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As President, Joe Biden must reach out to divided US. He can establish new conventions

Can Biden, who is known to act spontaneously and generously in his dealings with individuals, do a similar thing to bridge the gap between the Democrats and the moderate Republicans? Something that will psychologically assure them that he is sincere in his belief and efforts to unite the country.

Written by G Balachandran |
Updated: January 15, 2021 8:57:28 am
President-elect Joe Biden addresses the nation. (AP Photo/File)

American society is undergoing tumultuous changes. In the recent presidential election, the nation seemed to be divided. Some 75 million voted for Donald Trump notwithstanding his various illegal acts and incendiary language in characterising those opposed to him. Some seven million more voted for Joe Biden, whose victory has been denied by Trump and his supporters. On January 6, a mob stormed the Capitol in a bid to deny Biden his victory, reminiscent of a similar storming of the Capitol by the British in 1814.

After the assault on the Capitol, there is palpable anger in the US against President Trump. However, recent polls show that while most Americans, including many Trump supporters, reject the attack on the Capitol, millions empathise with the mob. And according to press reports, the FBI has warned about the possibility of armed protests at all 50 state capitols and in Washington, D.C., ahead of Biden’s January 20 inauguration.

Biden has been lukewarm on the issue of impeachment although he has called for Trump’s resignation. Vice President Mike Pence too has been, at best, lukewarm about the application of the 25th amendment. The prospects of Trump being removed from office by noon January 20 are very slim. However on June 20, the Democrats will gain control of the Senate and with a majority in the House of Representatives, the prospects of an impeachment trial in the Senate thereafter are high although a conviction on that trial is again very slim.

Biden’s reluctance to actively support Trump’s impeachment is understandable. His administration will have many immediate problems to attend to — controlling and neutralising the pandemic through an active vaccination programme, passing legislation to give monetary relief to those affected by the pandemic and energising the economy. Plus, there will be the immediate issue of bringing together a strongly divided nation. For Biden, it is important that his administration carry as much of the Senate as also the public with his programmes to restore some semblance of stability not only to American society but to the country’s global standing as well.

No doubt, President-elect Biden and Vice-President elect Kamala Harris would have already thought deeply over these matters. Probably dozens of drafts of Biden’s inaugural speech are being constantly revised to incorporate his desire to unify the country. However, it is also undeniable that Biden is not known for his oratory and in addition, the country will be keenly awaiting his first action to translate his desire to unite the country in practice.

Here, there is a parallel in history worth mentioning.

Apartheid in South Africa ended in 1994 after Nelson Mandela won the first election in which Blacks had the right to vote. He assumed the presidency of a country deeply divided with the national party’s F W de Klerk as his first deputy. However, large sections of Blacks, who had been dominated politically, socially and economically for decades clamoured for revenge. The statesman that Mandela was, he understood the implications. A rainbow nation, he realised, was the only way forward to ensure prosperity in South Africa.

In 1995, South Africa hosted the World Rugby Cup for the first time. Rugby was a game that was played predominantly by the whites. When Mandela learnt that South Africa would be hosting the World Cup, he came up with a brilliant idea, not fully shared by his colleagues, to use rugby to unite the country. (It was the subject of a book Playing the Enemy and a movie, Invictus). When the Springboks won the finals against New Zealand, wearing the Springboks colours and green cap, Mandela surprised the team before the game by visiting them in their locker room and later beaming as he presented the captain with the trophy in the big stadium filled to its capacity. It went a long way towards the realisation of his dream of uniting the country. It was an act of spontaneity, unrehearsed and unanticipated that broke the barrier between the whites and the Blacks to some extent.

Can Biden, who is known to act spontaneously and generously in his dealings with individuals, do a similar thing to bridge the gap between the Democrats and the moderate Republicans? Something that will psychologically assure them that he is sincere in his belief and efforts to unite the country.

President Trump has indicated that he will not attend the inauguration of the Biden presidency in a sharp break with tradition. Also traditionally on the inauguration day, before the ceremony, the outgoing President with his wife invite the incoming President and the Vice President and their spouses for tea. The event is also attended by the outgoing Vice President and his/her spouse. After that, the outgoing President accompanies the incoming President for the inauguration ceremony. That will not happen this year.

But the fact that the outgoing President is breaking time honoured tradition and convention need not preclude the incoming President from establishing a new convention that will go some way towards restoring the traditional working relationship with the Republican legislators and moderate Republicans who do not owe personal loyalty to Trump.

While there has been no precedent, there is nothing to prevent Vice President Pence from inviting incoming President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with their spouses for tea, and then accompanying incoming President Biden for the inauguration. It will be a significant gesture on the part of both Vice President Pence and incoming President Biden, not allowing protocol to stand in the way of healing American society’s wounds.

How such an outcome can come about and who will be the catalyst to bring this about is for the American public to decide.

A foreign well-wisher of the US and its ideals and principles can only offer suggestions.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 15, 2020 under the title ‘Healer in chief’. The writer was previously with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Delhi.

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