Now, as President Biden completes the first 100 days of his own drive to restore a sense of national calm and perhaps even some unity after four years of Donald Trump’s unique brand of disruption and discord, the capital already feels different.
To novelist Thomas Mallon, even the view out of his Connecticut Avenue NW apartment window seems less chaotic.
“Before, you could just smell the crazy,” said the writer, whose books include explorations of Washington in the time of Watergate and the Ronald Reagan years. “Now, the temperature in the city is lower, and that’s entirely healthy. I disagree with Biden more every day — I mean, who’s going to pay for all this? — but you don’t stay awake at night worrying that Biden’s going to do something crazy. What I like best about him is that he’s not in my face every 10 minutes.”
If the city seems altered, that is of course by design. Biden has set out to define his presidency as a distinct counterpoint to “the former guy,” as he has called Trump. If Trump was bombastic, Biden is soft-spoken, almost demure. If Trump was impulsive, Biden is deliberate.
Where Trump sought to dominate the TV news, Biden appears only judiciously, and even then is often seen behind a mask. Where Trump tweeted almost around-the-clock, Biden uses social media sparingly and rather formally.
On one weekend in March 2019, Trump posted 52 tweets in 34 hours, nearly a personal best. He advised Fox News on its choice of anchors, retweeted a supporter of the QAnon conspiracy fantasy, pushed General Motors to reopen an Ohio plant, attacked the late Sen. John McCain, and shouted his “Make America Great Again” slogan.
On the same weekend two years later, Biden put out just seven tweets, urging mask-wearing, documenting the progress of vaccinations, praising workers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and listing his achievements in his first two months.
Rather than tweeting and golfing, Biden spends his weekends mostly not making news, going to church, visiting with his grandchildren.
Still, the nation’s political dynamics remain largely unchanged, as do its primary problems. One president separated families that sneaked over the Mexican border and the other seeks to unite them, yet both have struggled to make headway on the immigration puzzle.
The change in the capital’s atmosphere is not solely the president’s doing. The vaccine has liberated many people to come out of their homes and reconnect with restaurants, shops and each other. But there is also a tonal shift from the top: As the Trump-centric culture of late-night, early-morning and weekend-long doomscrolling has abated, it’s been replaced by something more like what congressfolk call “regular order.”
“The pre-Twitter-ban Trump time feels like a lifetime ago,” said Juleanna Glover, a former Republican strategist who now runs a public affairs firm in the District. “I’m no longer having nightmares like the one I had after Trump was elected: An esteemed man goes into the administration to try to restrain them, and he comes out of a Cabinet meeting and he says it’s all a lie and ‘I can’t do anything to stop them’ and then I woke up screaming.
“I do not have nightmares about Biden.”
She’s even optimistic that despite years of obstruction, Republicans will play ball with Biden on infrastructure and perhaps on immigration and climate, too.
“I view this time more as Reagan coming in after [Jimmy] Carter than Ford after Nixon,” Glover said. “Biden seems more ‘Morning in America’ after a desecration of U.S. interests around the world.”
But sunshiny views of the new administration’s reset quickly melt under the glare of sharp division in a nation running low on trust in institutions and confidence in compromises.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who brought his own brand of disruption to Congress in the populist surge of the 1990s, acknowledges a marked shift in Washington’s atmospherics over the past three months, but he sees something darker lying beneath the superficial change.
“The Biden strategy is to have a rhythm of normalcy behind which there’s a reality of radicalism,” Gingrich said. “There is a conscious effort to seem calm and ration his appearances. It’s not just a return to a pre-Twitter time, but it’s almost a pre-television presidency, like a return to Ike. The style is comforting and reassuring.”
Biden’s ability to calm things down has “probably bought him an extra 10 percent in approval,” Gingrich said. “The country was very tired from covid and from the four-year war that Trump and the national establishment waged on each other.”
And then the inevitable “but”: “But Biden’s luck won’t last four years,” the former speaker said. “The Republicans’ relief over the change in tone is offset by the rage Republicans have against this administration and its attitude that Republicans are enemies and you shouldn’t negotiate with them.”
Of course, Democrats say that Republicans have provided plenty of evidence that their central goal is to obstruct whatever a Democratic administration might propose.
“That’s not wrong,” Gingrich readily conceded. “Republicans make it easy not to work with them.”
And there it is again — standard-issue Washington division and dysfunction.
So what has actually changed in these first 100 days?
Certainly, no one could call the capital’s current condition normal, not when there are still National Guard members on street corners and scary-looking fences surrounding the symbols of open democracy. And the polls confirm what’s evident to most Americans: A gulf of suspicion and mistrust still separates one half of the country from the other.
Presidents who take office after periods of searing national trauma often reach for messages of healing and unity, but actually salving the sores of political and social division takes more than rhetoric.
After the wounds of Watergate, which Ford called “more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars,” he told the nation in his first address as president that it was time to “let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.”
In the immediate aftermath of Nixon’s resignation, a nation reeling from years of political scandal and skulduggery embraced Ford’s apparent decency and modesty. Somehow, a photo of the new president toasting his own English muffin in the White House kitchen — he even buttered it himself, the press office let it be known — became a symbol of a less imperial and imperious presidency.
Ford went beyond stylistic breaks with Nixon’s devious ways, said Scott Kaufman, a biographer of Ford and a historian at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C.
“Ford would meet with people Nixon put on his enemies list,” Kaufman said. “He really did reach across the aisle. But Biden has it much harder: There was no Internet, no 24-hour news cycle in 1974, and you didn’t have the lack of respect for experts and institutions that you see today.”
But even Ford’s efforts to rekindle bipartisanship or at least comity in the aftermath of Nixon’s zealous, rule-smashing politics largely came up empty, the biographer said.
In some ways, Biden’s experience so far has echoed Ford’s. Both men started out with a quieter, less controversial way of governing and both quickly faced questions about their intellectual capacity.
In Ford’s case, his public stumbles — tripping on the stairs down from Air Force One, for example — and “Saturday Night Live” comedian Chevy Chase’s frequent lampooning of those incidents “made people wonder if the fact that the guy couldn’t walk straight meant that he was intellectually unsteady and that’s why he couldn’t fix the economy,” Kaufman said.
Fast forward almost half a century, and SNL has not yet found a consistent spoof of Biden, but whenever the president gets tongue-tied or seems reluctant to face reporters, “there are people who question whether he is too old or has something wrong with him,” the historian said.
Both presidents intuited early on that in addition to policy matters, they needed to demonstrate in small, personal ways that they were determined to pivot toward a more normal kind of leadership. For Ford, it was wearing his sleeves rolled up (Nixon was resolutely formal in dress) and having the Marine Corps Band play the University of Michigan fight song instead of “Hail to the Chief.”
For Biden, it’s been halting the presidential limo outside Call Your Mother, a Georgetown bagel joint, to pick up some after-church brunch items, or carrying his own brown leather briefcase into the Oval Office each morning, or playing Mario Kart at Camp David with his granddaughters.
The bipartisanship struggle
But even though he respects the institutions that Trump sought to dismantle or disrupt, Biden has made little headway in restoring the bipartisanship he spoke of during his campaign.
Last month, in a speech urging Americans to stick with coronavirus prevention measures for one more season, Biden envisioned a time as soon as July Fourth when, “after all we have been through, we come together as one people, one nation, one America.”
Yet although he has had more than two dozen senators of both parties as guests at the White House so far, Biden seems to have accepted that he is unlikely to win Republican support for some of his key initiatives, such as his effort to create a path to citizenship for many of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. He’s even talked about redefining “bipartisanship” to mean winning support from Republican voters rather than from GOP lawmakers.
“His idea of bipartisanship means somewhere in America, someone found a Republican supporting him,” Gingrich cracked. In fact, polls suggest a significant percentage of Republicans support some of Biden’s initiatives.
It’s already clear that any definition of a new normal must accommodate the country’s abiding divisions over everything from the meaning of free speech to the balance between individual and group rights and the role that racial and gender identities play in work, school and personal relationships.
Biden came into office as an ultimate establishment figure — 36 years in the Senate, eight years as vice president, exactly what Americans had voted against by electing Barack Obama and Trump. Yet paradoxically, Biden proposes more thorough and basic reforms to the role of government than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson.
Can he foster a sense of normalcy in the nation at the same time as he persuades the country to envision a bigger, bolder brand of government?
Ford, having never been elected president, lacked the mandate and never spelled out a vision for a new direction, Kaufman said. Harding, too, seemed to have a limited notion of the presidency. Both of those presidents “were never going to be anything more than modest caretakers,” Mallon said.
Biden has grander ambitions. And so far at least, he’s better liked.
“When I was growing up, you felt a personal affection for the president,” said Mallon, who is 69. “But there’s a sense in America now that if you do feel that affection, you’re kind of a chump. Well, I feel it for Biden, even though I mocked him for 30 years.”
In this environment, however, affection only goes so far.
Even as Biden enjoys strong approval numbers and early success in enacting the huge coronavirus relief package, “you still see Trump signs everywhere once you leave Washington,” Gingrich said. “Unity is impossible. The culture war has become more hostile. The differences are now so deep that one side’s going to win eventually.”