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Facing Unprecedented Challenges, Joe Biden Becomes 46th US President

A bent and battered sort of democracy stands today.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden embraces President Joe Biden after he delivered his inaugural address on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Borrowing a line from Abraham Lincoln, President Joe Biden said, “My whole soul is in it,” regarding the oath of office he had taken only moments before. His following remarks were aspirational, laden with all the familiar platitudes of American self-congratulation that — while soothing after what came on this day four years ago and every damn day since — seemed freighted with unspoken woe. Washington, D.C. is packed with soldiers today, all of them masked, and that is but one leaf in the book of troubles Biden inherited today. His soul had better be in it; he’s going to need every square inch of it.

A poison season, so long, so terribly long, concluded by constitutional law at 12:01 pm Eastern Time. In its wake stands a tottering landscape of dread, uncertainty, economic calamity and death, now presided over by a man who has spent decades being a large part of the problem. Joe Biden may be the man for these times, because he has a Democratic Congress and stranger things have happened as we all know too well, but there is no succor just yet. The cancer has been removed, but the wound stands gaping, and it will require sure and steady hands to close it. If that sounds harsh, these are harsh times.

Let it also be said that President Biden did the nation a huge, somber, simple service yesterday by presiding over a beautiful memorial event for the COVID dead. As ever, he spoke eloquently from the well of his own deeply felt pain, and for the first time since this whole thing began, an official ceremony recognized that this is happening, and it is horrific beyond the bounds of adjectives. Trump flapped his hand at the pandemic before riding off into his post-presidency this morning, but Biden and Kamala Harris gave us a moment to share together last night, and it was strikingly poignant.

The Biden/Harris administration has the potential to make massive policy change — as of today, Mitch McConnell is the Senate Minority Leader — or it could be another neoliberal Trojan horse filled with Democratic Party platitudes and failed ideas. That coin is still in the air, but Biden’s use of the public space these last weeks has been a balm in contrast to the cacophony of the last 2,045 days. Given the overwhelming challenges arrayed before us, this is pretty small beer. After being so long in the desert, though, small beer still lays the dust in your mouth, for now.

Yet although Donald Trump is gone, his menace remains in place like a cloud of ash. We must not forget that this morning, before today’s inauguration, Air Force One became a getaway car facilitating the temporary escape of perhaps the most notorious crime family in American history. The consequences of their time in power will be with us for generations.

After four long and grinding years made gluttonous with brazen lies, grift and graft, economic shutdowns, ritualized mob violence brought to an apogee with the sacking of the Capitol building, state-sponsored racism by way of travel bans, voter purges and the kidnapping of children at the southern border, a pandemic left to blaze and slay to the tune of 400,000 souls and counting, our shame at his shamelessness, the ceaseless nature of it, the bombardment of the senses and the sensibilities, how it just never stopped … finally, it has stopped, and the curtain came down on the whole thing with the psychedelically surreal image of Trump riding a metaphorical disco ball out of the presidency to the bellowing sound of “YMCA” by The Village People. It was all one last weird lie-flecked bag of humiliation to absorb, and you just hope your liver is up to the drill.

Meanwhile, threats against the U.S. capital as well as multiple state capitals across the country stand, and may well be followed through on. Trump’s people, the well-armed Republican base radicalized by lies and fortified with racist fury, are still loose upon the land like some renegade Confederate brigade using the Shenandoah to camouflage its movements as it decides where to strike next.

After the British burned the White House in 1814, certain places within the building were not fully repaired. Visible scorch marks can be seen here and there, deliberately untouched to stand as witness and warning. I hope a similar decision is made as they endeavor to repair the wreckage from the Capitol sack. Some torn wood here, a cracked window there, nothing glaring, but all a memorial to the ruinous passage of Donald Trump, witness and warning for a thing that must never be allowed to happen again.

A bent and battered sort of democracy stands today. The dirty little secret that is no secret, of course, is that “democracy” in this country was a bought and broken thing long before Donald Trump came blasting through. It is the very shabbiness of our blighted version of democracy that allowed Trump to flourish even as he threw his weight against the last remaining foundations of what some still call freedom.

Those foundations groaned, and trembled, and held. A new president was safely and successfully inaugurated today after a violent attempt to smash it two weeks ago; I don’t expect those foundations can take much more, and the Confederates are still out there. It’s over… and, I fear, probably just beginning.

That being justly said, there is also this: If you believe, as I do, that dealing effectively with COVID must come first and immediately, the presence of Biden in the Oval Office is a ray of sunlight after a long turn in the infected dark. Racial justice, economic justice, climate justice, immigration policy change, all this and so much more we will fight for, and grassroots movements will drive these fights — Biden will certainly not grant transformation. Today, however, COVID is confronted with an enemy who intends to work for a living. That is nothing but good news.

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