Amid all the exhausted relief and Twitter euphoria, it’s worth being honest: The inauguration of Joe Biden to the presidency was a dark scene overall, with strong decline-of-the-republic vibes. A wind-swept, wintry, barricaded Capitol; a denuded Mall; a military occupation. The establishment in masks, with a few celebrities mixed in; almost everybody looking aged, gray, laid waste by time. The ex-president absent, unmentioned, but a shadow over the proceedings all the same.
But for Biden, who gave a solid, human version of the solid, human speeches that carried him to this office, this darkness is also his opportunity, because there are good reasons to think that the most immediate shadows can be dispelled (and a certain amount of political credit taken) without superhuman effort from his administration.
The pandemic will be his first and foremost test, but even the much-too-slow trajectory of vaccinations that we’re on right now (joined with the much-too-high rate of infection) promises something close to herd immunity by summer. Combine that trend with a Democratic-controlled Congress that can agree, at least, on spending a lot of money quickly, and it won’t take any extraordinary developments to make a Biden-era recovery the major American story one January from today.
The test posed by QAnon and militia-style extremism, meanwhile, might be less a generational battle and more a matter of watching the enthusiasm for Jan. 6-style confrontations evaporate as the FBI ramps up arrests. (The sparse-to-nonexistent protests around the country today are at least suggestive evidence on that score.)
Politically, if Biden gets an economic recovery and a retreating pandemic by fall 2021, then he has advantages no matter what happens to the right. If the story of the next two years is a Trump-fomented Republican civil war, that could solidify Biden’s center-left majority and push moderate Republican senators closer to their Democratic colleagues. If the story is a Trump fade, and a revival of GOP deficit hawkery and other forms of pre-Trump conservatism, that lets Biden simultaneously take credit for normalizing Washington while drawing contrasts with a Republican agenda that’s pretty unpopular absent the leaven of populism.
The more ideologically ambitious goals that Biden set in his speech — defeating systemic racism, rolling back climate change — are misty and aspirational enough that for a time he can win plaudits from his party’s activists just by making some basic not-Trump moves on policy, without committing too fully to anything too polarizing or ambitious. Indeed, if he’s lucky, it might take till his second term — or alternatively Kamala Harris’ 2024 primary campaign — for left-wing disillusionment to become a major (i.e., not just on Twitter) problem for his administration.
Obviously the scenario I’m describing could be disrupted by the entirely unexpected, as 2020 was by the pandemic, or it could be squandered if the Biden administration mires itself in culture-war battles or pushes too hard on liberal legislation. And Biden’s party still has little in the way of answers for the deepest problems in American life — a social crisis born of both liberal and right-wing forms of individualism, a deep cultural separation between the meritocracy and the masses, a stagnation and sclerosis given vivid embodiment by its own aged leadership.
But if those systemic problems made Trump president, the more visceral shock of the pandemic and the visceral incompetence (and worse) of his administration have created a space where a meaningful majority of Americans may be satisfied with recovery, normalcy, a phase of decadence that feels depressing but not dire.
Betting on that possibility made Joe Biden president. Now we’ll see what a man who spent his entire adult lifetime aspiring to the office can make out of his most unusual elevation.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.