The president has slacked off the job — even as he continues to lay claim to its pomp and circumstance for another four years. Trump seems more intent on burning down the White House — while firing the defense secretary, riling up his supporters and flinging accusations of election malfeasance without evidence — than on vacating it. He has unleashed his minions on the ballot counters and secretaries of state. They are barking up a storm. And instead of updating the country on the state of the economy, the public health, his long-promised health-care plan or the world and our place in it, the president is grousing.
By his protracted absence from a position of leadership, Trump has left a vacuum, and President-elect Joe Biden has filled that void: a calm, smiling force in a buttoned-up blue-gray suit and a perfectly centered blue-striped tie.
On a day when lawyers — cheered on by the Trump administration — argued before the Supreme Court that the Affordable Care Act should be dissolved, Biden took the stage at the Queen theater in Delaware to reassure Americans that he would not allow health care to be pulled out from under his fellow Americans. He wouldn’t let them lose protection for preexisting conditions or stand by as women were charged more for insurance simply because of their gender or see lifetime coverage caps stymie people’s treatment plans.
“This isn’t hyperbole,” Biden said. “It’s real, as real as it gets, when a family is faced with the awful news of a child’s diagnosis of leukemia, or a mom forced to battle against breast cancer, [or] an accident that leaves loved ones unable to live the life they’ve always known. It stops your heart. It stops your heart, wrenching your entire world right off its axis.”
Biden was onstage reminding his audience — and perhaps the nine justices who would decide the act’s fate — of how so many Americans have come to depend on its protections. He made a quick reference to his own family’s thankfulness for sturdy health-care coverage over the years, but mostly his attention was on the needs of others and the particular urgency of making sure that after more than 10 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, they are not left unable to get health-care coverage because of their new preexisting condition.
In that moment, Biden was the executive branch. Trump was a social media influencer.
With the absence of a president visibly fulminating from behind a lectern or spewing untruths to White House reporters above the roar of a waiting Marine One, it was easier to remember how governing is not a loud, boorish and flamboyant process. Or at least it shouldn’t be; it doesn’t have to be.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in California v. Texas on Tuesday morning with a kind of old-fashioned dignity. With only audio of the hearings, which justices now participate in remotely due to the pandemic, there’s little temptation to perform for video cameras. Even though the justices are taking up an issue of national importance, there’s an intimacy in simply hearing the sound of their voices. And now, when so many people are also doing their jobs remotely, there’s a reassuring humanity in hearing these scholars muddle through the newly essential technology.
They aren’t speaking in laymen’s terms — although they often use particularly Average Jane metaphors. It can be challenging to get a read on the nuances of “severability,” that turn of phrase on which the survival of the act so depends. Still, it’s good to know that the ACA was being discussed with solemnity and precision. It’s a wonderful thing in this democracy to hear sentences parsed with care, to hear words analyzed to get to the heart of their meaning, rather than to see them flung about in a fit of presidential pique in hopes that they stick together in some sensible way.
Biden spoke to the cameras, but he weighed his words. He filled the room with his reassurance. When journalists asked him about Trump’s refusal to concede, about the transition being slowed or stymied and his not receiving the presidential daily briefing with its warnings about possible threats to the country, Biden paused a moment before replying.
“The fact that they’re not willing to acknowledge we won at this point is not of much consequence in our planning and what we’re able to do between now and January 20th,” Biden said. He has not spoken to the aggrieved president, but he had spoken with allies: Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Ireland. He had told them that America was back, which is to say, that he had arrived.
When asked whether he had anything to say to Trump, it was merely that he looked forward to the president’s call. But he’d already made it clear that he didn’t need it. He was not worried about recalcitrant Republicans, either. Well into day four after he was projected the winner of the election, they hadn’t acknowledged him as president-elect. “They will. They will,” Biden said and smiled. In other words, everything will be fine.
Don’t worry about the man tweeting with the caps lock on.