Biden changes America in an instant -- but tougher challenges loom

As a military procession and parade escorted President Joe Biden's motorcade to the White House for the first time as President, Biden and his family exited their vehicles to walk the final stretch.

Posted: Jan 21, 2021 12:51 PM
Updated: Jan 21, 2021 12:51 PM

On the first morning of Joe Biden's presidency, America has changed utterly, and not at all.

Already shredding Donald Trump's legacy, Biden is demonstrating the vast potential of his office to turn the nation's direction on a dime. He has watched nine presidents since coming to Washington, and it shows. The new commander in chief quickly reached for familiar levers of power and showed a mastery of the theatrics of his office to supercharge a new political era in the hours after taking his inaugural oath.

Every step Biden took on Wednesday -- from worshipping with rival congressional leaders before his swearing-in to an inaugural address that stressed healing, unity and truth through a trip to Arlington National Cemetery with three ex-presidents -- sent a clear message: America is on a new course.

When Biden bowed his head in silent prayer in memory of pandemic victims during his address and spent the day behind a mask, he demonstrated respect for the virus's dangerous potential never shown by his predecessor. In the process he pointed to the route out of the most serious of what he said were "cascading" national crises that will assail his early months in office.

Thanks to a towering pile of executive orders on the Oval Office desk, the US is returning to the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization and ending a travel ban from some mainly Muslim nations.

In the time it took him to write his name, Biden choked off funding for the border wall, which was the single most galvanizing cause of Trumpism.

Biden's swift signatures did not just send a signal around the world that America as its allies have known it for decades was back. They exposed a key weakness of Trump's presidency: Ill-thought-out executive power grabs to win a headline for a strongman president are easy to undo -- and lack the permanence of legislative triumphs, which the former president had little interest in pursuing.

A political storm has passed

All day Wednesday, there was a sense of lightness in the air as political opponents went out of their way to be courteous to one another, perhaps out of respect for Biden's call for an end to the "uncivil war" of modern politics.

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri recalled how former President Barack Obama had sung "Amazing Grace" at a memorial service after a South Carolina gun massacre. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota called Blunt her "friend." Congressional leaders even shared jokes. There was none of the walking on eggshells or fawning before the commander in chief that had been required by Trump's brittle public persona. His removal from Washington, for a few hours at least, appeared to change the character of the city.

Biden's early events, meanwhile, suggest that the President will now speak to the country in calm, well-measured speeches rather than raging tweets and rambling monologues.

In the evening, Biden's new press secretary, Jen Psaki, delivered a news briefing that broke with recent tradition in that it was not designed solely to provide mic drop moments for Fox News. And Biden vowed to fire anyone who treated co-workers with disrespect -- a code his predecessor would have quickly violated.

In essence, Biden's conduct Wednesday, as he often reflected credit on his subordinates and coaxed the American people to live up to their country's core values, demonstrated deep respect for the institution of the presidency itself, and a willingness to make his term about something other than himself.

Kindness and decency are back.

New diversity

In many ways, the 46th President has returned Washington to its old normal. And Trump's supporters no doubt will see the restoration of decorum at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as a sign the "establishment" is back in control.

Yet the sight of the nation's first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president, Kamala Harris, being sworn in suggested the capital isn't just back in the hands of its old White establishment.

Sixty years ago, an aged Robert Frost recited a poem at the inauguration of a young President John Kennedy. On Wednesday, a young Black woman, 23-year-old national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, delivered an ode of stunning rhetorical power to bless the swearing-in of an old President. Her appearance reflected the shifted morality of the White House with its new occupant and previewed a culture of inclusion that honors the unfinished national racial reckoning of last year.

By late on a chilly Washington night, it felt like far more than a few hours since Trump had lifted off from Joint Base Andrews as the fading bars of "My Way" rolled over the closing credits of an aberrant four-year term.

Tough days ahead

Yet throughout the day there were reminders of the challenges that will decide the fate of Biden's presidency -- underscoring that while he nailed the early optics, reality is a tougher fix.

Speeches can't correct the racial and economic inequality that scars America. A climate crisis is exacerbating drought and wildfires. Trump's presidency has validated surging White nationalism. Abroad, a new power in the East, China, is challenging American dominance.

The eerie silence that greeted Biden's motorcade as he drove to the White House through empty streets was a reminder of the security net clamped on Washington after Trump incited an insurrection against Congress only two weeks ago.

The new President is no fool, and he knows that many even on his own side roll their eyes at his somewhat old-fashioned belief that America is one country -- even as millions of Trump voters believe falsely that he stole the election.

"I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy," he said in his inaugural address. "I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real."

But Biden made a compelling case that despite national fractures that are as deep as at any time since the Civil War, the American experiment is strong. Never mind that the country often seems to be heading off in two separate cultural, racial and social directions.

"We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts," Biden said. "If we show a little tolerance and humility -- if we're willing to stand in the other person's shoes just for a moment."

Those are fine thoughts from a lifetime optimist. But the coming Senate impeachment trial of ex-President Trump will be sure to reopen old wounds. Some of the executive actions Biden took Wednesday on climate and immigration will have already closed off potential Republican votes for his own goals.

'We will get through this together'

The new White House will spend the first full day of Biden's term on Thursday addressing the crushing threat of the pandemic -- after over 4,000 more Americans died as inauguration commemorations took place.

While offering the tantalizing promise of a healthy future, Biden delivered a somber warning that the road ahead will be strewn with loss.

"We will need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter," he said, pleading for politics to be finally put aside during the pandemic's horrible endgame.

Biden's frank talk was another notable break from the approach of his predecessor, who denied the virus was an issue, predicted it would miraculously disappear and undermined his own government's effort to slow its murderous spread.

The plan Biden is proposing -- masking, social distancing and a new push to speed up a disastrously slow vaccine rollout -- will require a concentrated effort by a united country; a metaphor, in a sense, for his entire philosophy and approach to the presidency.

"I promise you this: As the Bible says, weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning. We will get through this, together," Biden said.

The days to come will show whether the new President's faith in his country is justified.

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