
The least experienced president has given way now to one of the most experienced, and this is not a coincidence. The Trump presidency nurtured a desire among many Americans for a return to normalcy and competence. The chaos, unpredictability and lack of direction from Trump during his time as president ultimately produced destruction and the very “carnage” he spoke of four years ago. It led to a final year in office in which his bungled response to a pandemic cost thousands of American lives. And in his last weeks as president, he waged a direct assault on the democratic system itself.
Biden, meanwhile, has made it his top priority to get COVID-19 under control.
Scholars of American politics note how important it is to consider the conditions that create leaders who view the presidency as something to live up to — as an office to be used to serve others, rather than a platform to be used for self-promotion.
“To function well in our system of government, leaders have to be formed by some experience in it. That lets them know its shape and its rhythms. Every president before Trump was shaped either by senior military experience or, more often, by prior high office. Trump was shaped only by a lifetime of selling himself. And it made a huge difference,” said Yuval Levin, the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Levin’s 2020 book, “A Time to Build,” spoke of the need for Americans to value duty over performance and devotion to service more than building individual brands.
“On a smaller scale you see the same problem with younger members of Congress now, who don’t come from state legislatures as often, but tend to come from political communication or media or activism,” Levin told Yahoo News.
In other words, Levin argues, Americans should expect their political leaders to undergo apprenticeships before seeking higher office. At the very least, they should expect those who run for the highest offices to have gained some understanding of what the job might entail by serving in a lower office.
This is a principle that aligns closely with a maxim that many Trump supporters would agree with, one attributed to Jesus Christ himself, who said that “whoever is faithful with very little will also be faithful with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.”
And it is perhaps ironic that Trump — who never had any training in politics — rose to fame through a show called “The Apprentice,” in which men and women competed for the opportunity to be trained in business by Trump.
Everyday Americans have a role to play in obtaining better leadership. We send signals about what we will reward and what we will ignore, or even punish, and politicians respond to those signals.
And after Trump, more Americans may see it as worthwhile to elevate the importance of experience, sending a message to the politically ambitious that if they want to be invested with the trust of public office, they should do voters the courtesy of knowing what they’re doing.
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