But rather than pivot his plans after the recent riot at the U.S. Capitol, advisers say he has scripted inaugural events built around the same unifying themes of post-partisanship and governmental competence that undergirded his campaign. Biden’s answer to the roughly 1 in 3 Americans who doubt his legitimacy and a departing president who refuses to formally hand off power will be a program of nationally televised inaugural broadcasts anchored around the country’s potential to unite in the face of crisis.
Aides say little was changed in the programming after the U.S. Capitol riot, with most curbs — like the absence of guests on the Mall — dictated by the pandemic. The decision to focus beyond the circumstance is aimed broadly at what Democrats widely see as a moment of political opportunity, as the Republican Party struggles with an internal crisis of identity brought about by President Trump’s rejection of the 2020 election results and his repeated incitement of his supporters.
Biden’s target audience is not the minority of the country that has rejected his election but the much larger group of Americans, including Trump voters, who are open to changing the channel on the dystopian present.
“The inaugural gives us a fresh start, an ability to begin closing a very dark chapter in our history and start a new journey,” said Stephanie Cutter, a co-executive producer of the inauguration. “Given recent events, there is more willingness on the other side of the aisle to reset and protect our democratic norms than there has been for more than four years.”
The nation that greets Biden will not be as divided as the country President Abraham Lincoln faced in 1861, shortly before the Civil War, and the economic hardship is less pronounced than it was for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, amid the Great Depression, or even President Barack Obama in 2009. But the combined cavalcade of problems facing Biden — a crisis of electoral legitimacy combined with health, economic and race relations emergencies — ranks with the most strained inaugural moments in American history.
“If you have a substantial number of people who don’t believe Biden was legitimately elected, that is an awful side of the age we are living in,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said. “We are in an age when if you have someone like President Trump who wants to generate a fog of lies, it is much more possible to do so.”
That is not the only reason the inaugural events are likely to play a bigger role in Biden’s presidency than they did for Trump, who could harness attention at will, frequently dominating national attention with a tweet. The ongoing pandemic had already limited the incoming president’s plans for travel during the opening months of the administration, and he is likely to muster as big a televised audience only a few more times in his presidency.
“The goal of any inaugural address is to set expectations for what is to come and make an explicit appeal to the parts of the country that did not vote for you,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser in the Obama White House. “There is a part of the country who either did not vote or did not vote for Joe Biden that he can speak to.”
That sentiment is, for the moment, shared broadly by strategists elsewhere in the party, who are betting that the Trump-inspired attack on the U.S. Capitol ultimately will make Biden’s task easier because of the division it has opened in the Republican Party.
Though there is no certainty that Biden’s first legislative proposals will attract any Republican support, his team is focused on creating space for that cooperation, as GOP leaders in more-moderate parts of the country face the difficult task of compiling an electoral majority in a party where 1 in 3 Republicans want to steer away from Trump, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Moderate House members in swing districts and incumbent senators face the prospect of primary challenges from Trump devotees, while more-conservative lawmakers, such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), are girding for challenges of their own after crossing Trump.
“We have a pretty clear play. It’s more complicated on the Republican side,” said Meredith Kelly, a former communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who still consults on campaigns. “We may have different visions for how we achieve big goals, but we are ultimately the party that gets things done for working people, and our message is ‘Come join us’ to moderate Republicans.”
That sentiment is one reason Biden’s aides have made clear for the moment that they have little interest in leading the charge against Trump, whom Biden has repeatedly condemned as unfit for the office he still holds for a few days. Rather, Biden is focused on the promises in his convention speech to “take this chance to heal, to be reborn, to unite — a path of hope and light.”
“I know everyone wants to hear us talk about Donald Trump,” Ron Klain, Biden’s incoming chief of staff, said Friday during a Washington Post Live event. “The president is going to be on trial before the Senate, and that is going to be their business to sort out.”
The hope to broaden Biden’s appeal has led the inaugural committee, which is raising millions of dollars from corporate and individual donors, to spend significantly on a production that will be experienced almost as a streamed or broadcast video. Biden’s inaugural address, the most momentous of the events, is just one part of the broader ceremony, which Biden aides have mostly refrained from calling a “celebration,” given the nationwide turmoil.
There will be a Tuesday-night memorial ceremony for the nearly 400,000 people who have died of covid-19, with installations on the Mall as well as in towns and cities across the country.
The inaugural parade has been reimagined as a virtual affair that will span the country, with performances simulcast for online streaming and broadcast on major television networks. The missing throngs of supporters on the Mall will be replaced by thousands of flags meant to symbolize American support.
“This may be the most unusual inauguration in American history,” Biden acknowledged Friday in a virtual fundraiser for the event. “Maybe not the most consequential, but the most unusual.”
Biden also has arranged for a 90-minute prime time special Wednesday, hosted by the actor Tom Hanks, with performances by acts including Justin Timberlake, that will provide in a sort of infomercial form a vision of the America that Biden hopes to elevate, full of cooperation and kindness and everyday heroes.
Biden aides have promised to minimize the attention on Biden himself, though the new president is expected to appear on the broadcast from the White House.
“All of our programming is focused on lifting up everyday heroes during this pandemic,” said Ricky Kirshner, a co-executive producer of the events who also organized the Democratic National Convention with Cutter. “There was an outpouring of big stars who wanted to participate and help uplift those heroes and celebrate the strength and resilience of the American people.”
As they did during the convention, inauguration organizers plan to tell the stories of Americans who demonstrate the healing spirit Biden has emphasized. Among the people organizers plan to feature is Morgan Marsh-McGlone, 8, a Wisconsin girl who raised more than $50,000 through a virtual lemonade stand to buy food for needy families.
New York resident Sandra Lindsay, the critical care nurse who was the first American to receive the coronavirus vaccine outside of a clinical trial, and Sarah Fuller, the first woman to play on a major conference college football team, also will get airtime, along with a UPS driver from Virginia and a kindergarten teacher from Washington state. All became inspirational viral sensations in the past year.
The stepped-up security efforts in recent days have caused minor tweaks to the program and the message, aides say. Biden’s whistle-stop Amtrak ride to the capital city was scrapped, and the rehearsal on the Mall was moved from Sunday to Monday because of potential threats, according to a person involved in the planning who was not authorized to comment publicly.
How the events of Jan. 6 affect politics once the pandemic fades remains a question with no clear answer.
“It is going to change the whole ballgame in how you secure an advance space,” said Greg Hale, a veteran Democratic advance planner who worked for the Clinton and Obama administrations as well as for five presidential campaigns.
For the moment, with crowds discouraged by health officials and large protests banned from the streets of Washington, such questions have been set aside. Biden and his team are focused on a virtual message that they hope eventually can shape their political reality.
“It is very difficult to bring the country back together, but it is also true that nobody has tried for four years, so that bar is low,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Obama White House. “Just to have an inaugural address that takes the tone of seeking to unite is not a small thing.”