The administration-to-be’s priorities as they prepare to confront twin coronavirus and economic dilemmas as well as the nation’s obvious political divisions also have not changed, advisers say. This week, he will more fully unveil a pandemic relief package in the trillions of dollars aimed at speeding vaccinations, helping the unemployed and reopening schools.
He has shrugged off questions about whether President Trump should be impeached, deferring to members of Congress but saying they and he need to hit the ground running when he is sworn in Jan. 20. On Monday, entertaining the subject more seriously than he had before, he raised the prospect of a bifurcated system in which Congress would take up impeachment and other pressing matters on parallel tracks.
When it comes to the most visible symbol of the change in administrations, Biden’s team and other observers have argued that the image of him taking the oath of office in a traditional setting, with Vice President Pence in attendance, carries even more significance because of the insurrection.
“His inaugural will be important for U.S. history, in the reaffirmation of our democratic rituals,” said Douglas Brinkley, an author, historian and professor at Rice University. “The whole world is looking at the Congress being ransacked. But if we can pull out a peaceful inaugural and Mike Pence is onstage, it will send a message to the world that we have not been derailed.”
In a dozen interviews, aides and allies described a Biden team that is redoubling efforts to prepare for what they already expected would be a mammoth multi-front challenge. But they see it less as taking over at democracy’s darkest moment than crafting a brighter dawn.
To them, last week’s events crystallized all the warnings Biden had made throughout the campaign about the dangers of Trump. It illustrated in starker ways than he ever could have the need to unify the country, even if the attack on the Capitol simultaneously made that task all the more difficult.
It also, in the view of Biden’s team, confirmed anew the campaign’s portrayal of Biden as a no-drama grown-up who would, with his administration’s raft of experienced hands, gain ground on the coronavirus pandemic, the economic collapse and the explosions of social discontent that Trump’s chaotic, undisciplined team only fumbled. Those matters remain the focus for the early days of the administration.
“My priority, first and foremost, is to get the stimulus bill passed and, secondly, begin to rebuild the economy,” Biden said Monday when asked about impeachment.
He added, however, that it was “critically important that there be a real serious focus on holding those folks who engaged in sedition . . . that they be held accountable.”
Incoming staffers said the chaos at the Capitol justified the reasons they chose to work for Biden in the first place and why they repeated his lines about fighting for the soul of America, even when their millennial friends rolled their eyes.
Yet even as they are preparing to take on their new jobs, some staffers have come face-to-face with a Washington whose milieu has been dramatically altered by the events of last week.
During a staffwide call with the Biden transition team Friday, incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain acknowledged that many have deep ties to Capitol Hill and, in some cases, are working for members of Congress.
He, along with Yohannes Abraham, the transition’s executive director, conveyed that “we all feel incredibly close to the events of this week,” according to a Biden aide on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation. “But it’s just a reminder of how serious the times are and what the task ahead of us is.”
“This campaign has really run its own playbook and in terms of ignoring the noise,” the aide noted, “and just doing what they want to do, and they’ve been pretty successful at that.”
In smaller, more personal ways, the last week has been jarring. One longtime Biden aide, while walking the aisles at a grocery store in a D.C. neighborhood, came upon a half-dozen Trump supporters clad in MAGA attire picking out ready-made meals just before a citywide curfew took effect Wednesday. There was no confrontation but, from the Biden aide’s view, a feeling of coming face-to-face with the very forces that he worked to defeat.
“This,” the aide thought, “is why we won.”
As the attack at the Capitol unfolded, Black aides to Biden at all levels sent texts and emails lamenting the clear difference between the light response to a crowd of mostly White rioters versus the militarized response to racial-justice protesters over the summer, according to a Biden aide.
“The discussions and messages noted that if we had been doing the same, we would likely be dead,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal conversations. Biden later made the same comparison publicly.
Still, Biden’s approach has been disconnected from the angry mood among congressional Democrats, who favor the impeachment of Trump and the resignations of some of their Trump-supporting colleagues. Biden has declined to join either effort.
“We need a Republican Party,” he said Friday, lavishing praise on Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “We need an opposition that is principled and strong.”
Biden has suggested he doesn’t see the practical need to introduce articles of impeachment so close to Trump’s departure, although he has discussed overall strategy with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Biden and his advisers have held firm to his belief that the country’s partisan nerves will eventually calm. Those around him say he remains unconcerned that a majority of House Republicans tried to overturn the election results last week even after the attack on the Capitol, which suggested a persistent partisan battle ahead.
“We’re not naive, and neither is he, about the fact that bipartisanship and working together to get the business done for the American people will not be done overnight,” incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
But, she added, he wasn’t dwelling on appealing to those who have sown false doubt over the election results.
“I wouldn’t say he’s given it another thought,” Psaki said. “We’re looking ahead to Inauguration Day.”
Biden has repeatedly tapped longtime government officials to fill jobs in his administration on the belief that they know the intricate details of how the vast federal bureaucracy works. Almost everyone he has appointed has served in government before, in the Obama administration or earlier.
Those officials have experience with political opposition but not the kinds of violent outbursts and physical threats Trump has brought into the national discourse.
"They take the Biden commitment of healing much more seriously," said Hilary Rosen, the vice chair of SKDK, a Democratic consulting firm with close ties to Biden's orbit. "So many of them are former Hill staffers and feel kinship with the staffs and members up there."
While she noted that Wednesday’s events were “very scary,” she also said she believes the murderous riot has accelerated the process of loosening Trump’s grip on the Republican Party’s elite.
“I think they also see an opportunity, particularly in the Senate, that the majority of the GOP are very ready to turn the page past Trump,” Rosen said.
Jason Furman, who chaired the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration and knows many in Biden’s senior team, said the incoming administration has been preparing for decades.
“The transition has been preparing for covid and the economy incredibly extensively in the run-up to the election, frankly much more than we did for the Obama campaign in 2008,” he said.
“There’s a real expanded sense of possibility,” he said, pointing to the surprise Democratic victories in two Senate runoffs in Georgia, which will give the party the narrowest-possible majority in the chamber. “Two weeks ago, there was a fear that a lot of the agenda couldn’t get done. Now, there’s a sort of excitement, but nervousness of the responsibility, that a lot more of the agenda can get done.”
Several incoming White House officials said they did not fear for their own safety in the aftermath of the deadly attack on the Capitol. Many of them at this point don’t even know if they’ll be working at the White House complex or continuing to do their jobs from home.
They also largely attribute the storming of the Capitol to the lack of preparedness by the Capitol Police and point to the enhanced security that Biden and Harris will enjoy, as well as the significant preparations that have gone into planning the inauguration.
The inauguration is deemed a National Special Security Event, which brings in a wide range of federal agencies and law enforcement officials to create a broad security perimeter, with road closures and barriers around the Capitol. Most of the traditional activities surrounding the swearing-in, such as celebratory balls and the inaugural parade, had already been canceled or rendered virtual because of the coronavirus.
Biden and inauguration planners would not discuss security matters publicly but have repeatedly said they were comfortable moving forward with the event and still view it as important that it be public. In statements put out by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, they have noted the need to honor “long-standing inaugural traditions” by providing “the American people with the iconic images of a new president.”
“I am not concerned — about my safety, security or the inauguration,” Biden said shortly after the Capitol attack. “I am not concerned. The American people are going to stand up and stand up now. Enough is enough is enough.”
Staff members are more concerned about the logistics of safely relocating to Washington during a pandemic, concerns over contracting the coronavirus during a possible commute to work and determining child care, which has constricted during the epidemic.
Three dozen incoming officials are scheduled to get their first dose of the vaccine this week, and Biden received his second dose Monday.
Historians are forced to reach deep into the country’s past to find any close parallels to the challenges that Biden now faces.
“We’re a traumatized America,” Brinkley said. “It’s like Harry Truman coming in after FDR died or Gerald Ford after Nixon in Watergate. People are desperate to heal the partisan divide. But I keep thinking about the saying, ‘The only way out is through.’ ”
Franklin Roosevelt had to pull the country out of the Great Depression and fight off the rise of fascism. Richard Nixon faced decisions about Vietnam, and Gerald Ford had to attempt to restore public faith in government after Nixon’s resignation.
But few incoming presidents have been as undercut by their predecessor as Biden has been by Trump. In a final slap, Trump has refused to attend Biden’s inauguration.
“Even Herbert Hoover hated Franklin Roosevelt and yet rode with him to the inauguration and accepted the fact that there would be a peaceful transition,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian who has written several books on Roosevelt.
“This does put the country on new ground,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”