The scaling down of the pomp and splendour in no way diminished yet another milestone in the political history of America. Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as President and Vice President respectively with former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama along with the former First Ladies witnessing the custom and tradition; and only with two notable absentees. The 96-year-old President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Roslyn Carter could not make it to the event and for understandable reasons. And the outgoing President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump were no shows, their absence hardly missed and perhaps even celebrated in sections of society.
After more than two months of a nail-biting time, America will be settling into a new dawn, convinced that the task on hand for the incoming President is so huge that this was not the time to look back and make a fuss of what went on the last four years. As Biden steps into the White House there were at least four top priorities for the incoming administration: the coronavirus pandemic, a huge national tragedy that has taken the toll of more than 400,000 lives; the troubled economy that has had to deal with the effects of the pandemic; the ballooning national debt that is said to be close to US$ 30 Trillions; and racial unrest that has seeped into the country that goes much beyond looking merely at police encounters with African Americans and minorities.
There is no doubt that President Biden lost precious time by the refusal of the previous regime to set in motion a transition process. Add to this the looming second impeachment trial of former President Trump that could begin anytime soon. Biden is left without a national security team that is yet to be confirmed by the Senate, a process that would have begun in right earnest just soon after the oath taking. For now the President would have to do with senior bureaucrats in national security agencies to keep watch of domestic and international developments. Some analysts believe that the second impeachment trial of Trump in the Senate would further add to the rancour already prevalent on Capitol Hill and that Biden must advise Democrats against pushing for it. But President Biden has given little indications of wanting to interfere with a process that he sees as the prerogative of Congress.
If his inaugural address is anything to go by, President Biden on more than one occasion stressed on the theme of unity, that he is not a President for only those who voted for him, but for all Americans. “With Unity we can do great things,” Biden said, making the point that crisis and challenges can be met in a united fashion. And at a time when racial tensions have ripped America at its seams, President Biden made it very clear that the call for racial justice “will be deferred no longer”. And Biden had a message for the comity of nations as well: that Washington will engage with the world once again and lead by the power of its example.
There are many things that President Biden would like to do in his first days in office and he has given indications of the kind of Executive Orders that would have to be issued to reverse the policies of the past—as for instance in lifting the travel ban on people from Muslim countries. From a policy perspective Biden has also said that he is proposing legislation to legalise immigration to an eight year time frame, news that will be received well by millions especially young children who have been at the receiving end of the Trump administration policies. Biden is also considering ending the Wall that is being built on the borders of Mexico to stop illegal immigration in the south.
In all the careful watch on the incoming Biden administration, considerable attention will also be on the Vice President Kamala Harris who is a close neighbour of the Bidens at the Naval Observatory. Right wing conspiracy theorists and extremist political hacks went out of their ways to paint a picture of Vice President Harris plotting to get rid of Biden even before his term ended four years from now. Many are yet to stomach the fact that President Biden had the guts and determination to pick an African American talented woman with Indian heritage as his running mate, some 22 years his junior in age. Biden chose Senator Harris not because of her ambition, but that she excelled in every position she has held including that of an Attorney General and a lawmaker in the Senate from the largest state of America.
There have been Vice Presidents in the United States who have made fun of their own positions, that it amounted to nothing more than a ceremonial position with no power. But all that has changed over a period of time, from Walter Mondale insisting on a policy role during the Carter administration to powerful Vice Presidents like Dick Cheney who wielded considerable authority and influence especially on national security issues. In fact as Vice President for eight years in the Obama administration, Biden himself crafted a role that has been held out as a model for recent times—he was a highly influential advisor to President Obama on foreign policy issues and used his 36-year Capitol Hill stint in the Senate to deftly manage legislative matters, much on the lines of what Vice President Lyndon Johnson did for John Kennedy in the early 1960s.
President Biden is expected to have a close working relationship with Vice President Harris and this is bound to go far beyond the customary two weekly lunches at the White House, attending some odd meeting or filling in for the President in functions. In modern times the Vice Presidency is seen as being only a “heartbeat” away from the Presidency, as was seen in the assassination of Kennedy and an attempt on the life of Ronald Reagan. In the case of Vice President Harris, the expectation is that she will be a key cabinet official and seriously taking on to the special tasks assigned by the President. And if at some point of time during his Presidency, Biden decides not to run for re-election in 2024, Vice President Harris would seem to have the energy and the poise to carry on with her job and still throw her hat in the ring for the Party’s nomination. But all this is too early to speculate!
(Currently a professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the College of Science and Humanities, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai, the author was a senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations.)
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