President-elect Joe Biden’s forcible attempt to turn the page from President Donald Trump’s baseless attacks on the integrity of the election reflects a need to urgently cement his own right to rule in a presidency that will need every ounce of legitimacy and authority when he takes office in a storm of crises.
Now that the Electoral College has followed voters, state authorities, judges and the Supreme Court in affirming his victory, Biden is seeking to intensify his effort to create the symbolism of a transfer of power that is being denied him by Trump’s refusal to concede an election he clearly lost.
Trump White House
The President-elect gave his most robust sign yet Monday that it is time for the President and his acolytes to drop their corrosive and self-indulgent attempts to overturn the election and deny his victory. He made his appeal in a speech in Delaware on a day of hope, tragedy and constitutional affirmation, when the United States could at last sense eventual deliverance from the twin menaces of 2020: a murderous virus and a vanquished President’s quest to extinguish democracy.
In a twist of history, the first injections that will end the pandemic went into American arms just as the Electoral College, in a pageant showcasing the country’s resilient system, confirmed Biden as the winner of a legitimate election.
“The integrity of our elections remains intact. Now it is time to turn the page as we’ve done throughout our history. To unite, to heal,” Biden said.
The Electoral College vote on Monday and Biden’s most blunt attempt yet to establish himself as the next President in the mind of all voters – not just the more than 80 million Americans who cast ballots for him – is unlikely to change the delusional approach of a President who appears highly doubtful to show up to his successor’s inauguration ceremonies. But it will crank up more pressure on Republican lawmakers in Washington – who will soon be faced with a new power in the White House – to publicly admit reality.
On Tuesday, the most prominent GOP national power broker, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, finally stated in public that Biden would be the next president.
“As of this morning, our country officially has a President-elect and a Vice President elect,” McConnell said.
“The Electoral College has spoken,” said the Kentucky Republican, who will become his former Senate colleague and President-elect’s chief sparring partner in Washington.
“Today I want to congratulate President-Elect Joe Biden.”
Biden anchored his case in the fact that US governing institutions have held firm in the face of an unprecedented assault by a defeated president.
“The flame of democracy was lit in this nation a long time ago. And we now know that nothing – not even a pandemic or an abuse of power – can extinguish that flame,” Biden said from Wilmington in a televised address.
Ever since he was elected, Biden has attempted to create a picture of a new administration ready to take charge – rolling out his picks for Cabinet officials and appearing in Delaware in presidential-style settings – even as Trump initially denied him the funding and trappings of an official transition. To begin with, Biden’s rhetoric was measured and subtle, offering the impression that he was giving the current President and his supporters time to digest his defeat.
But in his appearance on Monday evening, the President-elect was scathing about attempts to deny him his rightful victory – especially a Trump-backed bid by Texas that was summarily rejected by the Supreme Court to throw out the legally cast voters of millions of people in battleground states that Biden won. He pointed out the size of his victory in electoral votes, 306 to 232, was the same achieved by the current President in 2016.
“At the time, President Trump (called) the Electoral College tally a landslide. By his own standards these numbers represented a clear victory then and I respectfully suggest they do so now,” Biden said, before going into detail on Trump’s multiple court defeats and failed attempts to pressure local and state officials to steal the election.
The President-elect, previewing his inaugural address on January 20, then flipped to appeals for national unity, for Americans to stand firm, together to face a dark winter ahead with the pandemic raging out of control and with its consequential economic impact deepening.
“We need to work together, to give each other a chance, to lower the temperature. And most of all, we need to stand in solidarity as fellow Americans, to see each other, our pain, our struggles, our hopes and our dreams,” Biden said.
The success or failure of the President-elect’s first months in office will be dictated by his capacity to get a handle on the health and economic crises and most prominently the hugely complicated task of rolling out the vaccines that offer hope of a return to normal life by the middle of next year. This challenge may deplete much of the political capital accrued by Biden’s election win before he has the chance to embark on his own ambitious political program.
In another grim milestone Monday, the nation marked its 300,000th death from Covid-19, a figure sure to be surpassed by the terrible final toll. The figure underscores failures in combating what Dr. Anthony Fauci called “the worst public health catastrophe in 102 years.”
On such a momentous day, the President’s announcement that his loyal Attorney General William Barr – who refused to validate Trump’s false claims of election fraud – had resigned felt like an effort to distract from his own eclipse. But the departure also suggests the next 36 days will bring more disruption, likely including a torrent of controversial pardons that Barr might have wished to avoid.
Asserting presidential authority
After harrowing, disorientating weeks when America’s health and constitutional systems were under assault, Monday offered the promise of a political turning point and a literal shot of hope.
However, there is no sign that a President who has constantly ignored constitutional norms is moving any closer to accepting the reality of his defeat.
But there were signs of a crumbling of the ancient regime, as a few of Trump’s Republican allies in the Senate began to grudgingly accept, six weeks after the election, that Biden is indeed President-elect.
One source close to Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta that while the President has privately conceded he won’t be staying in the White House for a second term, he won’t stop trying to discredit the election.
Another adviser said it was highly unlikely that the President would show up at Biden’s inauguration for a ceremonial tableau that is an emblem of America’s mostly unbroken chain of peaceful transfers of executive authority.
There is also likely to be no cathartic national moment analogous to then-Vice President Al Gore’s graceful December concession speech after a bitter legal battle handed the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000.
Trump’s behavior is certain to complicate Biden’s call for healing. There is still a chance that Republicans in the House – who remain in Trump’s thrall – will try to mount a futile rear guard to challenge the election result when Congress holds a joint session on January 6 to tally the results of the Electoral College.
Trump White House
That daylong votes of the Electoral College on Monday were anything more than a perfunctory ritual underscored the political poison laced inside American politics by Trump.
The President’s malfeasance has convinced many of the more than 70 million people who voted for him that the election was stolen, a dynamic that is likely to continue to be corrosive in the run-up to the midterm elections in 2022. He suggested in a Fox News interview over the weekend, for instance, that Biden would be an “illegitimate” president.
“There is a reign of terror that is going to continue beyond this election, and that is my fear,” David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and a CNN political analyst, said on Monday.
Some Republican senators reacted to the latest events by finally admitting that Biden would be the next president, after indulging Trump during his avalanche of baseless claims that the election was corrupted.
“We’ve now gone through the constitutional process and the electors have voted, so there’s a President-elect,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the chair of the committee that plans the inauguration, told CNN’s Manu Raju. Another member of the GOP Senate leadership team, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, also acknowledged that Biden had secured the necessary 270 electoral votes.
One of Trump’s closest Senate allies, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, insisted, improbably, that the President still had a “very, very narrow path,” and revealed he had recently spoken to Biden.
But other Republican senators lacked the courage to offer even this grudging acceptance of Biden’s win and refused to talk to reporters.
‘A historic achievement’
The last nine months have been a relentless and demoralizing march of sickness, death and the rituals of normal life – work, family ties, friendship and free movement – shut down by lockdowns and a killer pathogen.
So the euphoria that greeted the first vaccinations of front-line health workers might have obscured the fact that it will be months before most Americans get the same – but it provided a rare sign that the future will be better. The Trump administration deserves some of the credit for the swift development of the vaccine, along with pharmaceutical firms, government scientists, independent researchers across the globe and medical advances that have been years in the making.
Fauci, a voice of fact-based reason during the pandemic – whose role will expand under Biden – celebrated the human endeavor that sequenced a new virus in January and delivered a 95% effective vaccine in December.
“That is a historic, unprecedented achievement,” Fauci said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies virtual event. But the nation’s top infectious diseases specialist also recognized the tragic duality of the moment, shortly before Monday’s awful milestone was reached.
“We have almost 300,000 deaths. That’s the worst public health catastrophe in 102 years – since the 1918 pandemic,” Fauci said. On MSNBC, he said he believed there would be sufficient vaccine to effectively stop the spread of Covid by the end of the second quarter. That would mean a return to beach trips, family visits, the workplace – for those who still have jobs – inside dining in restaurants, trips to the theater and big crowds at sporting events.
But before then, Americans face months of social distancing, mask wearing and bereavement as scientific modeling predicts tens of thousands more deaths.
And everything will have to go right in the massive logistical operation to vaccinate Americans – in production plants, supply chains and on the health care front lines – for Fauci’s optimism to be realized.