At noon on Jan. 20 in Washington, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. He takes office at a perilous moment. His country is divided as only once before in its history — when it erupted in a true civil war.
His election win remains contested among substantial parts of the population; and U.S. standing and status in the world face unprecedented challenges. Yet, remarkably, Biden was elected because he presented himself as ordinary and normal, a safe harbor from the exceptionalism of his predecessor — who proclaimed exactly four years ago after a grim diagnosis of his country that “only I can fix it” — and the more extreme options of the left within his party.
Biden has promised an aggressive and activist agenda for his first ten days, with actions of both domestic and international import; his priority is attending to his nation’s ills. That is as he should. He must restore confidence in government, try to bridge the yawning chasm between his supporters and those of his predecessor, Donald Trump, and make progress fighting the COVID-19 outbreak and countering its economic impacts. They are interrelated, and they will take years.
The guiding principles of the new administration are an oxymoron: ambition and restraint. Biden must heal and unite a nation that, in many corners and communities, itches for a fight.
The most effective way of doing that is by successfully completing ambitious projects that materially improve the lives of the embittered voters who believe that only Trump cared about and fought for them. Biden must do that even as that group challenges his legitimacy and tries to undermine his administration. Biden must exercise the restraint and discipline that guided his campaign and his transition, resisting the urge to fight on his opponents’ turf and remaining focused on the real and important objectives.
The new administration hit the ground running. In his first day as president, Biden signed 15 executive actions and two agency directives, the first of what is anticipated to be ten days of feverish activity. While most of the orders had a domestic focus, three had international implications: rejoining the Paris climate agreement, abandoning Trump’s plan to leave the World Health Organization and revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Biden called the decisions “starting points” and promised more. His team has announced that executive orders signed on Feb. 1 will address international affairs and national security.
While the focus of his inaugural address was national unity, Biden had words for foreign audiences as well — even though they know well that the United States can only do business if it is strong and united. Speaking directly “to those beyond our borders,” he said that “America has been tested, and we’ve come out stronger for it.” He promised, “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again — not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.” Significantly, he pledged to “lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. We’ll be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security.”
His work is cut out for him. The United States has been weakened by two decades of foreign conflict — the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq — as well as the financial crisis of 2008 and the COVID-19 outbreak. The violence and uncertainty surrounding the 2020 election has tarnished his country’s image and done great damage to the foundation of its power: While many may think that the most powerful military in world history sustained U.S. preeminence, more thoughtful observers — and millions, if not billions, of ordinary people — know that its ideals – democracy, rule of law, justice and equality; its “example” – were the real source of its strength.
Biden’s immediate challenge is overcoming divisions in Congress, where Democrats hold a small majority in the House of Representatives and a one-vote edge in the Senate. Executive action is gratifying but insufficient; addressing the nation’s problems requires legislation.
If the Republican Party chooses obstruction over cooperation, it will be a slow and difficult slog for the new administration. Signs are mixed: Republican moderates and institutionalists have indicated that they would like the country to move forward. Unfortunately, many Republicans either back former President Trump or see opportunity in opposition for opposition’s sake. Votes on Biden’s Cabinet nominees will provide the first indications of how the Senate will work.
America’s partners look to the new administration with hope and some unease. Hope that its foreign policy will return to guiding principles of cooperation, consultation and multilateralism, and will engage with and lean on the alliances that have been instrumental in constructing a peaceful, stable and prosperous global order. There is also concern about the cumulative effect of the body blows of the past decade and the ability of the new administration to balance its many competing objectives.
President Biden will find that most of the old friends and partners of the United States wish it success and will work with him and his team to achieve those goals. Count Japan among them. Given the challenges, Biden and the United States will need all the help they can get.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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