Biden inauguration: New president to take office in wartime conditions

US AFFAIRS: Washington stands at a fateful crossroads as a new president enters office under unprecedented conditions.

NATIONAL GUARD members walk in front of the US Capitol on Thursday, as tension continues ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next week. (photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
NATIONAL GUARD members walk in front of the US Capitol on Thursday, as tension continues ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next week.
(photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – It’s a Washington that most people would not recognize. Constitution Avenue is usually one of the busiest roads in the nation’s capital. But if you visited there now, you would mostly notice forklifts driving around, working with crews to keep installing a 2.5-meter fence all around Capitol Hill in a 500-meter radius.
A week after the violent attack on the US Congress, and a week before Joe Biden will take the oath of office on the West Front of the Capitol, the atmosphere around the perimeter is grim. The long fence surrounds the Capitol Building and all of the Senate and House office buildings. Behind the barricades, dozens of National Guard troops patrol back and forth.
One person who was jogging around Independence Avenue and 2nd Street was stopped and asked to show a congressional ID to cross the checkpoint. Washington residents without a congressional ID can’t walk through these streets, usually open both for foot and vehicular traffic, and are told to take a detour.
On Massachusetts Avenue, walking is not easy, since the fence partially blocks the sidewalk; and further down, on the National Mall, the Washington Monument has been surrounded with a fence, as well as other parts of the mall, as the National Park Service is working to keep as many people as possible away from the area.
Metro service was also limited, and eleven stations are expected to remain closed. Up on 14th Street, several hotel lobbies were full of soldiers.
Meanwhile, the situation inside the Capitol wasn’t less surreal, as hundreds of National Guard troops could be seen taking naps on the floor of the Visitor Center, and members of Congress were required to go through a metal detector before entering the House Floor. The DC Police chief said that as many as 20,000 troops could be deployed to the city.
Even without the added factor of January 6’s insurrection by supporters of President Donald Trump at the institutions of democracy in Washington raising the atmosphere to a heightened sense of tension, Biden’s inauguration was never going to be ordinary.
It’s occurring amid the worsening COVID-19 pandemic in the US, with spiraling daily cases and deaths. The president-elect and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser have encouraged people not to attend the inauguration, and to celebrate virtually. The event will be held under threats of further violence, as the FBI has warned of possible armed protests across all 50 states.
“The inauguration was going to be different anyway because of COVID, with much-reduced crowds. Now there will also be far more visible security,” explained David Zarefsky, professor emeritus at Northwestern University School of Communication. “But I don’t expect the ceremony itself to change very much.”
Bowser extended the state of emergency in DC until January 21, meaning that she could announce a curfew at any given moment should protests get out of control. She also asked for a pre-disaster declaration, so the local authorities could work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, if needed, and requested that the Department of the Interior cancel and deny all Public Gathering Permits through January 24.
“THE INAUGURATION will have a wartime feel, complete with heavily armed National Guardsman troops and menacing security fences,” said Thomas Whalen, Boston University political historian and author. “Washington, DC, has not looked this way since 1945 when World War II was still raging and Franklin Roosevelt was attending his fourth and final presidential inauguration,” he added.
According to Jason Isaacson, a chief policy and political affairs official at the American Jewish Committee with decades of experience on Capitol Hill, there are some precedents to the scenes in Washington ahead of next week’s inauguration.
“We’ve had inaugurations amid wars, a depression, recessions and other crises,” he said. “Our institutions were battered last week as they haven’t been in many decades, perhaps not since the Civil War, but they stood fast.
“Next week will be another trial – in the shadow of the insurrection, with unprecedented security, and with restrictions imposed by the pandemic. So there is much that will be different. But what’s the same next week, in keeping with a great democracy’s proud history, will be more important: The will of the American people that there be a peaceful transition of power will be honored,” he said.
Biden will enter the White House a week after his predecessor was impeached by the House for “incitement of insurrection,” and as the Senate starts debating whether to convict or acquit.
Whalen believes that the events of January 6 “will always hover over everything Biden does, like Banquo’s ghost.
“Biden’s challenge will be to bury the ghost, which is more easily said than done,” he continued. “The country is too heavily divided between the pro-Trumpers and everyone else. It will make it very difficult, not impossible, for Biden to get bipartisan support behind his appointees and legislative initiatives. Most congressional votes will continue to be strictly along partisan lines – hardly a prescription for national unity.”
Like Whalen, Isaacson believes that the insurrection and its aftermath won’t fade away quickly, “and it shouldn’t.
“We can expect the rollout of an ambitious agenda in the first weeks of the Biden presidency – while, in parallel, the Senate will be taking up the impeachment of Biden’s predecessor,” he added.
“Both parties will be adjusting to new realities – full but narrow Democratic control of Congress, and a Republican Party forced to reckon with the failure and disgrace of its leader.
“It is in the context of these realities that the insurrection – what fueled it, and how to prevent its recurrence – will be addressed by the Biden administration and both parties in Congress.”
Zarefsky noted that the conduct of the Senate trial will have a significant effect on the launch of the Biden presidency.
“It will be difficult for the Senate at the same time to conduct the trial and to consider Biden’s nominees and his legislative proposals at the very beginning of his term,” he said.
LOOKING BEYOND Trump and the trial, which will eventually be over, the Biden administration and the country will have to grasp the post-Trump era with two reins in order to move forward.
“It means Democracy is at DEFCON 2 in America: a divided house cannot stand, as Lincoln would say. That’s where we are now,” said Whalen.
“Democracy doesn’t just sustain itself; it has to be taught, and absorbed, and nurtured, and safeguarded – a demanding, necessary exercise,” added Isaacson. “I’m afraid that too many of us, including some of our leaders, have taken democracy for granted, and neglected our obligation to make the ideals propounded by the Founders real.
“It also means that character matters, that the words of our political leaders matter, that we need to take greater care with the passions we stir in the heat of politics,” he continued. “We’ll be processing and learning from the insurrection, and what it revealed, for many months; we must.”
According to Zarefsky, the US is at a crossroads and needs to decide whether January 6 marked the end or the beginning of something.
“Purging Trump could make it easier for Biden to achieve his goal of unifying the country. On the other hand, the reaction of die-hard Trump supporters may make that more difficult. I am unable to predict which view is more likely to prevail,” he said.
Which way the pendulum shifts will determine whether Washington returns to being a familiar place or remains the fortress it has been forced to become.