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We are now a week into the Biden administration, and President Joe Biden has set some clear and surprisingly dominant markers.
Biden has kept firmly to his constitutional responsibilities in what appears to be an attempt to remind Americans of the official roles of different branches of government in our democracy. He has deliberately refused to intrude on the Department of Justice, saying he would leave it up to DOJ which cases to pursue. When a reporter asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki whether Biden believes the Senate should convict the former president on the incitement of insurrection charge in his upcoming Senate trial, Psaki answered: “Well, he’s no longer in the Senate, and he believes that it’s up to the Senate and Congress to determine how they will hold the former president accountable and what the mechanics and timeline of that process will be.”
Within his sphere in the executive branch, though, Biden is carving out a distinctively new presidency. He is restoring the norms and guardrails of the office. We have had daily press briefings all week, which is the way things used to be done. The press secretary either answers questions respectfully or dodges them, as is her job, but there are no insults or accusations of “fake news.” We also get the traditional “readouts” when the president speaks to a foreign leader, giving us a sense of where the country stands with regard to its allies and rivals.
But Biden is also striking out in a surprisingly authoritative way. He has hit the ground running. He began work on the very afternoon of his inauguration and has not let up since. He has signed a pile of executive measures, seemingly adapting the policy of the Trump administration to change the direction of the nation quickly through executive actions.
But while Trump introduced measures that were applauded by his base but widely opposed by other Americans, Biden’s measures are genuinely popular. Many of them rescind policies of the previous administration, but others move the country in a new direction, resurrecting the idea that the government has a role to play in regulating our economy and protecting individuals in our society. He has rejoined the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords, scrapped the transgender ban in the military, expanded food assistance programs, and created new mechanisms to fight Covid-19. He directed the Department of Justice not to renew contracts with private prisons, which prospered under the previous administration.
Biden has also made a mark already in foreign affairs. Exactly four years ago today, the entire senior administrative team of the State Department resigned, unwilling or unable to stay in office under the Trump administration and its original secretary of state Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive officer of ExxonMobil. In foreign affairs, Trump tried to reassert American power unilaterally, much as the nation had been able to do during the Cold War, but weakened traditional alliances in Europe and instead turned the nation toward Russia and Saudi Arabia.
On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, a deeply experienced diplomat who was first the deputy national security advisor and then the deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama. “This is the man for the job,” the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jim Risch (R-ID), told Lara Jakes of the New York Times. Blinken set out immediately to rebuild alliances that were weakened over the past four years, recognizing that the world is now a multilateral one.
Notably, the Biden administration immediately parted from its predecessor with its approach to Russia. While Trump refused to question Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden has taken a much more traditional position, one that reflects the position of both the Democrats and the Republicans of four years ago. Just three days before Biden took office, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to his homeland after a near fatal poisoning in August by Putin’s operatives. Navalny’s return forced the hands of both Putin and, within days, Biden. Putin had Navalny arrested, sparking nationwide protests by Russians who are tired of the nation’s poor economy and like Navalny’s skewering of Russian government corruption.
The collision of Putin and Navalny just as Biden took office permitted Biden to use the moment to indicate the direction of his own foreign policy. Just three days after Biden took office, the State Department released a statement condemning the Russian government’s suppression of its people and its media and calling both for Navalny’s release and for an explanation of his poisoning. It concluded, “The United States will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and partners in defense of human rights – whether in Russia or wherever they come under threat,” a statement that indicates America is resuming its traditional stance.
Today, Biden and Putin spoke for the first time, and the readout indicates that the equation of the last four years has changed. The leaders talked of extending nuclear and arms control treaties. Then Biden reaffirmed U.S. support for Ukraine and called out the recent Russian hack on U.S. businesses and government departments, the reports of Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, Navalny’s poisoning, and interference in the 2020 U.S. election. According to the readout, “President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies.”
Biden has refused to get drawn into the drama taking place in Congress, simply forging ahead with his own agenda. Congress, meanwhile, is also adjusting to having a new game in town. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tried to gum up the works, refusing to permit the Democrats to organize the Senate unless they promised not to end the filibuster, the Senate rule that enables a minority to stop any measure that can’t command 60 votes. New Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said he had no plans to end the old rule (for legislation—it is already gone for judicial appointments) but refused to make any such promise. The filibuster would permit McConnell to stop any Democratic legislation, and Schumer needs at least the threat of it to prevent McConnell from abusing the rule. McConnell backed down.
Interestingly, though, Tuesday night McConnell tweeted, “Today, I made clear that if Democrats ever attack the key Senate rules, it would drain the consent and comity out of the institution. A scorched-earth Senate would hardly be able to function. It wouldn’t be a progressive’s dream. It would be a nightmare. I guarantee it.”
McConnell is, of course, the person primarily responsible for the current scorched-earth Senate, so his comment was a bit rich, but it was nonetheless an interesting statement. It is a truism that threats are a sign of weakness.
As state-level Republicans embraced Trump and QAnon, 45 Republican Senators led by Rand Paul (R-KY) agreed that the former president should not be tried for inciting the January 6 insurrection or trying to overturn the 2020 election results. Google joined the many other corporations that say they will not give money to any Republicans who voted against the counting of the certified ballots on January 6. The collision between these two warring groups cannot be avoided once the Senate impeachment trial starts two weeks from today.
While the Republicans split and congress people struggle for power, Biden has stayed strictly within his constitutional role, where he has worked at breakneck speed. Staying out of the partisan fray in Congress, he has earned good marks from Americans for his first week, ending it with an approval rating of 56%.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter, Letters from an American: subscribe here.