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The inauguration of Joe Biden: Can he bring together a fractured America?

With COVID-19 spreading, unemployment rising and insurrection in our nation’s capital, the 46th president will have his work cut out for him. USC experts examine the many challenges Biden will face.

Joe Biden inauguration
How will President Joe Biden unite a divided country and restore faith in democracy? (Photo/Geoff Livingston)

Next week, Joe Biden becomes America’s 46th president and inherits major problems that few other presidents faced upon their inauguration. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead due to the coronavirus pandemic. Business closures and rising unemployment have crippled the economy. Mass demonstrations for racial justice roil big cities. American democracy is in peril as evidenced by Republican attempts to overturn the election and the mob that sacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. A large swath of the electorate falsely believes Biden won office by cheating. And his predecessor, Donald Trump, was just impeached for the second time.

Can President Biden unite a divided country and rebuild faith in democracy? And what about his other priorities, including tackling the related crises of COVID-19 and joblessness? USC experts shared their predictions.

Joe Biden’s inauguration won’t end American division

Longtime Democratic political strategist Robert Shrum, director of the Center for the Political Future at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said among Biden’s biggest challenges is “restoring some sort of shared citizenship, fealty and loyalty to the constitution and the democratic process.”

“Democracy can’t function if every time you lose, you say, ‘It was stolen from me.’ Or if you think your opponents are mortal enemies, and if you play the game and lose, you burn down the stadium. That will destroy democracy,” he said.

“President-elect Biden is coming into office when the country and world are topsy-turvy,” said Alison Dundes Renteln, a political science professor at USC Dornsife and an expert in American politics, cultural change and constitutional rights.

The current debacle harms our general readiness, the government’s capacity to address wicked policy problems and the country’s standing in the world.

William Resh

“It has been an unending nightmare, a consequence of the pandemic, insurrection and economic turmoil — a despair that seems almost unprecedented,” she continued. “Leadership is urgently needed to help relieve the tremendous anxiety, suffering and fear that exists.”

It doesn’t help that the transition process has been so fraught, in part due to Trump and his allies’ false claims that the election was stolen from him.

“We have not seen a presidential transition in the modern presidency as bereft of goodwill by an outgoing administration as the current transition,” observed William Resh, a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy and an expert in the U.S. presidency and executive branch politics and management.

“Presidents and Congresses have worked for decades to ensure a peaceful, informed and nonpartisan transition of power through the development of both legislation and institutional norms,” he said.

“The current debacle harms our general readiness, the government’s capacity to address wicked policy problems and the country’s standing in the world.”

Extremist ideologies won’t disappear overnight

“We should not see the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden as a finish line, should the extremist threat seem to stand down,” said Erroll Southers, professor of the practice of national and homeland security at USC Price and the director of the Safe Communities Institute’s Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies program. “There is no finish line in homeland security. Radicalization to violence does not occur overnight, and coaxing someone back from extremism is not a simple, nor always successful, endeavor.”

“Even when every person who participated in the Capitol attack is identified, arrested and prosecuted in accordance with the exiting president’s own executive order, extremists will remain,” he added.

“While the attack is over, the threat is not,” agreed Mindy Romero, founder and director of USC Price’s Center for Inclusive Democracy.

“Collectively, our nation has much work to do to ensure that the next administration transitions into office peacefully and with the support needed to govern successfully,” she said. “We need to work aggressively to counter the emboldened racism that fuels domestic terrorism and drives ongoing recruitment efforts. Our nation must come together to counter and prevent such actions in the future while continuing to work for a stronger, more inclusive democracy.”

Manuel Pastor, a professor of American studies and ethnicity who also directs the Equity Research Institute at USC Dornsife, echoed the calls for a racial reckoning.

“The work ahead will require that America reckon with and root out structural racism, combat white supremacist violence and hold accountable its enablers,” he said.

“It will require addressing systemic economic inequality and learning the lesson — driven home so sharply by the COVID-19 pandemic — that we all do better when we protect everyone.”

We need to work aggressively to counter the emboldened racism that fuels domestic terrorism and drives ongoing recruitment efforts.

Mindy Romero

The media has an important role in bridging that divide, said Marc Ambinder, an adjunct professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a longtime journalist for The Atlantic.

“Journalists are used to ‘otherizing’ white militia groups and often reduce them to the sum of their stereotypes: rural, poor, uneducated — even their diets,” he said. “This separates them (bad, racist) from us (good, non-racist). But this paradigm has always been flawed and even harmful.”

“These movements are large, cross-cutting through virtually all socioeconomic cleavages, and they reflect a frightening reality: that so many of our fellow Americans have moved into a dream world where nothing we say and do can persuade them that there’s a common point of reference,” he continued. “Understanding the grievances and disconnection — still an essential task — does not excuse or minimize it. It will allow us to make careful distinctions going forward.”

Biden’s agenda: COVID-19 and jobs

Renteln predicts that many Americans who want to see President Trump punished for inciting insurrection may be disappointed, as history shows bringing the country together requires a less punitive approach.

Americans are future-oriented, she explained, so President Biden will focus on how his administration can help right wrongs and provide access to jobs, health care and COVID-19 vaccinations.

In addition to the herculean task of uniting the country, Biden’s immediate imperatives are to combat COVID and to get the economy moving again, Shrum said.

“The success of his vaccination strategy will be critical to the success of his presidency,” he said. “On the economy, he will pursue not only relief for Americans in distress but advance infrastructure investments to speed up economic growth. And he will seek to make that growth inclusive, launching a new economic era for communities of color and hollowed-out rural areas and small towns where alienated voters supported Trump.”

Renteln said that, while many in the country are looking at this period of presidential transition with concern and anxiety, she believes there is light at the end of the tunnel: “Our American creed ‘E pluribus unum’ will help unify the country in the aftermath of so much tragedy.”

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