How should Joe Biden handle Donald Trump’s legacy?
Outgoing president retains a solid core of support even as impeachment lingers over him
President Joe Biden has been sworn into office today as the 46th president of the US in a ceremony unlike any other in history.
In a break from tradition, Donald Trump ended his reign as US leader at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, rather than alongside his successor at the inauguration in Washington D.C.
The outgoing president is facing a series of challenges as he returns to civilian life, including an unprecedented second impeachment and potential criminal charges centring on his business dealings in New York.
But Biden faces a major challenge too in managing Trump’s legacy following the storming of the Capitol earlier this month. So how do you solve a problem like Donald Trump?
When Trump was sworn into office four years ago, he “pledged to end to the carnage of inner-city poverty, rusting factories, broken schools and the scourge of criminal gangs and drugs”, writes The Guardian’s Washington bureau chief David Smith.
But instead, “his presidency visited upon the nation the carnage of about 400,000 coronavirus deaths, the worst year for jobs since the Second World War and the biggest stress test for American democracy since the Civil War”, Smith continues.
The Democrat plans to “reverse US withdrawals from the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization, and stop construction of a border wall”, according to the news site. Revoking Trump’s permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and his travel ban on majority Muslim countries are also said to be top priorities.
An even trickier test for the incoming president is how to handle Trump’s residual support. The storming of the Capitol earlier this month shows that his army of backers have “no intention of fading away”, says the Associated Press (AP).
A YouGov poll of 1,397 registered US voters in the days following the riots found that 45% of Republicans actively supported the actions of the mob at the Capitol, with 58% viewing the deadly event as “more peaceful than more violent”.
And an NBC News poll last week found that just 8% of Republican voters back the second impeachment of Trump - suggesting that managing his White House exit will be a tough balancing act for the incoming administration.
Pinning down Trumpism
Trump’s “loyal fans are eagerly awaiting his next ventures, including a potential presidential run in 2024”, AP says. Although the impeachment proceedings could hobble any hopes of a second term for Trump, the strength of his support base presents “a daunting challenge” for Biden, who is inheriting a “bitterly divided nation that now includes many who not only disagree with his policies, but view him as an illegitimate president”.
Salon’s Matthew Rozsa suggests that the example of Gerald Ford “provides a guide” for the new boss at the White House. Ford entered the Oval Office amid the fallout of Richard Nixon’s impeachment, and “paid a steep political price” for pardoning his predecessor in the name of national unity, Rozsa continues.
Although Biden “should avoid seeming vindictive toward his predecessor”, the Democrat will also “suffer immensely if he allows Trump to avoid the same legal consequences that ordinary Americans would face if they were accused of comparable crimes”.
Rozsa argues that “the best way to unify the country is for people to have faith in Biden’s integrity and judgment, not simply for his disgraced predecessor to be out of the headlines”.
Biden appears to be walking the difficult line successfully so far. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 64% of Americans approve of his behaviour since election day.
Biden also has positive approval among the wider electorate as he begins his term, with an overall favourable rating of just under 50%, compared with an unfavourable rating of around 43%, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling aggregator.
Going by Rozsa’s logic, Biden is more likely to retain his high approval ratings if he stands by his pledge at a campaign event last May that there was “no way in hell” he would pardon Trump if elected president.
Some argue that the practicality of that position has since changed, however.
In an article for NBC News Think, George Conway - husband of former Trump advisor Kellyanne - argues that if Biden “hopes to fulfill his pledge to unify the nation, he should do the unthinkable and pardon” his predecessor.
Although Trump would be “one of the least deserving recipients of a federal pardon in history”, being granted clemency would be a “double-edged sword”, requiring “an admission that he was guilty of the crimes for which he has been pardoned”, writes Conway, who co-founded Republican anti-Trump group The Lincoln Project.
As “unsatisfying as a pardon would sit with many of us”, he concludes, this “tough decision” by Biden could “heal the nation and foreclose the possibility of an ongoing cycle of retribution after political parties change control of the government”.