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The 46th president: Familiar problems, a new beginning | COMMENTARY

President-elect Joe Biden, flanked by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, delivers remarks on the public health and economic crises at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware on January 14, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
President-elect Joe Biden, flanked by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, delivers remarks on the public health and economic crises at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware on January 14, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images) (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Wednesday at noon, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take their respective oaths of office to become the nation’s next president and vice president. Many Americans will surely breathe some collective sigh of relief. The last two months and especially the last two weeks have been the chaotic crescendo of a tumultuous presidency leaving in its wake — and this is a truly abbreviated list — Washington, D.C. in military lockdown with roadblocks and barricades and as many as 25,000 National Guard keeping order; the staggering death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic now projected to take a half-million U.S. lives by mid-February as the too-slow vaccine distribution program staggers on; and, perhaps most importantly, a strong sense that U.S. democracy, if not outright broken, has been dealt a serious blow by one selfish man who could not accept defeat.

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” Those were the words Gerald Ford used at his inauguration when he succeeded Richard Nixon who resigned from office in 1974. Nearly 47 years later, the nightmare is demonstrably worse. President Ford inherited a nation still reeling from the Watergate scandal and a disgraced Spiro Agnew, but without a storming of the U.S. Senate chambers, a legacy of constant misrepresentation and scheming, a historic pandemic and a level of political polarization unmatched in the modern era. President Donald Trump will leave office like a drugged up rock star leaves a hotel room — in a complete mess and seemingly proud of it. How fitting that the latest opinion surveys show Mr. Trump’s approval rating the lowest of any president ever polled. That he apparently plans not to attend his successor’s inauguration, the first such absence in a century and a half of presidential transitions, is disgraceful but somehow fitting in what it says about his moral character.

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Under different circumstances, the country’s desire for a replacement in the Oval Office would seem a political advantage. But, alas, the well of political opinion seems too poisoned for that. Mr. Biden has promised to make changes, not just in policy but in perspective: a president who governs all, not just his devout supporters; a president who prizes his appointees’ expertise, not just their slavish devotion; a president willing to work with Congress, not just his political allies; a president who takes the COVID-19 pandemic seriously enough to wear a mask and redouble federal efforts to get vaccinations in the arms of more Americans, not just shift blame to others.

The 78-year-old Scranton, Pennsylvania, native has a comforting grandfatherly presence that the nation could surely use right now after four years of taunts and tantrums. But where some see a Jimmy Stewart figure, Trump supporters see Claude Rains, a doddering remnant of Washington insider elites. And to suggest the latter individuals — including, alas and despite it all, most Republicans in Congress — have a chip of their collective shoulders may underestimate the boulder-size grudge sitting there.

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Of course, the day will be filled with outreach and gesture, with calls for unification, turning over a new leaf, rounding a corner. The Biden agenda is surely ambitious featuring a stronger economic stimulus, renewed attention to climate change, a push for greater equality and fairness, a return to international coalition building to address global problems, a repeal of tax cuts for the rich. But he has also wisely spoken of making the COVID-19 pandemic the center of his administration’s initial focus. Surely, there will be a flurry of executive orders reversing some of the more heinous Trump executive actions, and Mr. Biden has promised to propose major legislation on immigration reform. But pushing for a better, swifter and more compassionate (properly memorializing the dead, for example) response to the pandemic on Day 1 would seem the right move. Sometimes, it takes a funeral, or perhaps a stalled vaccination rollout, to bring a family together.

Most Americans probably don’t care all that much about inaugural balls or the other ceremonial trappings of Inauguration Day. Their absence won’t make much difference. What many would truly, greatly, deeply appreciate is some return to normalcy, to rational behavior, to less shouting and more respectful conversation. And no white supremacists dressed in military gear and toting guns attacking D.C. or any state capital. Decency is what Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris promised, and it’s likely what Americans would appreciate most right now, Ms. Harris’ historic achievement as the first woman to hold her post notwithstanding. And, of course, a quicker, safer end to the pandemic.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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