On Wednesday, three men wearing overcoats stood in the amphitheater of Arlington National Cemetery, grouped at a pandemic-proper social distance as American flags whipped in the wind behind them.
In the center was former President George W. Bush and alongside him were former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They had just attended President Joe Biden's inauguration and were here to pledge their support to him in front of the American people.
"The fact that the three of us are here talking about a peaceful transfer of power speaks to the institutional integrity of our country," said Bush, a Republican, in a video that was broadcast that evening. The tradition of such a transfer, Obama, a Democrat, pointed out, is "over two centuries old."
You wouldn't know from the harmony of their appeal that a little over 20 years ago, Bush had promised an administration, in contrast to Clinton's, that "will appeal to our better angels, not our darker impulses" or that Obama had told Americans who were out of work in 2008 to blame "the failed policies of George W. Bush."
The three men, now friends and members in good standing of the Presidents Club, were a symbolic affirmation of the central themes of Biden's inaugural address — that "democracy has prevailed" and "we must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue." But the real test of Biden's call for unity is what happens now — as the new President seeks Congress' support for Covid-19 relief and the Senate weighs how to try the impeached (for the second time) former President Donald Trump, who flew out of town the morning of the inauguration.
"The occasion took on a surreal feeling," wrote SE Cupp. "It was a throwback to an earlier era, an era before 'American carnage.' Gone were the anger and division. No one suggested America needed to be made great again. The air of fraught anxiety had lifted. Even the US Capitol building didn't show the scars of its insurrection just two weeks ago."
But it's no time to be complacent, she warned. "The last four years have tattooed a trauma on so many Americans, and it won't fade overnight. There's healing to do, and Biden has a long journey ahead."
"We just hit the biggest reset button in history," wrote Van Jones, noting both the swearing in of Kamala Harris as the first woman elected to national office and Biden's speech. "He acknowledged and honored the cry for racial justice, 400 years in the making. He reached out to young people and people who are suffering. He promised to be a President for all Americans."
To Peniel Joseph, "The President's words proved revelatory and compassionate. Now the nation awaits deeds to make those hopes real."
Different this time?
David Gergen has worked as an adviser to four presidents. He's heard calls for unity before, but this time may be different. "I came away from his inaugural address thinking we may finally have a president who can pull us back from the brink. There is something about the man that is compelling — the fire in his soul, his humility, his clear moral purpose."
Republican Lanhee Chen endorsed Biden's call to end the "uncivil war" and wrote, "If our new president is able to do as he says and restore even some respect to the very real debates we are sure to have with one another, he will have been a success."
The end of Trump's presidency was a relief for Jill Filipovic. "I can finally feel myself beginning to unclench my jaw, drop my shoulders, and exhale," she wrote. "The past four years have felt like a lifetime ... The news out of the White House will be slower, and almost certainly more boring. Adults will be in charge again — too late for so many, but hopefully in time to speed up a vaccine rollout and save thousands of lives. Simple values like honesty, accountability, decency and empathy will return."
GOP strategist and former congressional staff member Doug Heye observed that there's no "guarantee of success" for Biden. "These things are hard even in normal times, even when we agree." But the chances are better with Biden given "his long career and deep relationships on Capitol Hill."
David Axelrod recalled Mitch McConnell's words to President Obama in 2009 at their first private meeting with congressional leaders at the White House. "A lot of us don't think you should be here, but you won and we're prepared to work with you," Axelrod quoted McConnell as saying. But in fact, "Resistance became the stratagem of choice for McConnell."
Looking back on this extraordinary month, Julian Zelizer noted that it was not a given that democracy would prevail. "What was extraordinary about the past few weeks was just how frail our constitutional system can be in an era of intense polarization and when one party has been radicalized. When a President and his party are willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve and retain power, it's possible that the system we cherish won't function. Had Republicans controlled the House of Representatives or had the election been closer, it isn't hard to imagine how the effort to overturn the results might have been successful."
Credit for averting disaster belongs to American voters, judges, election officials, journalists, a majority of legislators, military leaders and police officers like Eugene Goodman, who was honored at the Inauguration after he "heroically moved the rioters from where US senators were hiding during the electoral vote certification process," Zelizer noted.
For more on the Biden and the Inauguration:
Kate Andersen Brower: Melania Trump's disappointing break with tradition
Dan Morain: The Kamala Harris you don't know
Greg Bardsley: What happened when my dad met a bully
Cindy McCain: America is still worth fighting for
Dr. Susannah Hills is a pediatric airway surgeon in New York who has been on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week, as the disease continued to spread and claim lives, she got some good news: "A Covid-19 patient of mine told me he is finally going home after four months in the hospital. His tracheostomy tube has been taken out and he's breathing on his own. He's finally able to walk again, with some help. It's a new beginning for him and, as he wished me a happy New Year, I felt hopeful for the first time in a long time."
On a larger scale, she also sees positive news. "Biden announced a new team of scientific advisers and created a Cabinet position for the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Incoming director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, has publicly committed to leading with science and restoring public trust in the agency." Millions have been vaccinated in the US, though the rollout is "fraught with problems," Hills noted.
And, as Thomas Lake wrote, the mental health challenges posed by the long lockdowns and the deaths of more than 400,000 Americans won't be easy to overcome. "When this is over we will all need help. We already do now. Some of us will get it. Most will not, whether for lack of time or money or motivation. There are not enough counselors to sift through the layers of mental and emotional wreckage and give us all the attention we need.
"There are things we can do to help ourselves and each other. Tell your friends you love them. Tell them your troubles and listen to theirs. Show up for those family Zoom calls, whether or not you feel like it." Lake quoted Dr. Erica Martin Richards, a psychiatrist and a medical director at the Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, who noted: "There are studies that show the importance of smiling. The importance of prayer. The importance of exercising." Lake added, "She regularly does all three."
Trump's parting pardons
President Trump left the White House hours after issuing more than 100 pardons and other acts of clemency, many to associates and supporters. To Jennifer Rodgers, one category was particularly worth noting "because of how it threatens our system of checks and balances, and what it reveals about the man behind the power: the pardoning of people found guilty of public corruption offenses. These are people who themselves abused the public trust, and whose wrongdoing was exposed by our carefully constructed, overlapping systems of oversight and enforcement that are designed to identify and punish corrupt government officials."
To Elie Honig, among "the most odious of the pardons and commutations that Trump granted in his final hours" were those to his former adviser Steve Bannon, Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Paul Erickson, "convicted of wire fraud and money laundering as an offshoot of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election."
What comes next
Sen. Bernie Sanders' appearance at the inauguration — in mittens and Gore-Tex jacket — went viral, birthing a million memes, but his thoughts on the road ahead are also worth noting, since he's going to be the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. If Republicans won't support Biden's economic initiatives, Sanders wrote, he'll use the budget reconciliation process to pass legislation with only 51 votes, instead of the 60 needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.
"Poll after poll has shown that the American people want government to respond aggressively to address the crises they face. The job of Congress now is to listen to the American people, move our country boldly forward on a path to economic success and show voters that Democrats are prepared to do everything possible to improve their lives. This is an unprecedented moment in American history. We must act in an unprecedented way," Sanders argued.
Biden may not be able to realize his biggest health care aims, wrote Lanhee Chen, citing a lack of enough GOP support for a public option or lowering the Medicare eligibility age. But "Biden may be able to work with moderate Republicans to extend coverage under the Affordable Care Act, a law that the Supreme Court seems unlikely to overturn anytime soon, if ever," Chen observed.
"Biden is inheriting a national crisis that has built up over 40 years," economist Jeffrey D. Sachs wrote, tracing today's stark inequality in America back to January 20, 40 years ago, when President Ronald Reagan said in his Inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
"President Donald Trump continued this approach — passing massive tax cuts in 2017, and then, when calamity hit with Covid-19 in 2020, placing the burden of response on the states. It is Biden's historic task to reverse Reagan's — and Trump's — reckless radicalism," wrote Sachs.
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Bakari Sellers: HBCU graduates continue to write the story of America
A star was born when 22-year-old Amanda Gorman read her poem "The Hill We Climb" at the inauguration. Ashley M. Jones, who directs the Magic City Poetry Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, and is the author of several poetry collections, wrote that Gorman's success made her feel "affirmed in my belief that art is the thing that has been and will keep saving us."
"What is so important to me, a Black Southern woman who writes her authentic truth in verse," Jones observed "is the incredible door Gorman is opening and will keep opening for us in poetry. As I watched her, gorgeous as she is, walking up to that inaugural podium" her red headband "like a crown, in her striking yellow coat — a sun only mirrored by the light emanating from her — I was so proud of Amanda Gorman."
"Maybe a poem won't literally pass legislation or deflect a bullet from exploding in my Black body, but a poem is what makes our hearts move. It does make people think, reflect, and it can even lead to empathy. We need that."