Trump And The World

The Months That Will Turn Joe Into President Biden

For all his experience in government, Biden is entering unfamiliar territory. Trump, barking at the president-elect's heels and challenging his legitimacy, will try to make the transition harder still.

Joe Biden won the election, but whether he wins the transition is another question. The peaceful transfer of power always tests an incoming president, but this time promises to be particularly perilous.

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating, taking lives and jobs as it spreads. The incumbent, President Donald Trump, has only reluctantly agreed to the transition and knows how to dominate the national conversation. He seems determined to deny his successor's legitimacy and appears to be planning a 2024 campaign rally on Inauguration Day.

In the transition time remaining, I believe Biden needs to establish two kinds of legitimacy. He should show the nation that he possesses the competence to plan an administration, in order to create substantive legitimacy. And he should perform important ceremonial rituals, in order to establish symbolic legitimacy.

As a scholar of the presidency, I've written about John Kennedy's transition, which culminated in his superb inaugural address. Biden seems unlikely to match that rhetorical achievement, but he is off to a solid start.

President Donald Trump speaks behind a podium.

President Donald Trump speaks during a rally to support Republican Senate candidates in Valdosta, Ga. on Dec. 5, 2020. Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

This one's different

The president-elect has sought to craft his substantive legitimacy through comparison and contrast. One of these presidents, Biden suggests, is not like the other.

This is not an unusual strategy. Democratic political consultant David Axelrod long ago coined the opposites theory of presidential elections, noting, "Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have." President-elect Biden appears to assume that he won at least in part because voters rejected Donald Trump, and so he has reinforced the difference between the two during the early transition.

When the election hung in the balance, the former vice president waited for the results with the rest of us. Unlike Trump, Biden refused to declare victory, noting only that "We feel good about where we are." His humility contrasted to Trump's behavior throughout his term.

When the result became clear, Biden not only promoted national unity in his Nov. 7 speech, he also shared the stage with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. That was a perk denied Biden on election night in 2008 and an indication that he planned to govern not as a rogue individual but as part of a team.

His first staff and cabinet choices have reinforced the teamwork theme. "Competence is making a comeback," the Associated Press declared in its analysis of Biden's national security selections. The president-elect quietly made his decisions, with no public auditions or press leaks. He introduced them as a team in a sober setting. Each gave remarks emphasizing their commitments to morality and honesty.

For example, his nominee for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, movingly told the Holocaust survival story of his stepfather, announcing a moral mission for the United States in the world. Avril Haines, nominated for Director of National Intelligence, said she would speak truth to power, "knowing that you would never want me to do otherwise and that you value the perspective of the intelligence community, and that you will do so even when what I have to say may be inconvenient or difficult."

Joe Biden is clearly determined to dissociate his administration from the previous one, which was characterized by neither moral commitment nor faith in truth. He is crafting his substantive legitimacy by demonstrating his belief in teamwork, morality, competence and experience. His administration, he claims with these choices, is ready to lead.

Biden and Harris appearing at an announcement event

Biden, left, and Harris, right, appear jointly at many events. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Symbolic legitimacy

Biden is among the most experienced candidates elected to the presidency. Yet assuming the office will be difficult, even for him. He has been a senator and vice president, but he has not been in charge.

To become the president requires ritual.

A president is both the legislative leader and the head of state, the equivalent of a British prime minister and the queen in one. The trappings of the office make the office. Americans need to see Biden invested with the presidency, much as a Prince of Wales becomes the king by assuming the robes and powers of his office in a ceremony.

The inaugural ceremony on Jan. 20 is a ritual of transition that transforms "Joe" into a head of state, into Mr. President. The inaugural address gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his presidential capacity, to unite partisans as one people, and display himself as their leader.

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The Founders understood the human need for political ceremony at times of transition. George Washington learned of his first election to the presidency on April 14, 1789 and soon left his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia for the then-capital of New York City.

Washington's journey turned into a grand celebration of the new nation. In Trenton, New Jersey, for example, 13 young women, dressed in white, walked before him, strewing flowers from baskets as he rode underneath a magnificent floral arch. Washington was no longer a gentleman farmer nor even a general. He was about to become the president and these sorts of rituals marked the way.

Biden is unlikely to undertake such a journey from Wilmington to Washington, although Axios has reported that Biden could ditch the recent inaugural tradition, "the typical flourish of arriving in Washington on an Air Force plane, pulling in instead on the same Amtrak train he rode to and from Delaware for 30 years as a senator."

A lithograph showing George Washington being greeted by

A lithograph of Washington's reception by ladies, on passing the bridge at Trenton, N.J., April 1789, on his way to New York to be inaugurated first president of the United States. Nathaniel Currier/Smithsonian American Art Museum

If Biden is to establish his symbolic legitimacy as a rightful president of the United States, he will need a ceremony displaying that legitimacy, one that looks and sounds like those of his predecessors. This will be hard in a pandemic, as the campaign showed. He was unable to campaign as a candidate normally would or give his election night speech in front of a roaring crowd, as, for example, Barack Obama did in Chicago's Grant Park in 2008.

Now, it seems unlikely that he will be able to take the oath in a large ceremony or enjoy many of the traditional trappings of a presidential inauguration. Biden has said his inauguration could "resemble the Democratic National Convention."

Although the 2020 convention was successful, it didn't look like the traditional inaugural ceremonies. As a model, it would deprive the nation of many of its comforting rituals. It would substitute a small, televised ceremony at the Capitol and virtual activities from around the nation.

The president-elect and his advisers will have to find ways to make these new traditions authorize his presidency as well as the old ones. I do not envy them this task.The Conversation

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BUENOS AIRES — The Venezuelan crisis will be U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's big Latin American challenge. The next four years are more than enough time to push Venezuela toward democratic normalization by involving political actors with whom the regime of President Nicolás Maduro is prepared to talk.

With Donald Trump at the helm, the United States had considerably less credibility in its bid to find a democratic solution for Venezuela. Working against that effort was Trump's particular brand of populism, as well as his alliances with Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, who openly admires his country's last military dictatorship, and Iván Duque of Colombia, where dozens of rights activists have been murdered just this year.

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Free elections have become impossible in Venezuela as results cannot be verified.

At the same time, there's one thing to always keep in mind when talking to the Maduro regime: Since 2015, when the Bolivarian movement, founded by the late Hugo Chávez, suffered its first electoral defeat and lost control of parliament, free elections have become impossible in Venezuela as results cannot be verified.

The opposition, as a result, refuses to take part in elections devoid of transparency, which only serve to legitimize a dictatorship. Effectively, free elections, which even the socialist governments of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Argentina's Alberto Fernández seem to back, would very likely have one loser, the Bolivarians clinging to power without democratic legitimacy.

Biden and Maduro in 2015 — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA

Those who are upset with international pressures on the Venezuelan regime must know they are accomplices to the country's human tragedy. And they are not just the leftist regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua, or Ecuador and Bolivia, under past presidents Rafael Correa and Evo Morales respectively.

Under Chávez and Maduro, democratic institutions and the rule of law were gradually undermined as Venezuela mutated into a military-backed dictatorship. In the meantime, Latin America mostly looked the other way, which makes many of the region's democratic rulers partly responsible for this tragedy. That is especially the case of the PT in Brazil, the two Kirchner presidents and their backers in Argentina, and the Broad Front in Uruguay.

The last report by the UN Human Rights Office in September 2020, headed by Bachelet, is unequivocal. It repeats the charges made in 2011 when the UN Human Rights Council made its first Universal Periodic Review (EPR) for Venezuela. In that year, drawing on information provided by UN agencies, the EPR found a range of abusive practices including illegal detentions, extra-judicial killings and excessive and indiscriminate use of force by police, a partial judiciary or restrictions on the freedom of speech and political and electoral rights.

Those who are upset with international pressures on the Venezuelan regime must know they are accomplices to the country's human tragedy.

Chávez was president in 2011, when Dilma Rousseff was president of Brazil, Cristina Kirchner led Argentina, and José Mújica was president of Uruguay with Luis Almagro as his foreign minister. Chile's Bachelet had recently completed her first term in office. The CELAC regional organization was also formed at this time with the approval of regional states, and used to embolden Venezuelan socialism, which had already been firmly denounced by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

By including these progressive forces, which the Maduro regime is prepared to hear, the Biden administration could, with the EU, open the door to democratization in Venezuela and help end its humanitarian tragedy. In doing so, his administration could also boost the regional left's commitment to democracy.

This commitment is overdue. The left is indebted for its historical support for authoritarian outfits in Cuba and more recently Nicaragua, where the regime of Daniel Ortega is borrowing a page from the worst days of the Southern Cone juntas.

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