But former vice president Biden will enter office with a specific set of challenges: a deeply polarized and intensely passionate electorate; a Senate that appears likely to remain in Republican control, with a majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who will be as determined to thwart Biden’s agenda as he was Barack Obama’s; a graceless predecessor who is trying to foment unrest by hurling baseless charges that the election was “stolen.”
No one will be surprised if Donald Trump refuses to even show up for Biden’s inauguration. The bigger question is whether his Republican enablers are capable of turning their attention to the interests of the country as it turns the page.
The president-elect put it well in his victory speech on Saturday night: “Let’s give each other a chance.”
In the way Biden ran his campaign, and in the measured statements he has made since the polls closed, he has shown that he recognizes what he is up against, and just as important, that he understands what the country needs most right now is a healer who is willing to tell it the truth.
“It’s been a long and difficult campaign, but it’s been a more difficult time for our country. We have had hard campaigns before. We have faced hard times before,” Biden said in the pitch-perfect remarks he delivered as the votes were being counted on Wednesday. “So once this election is finalized and behind us, it will be time for us to do what we have always done as Americans — to put the harsh rhetoric of the campaign behind us, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to one another, to hear each other again, and respect and care for one another.”
Biden also promised, as he did so often during the campaign, “to work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as I will for those who did.”
As a candidate, Biden refused to be pushed too far to the left by the Democratic base. Despite contemptuous snickers, he boasted of how well he had worked with Republicans as a senator.
Perhaps it is true that this kind of bipartisan engagement is no longer possible. But there is no one better equipped than Biden to give it a try.
His chances to make good on his more ambitious campaign promises, such as adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act, will probably be beyond Biden’s reach if the Senate remains Republican. But his long-standing relationships on Capitol Hill could be invaluable when it comes to addressing the urgent problem of the coronavirus pandemic and getting badly needed aid to Americans who are suffering.
Whether a president sweeps into the Oval Office on a giant electoral wave or limps into it battered and bruised has never been a particularly good indicator of how well he will succeed or be regarded by history.
Consider Lyndon B. Johnson. After becoming president in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, he won in his own right the following year with more than 61 percent of the vote, the largest share any presidential candidate had received since 1820. But by 1968, he and his policies had become so unpopular that he chose not to run again.
Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, received less than 40 percent of the vote in the messy four-way presidential contest of 1860, and yet, for the leadership he showed during the country’s darkest hours, he is now regarded as the greatest president the nation has ever had.
A presidency is measured by the circumstances of the times and the character of the person who holds the office. Biden is not perfect, but he might be just the right person to restore our faith in our democratic institutions — and in what we are capable of being as a country.