It was a moment of immense relief across the world, rather than unbridled celebration. Washington saw an orderly transition of power at the Capitol, just two weeks after the attack on it; the departure of a man who has thrived on division and the anointment of Joe Biden, who pledges unity; the arrival of Kamala Harris – the first female vice-president and a woman of colour – after the racism and misogyny of Donald Trump. Yet there were no cheering crowds to greet the new president, and 25,000 members of the National Guard stood watch, thanks to his predecessor’s legacy: the deadly toll of the pandemic and the political violence epitomised by this month’s insurrection. That threat did not recede when the 46th president took his oath of office. It is part of America’s body politic, as are the bitter political forces that birthed it. Though Mr Trump was resoundingly defeated, more than 70 million Americans voted for him and a huge number of those now believe that President Biden stole his job. One in five voters supported the storming of the Capitol.
Mr Trump, petty to the last, slunk away to Florida rather than face his defeat. But whether or not the twice-impeached ex-president can maintain political momentum, Trumpism in the broader sense is thriving. Its next standard bearer – there are plenty of hopefuls – could well be smarter and more dangerous. So the sombre mood was not only inevitable but apt. The perils facing the republic have rarely been greater. Mr Biden’s speech rose to the moment. He acknowledged the constant struggles of his nation, and the current dangers. But he also promised: “Democracy has prevailed … Our better angels have always prevailed.”
The new president has promised a flurry of action, expecting little honeymoon. He must tackle the pandemic that has taken 400,000 American lives – a quarter of those in the past month – and the economic crisis, with 10 million fewer employed than a year ago; he plans a $1.9tn stimulus package. A slew of executive orders on his first afternoon – axing the Muslim travel ban; rejoining the Paris climate agreement – are set to reverse some of Mr Trump’s most egregious acts. But erasing the last four years is impossible. Only some policies can be enacted at the stroke of a pen. An ambitious legislative agenda must force its way through a 50/50 Senate. The Trump administration scrapped regulation and stacked courts. Above all, it tore apart the social and political fabric of the United States, making brazen lies, naked cruelty and hatred commonplace. Mr Trump was the product of his country’s failures, but further exposed and exacerbated them.
Europe and other allies are breathing easier, but America’s standing cannot truly be restored until its domestic crises are resolved. At best, Mr Biden will begin to address them. He reminded his listeners that politics “does not have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path”, in a call for honesty and decency that should be heard not only in the US, but across the Atlantic. Yet others are still pouring on the fuel. While some Republicans belatedly scramble for the vestiges of respectability, others continue to foment lies. Facts have become optional in the age of disinformation.
Changing the president, as hard as it has been, was an easy task set against the challenge of binding up the nation’s wounds. But this is, at least, the removal of a dangerous man and the arrival of a president who believes in his oath of office. This inauguration brings hope, however tentative, at a time when the US desperately needs it.