President-elect Joe Biden must look forward—but the rest of us must contend with the past.
The most immediate challenge any new president faces is deciding what not to do. For Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the catastrophes of the past four days have not radically changed the way they should make those choices. One week ago, it was imperative that they mainly look forward, to the public-health, economic, and foreign-affairs emergencies that they are inheriting. That is still their duty and imperative now. But for the rest of the government, and much of society, the barbaric and potentially catastrophic storming of the U.S. Capitol, and the culpability of public and private figures who egged the mob on, demand a response. The response of Congress should be to impeach; that of law enforcement should be to arrest and prosecute every participant who can be identified; and that of civil society should be to ensure that there are consequences for those who chose violence and fascism at a decisive moment in the country’s history. Usually “letting bygones be bygones” is wise advice for individuals and for societies. Not in this case.
In the current issue of The Atlantic, I quote Jack Watson, who was centrally involved in two presidential transitions, on the imbalance between the countless hopes, goals, and ambitions with which any new presidency begins, and the handful of challenges it simply cannot ignore. “You have to separate what must be done, soon, from all the other things you might want to do later in the administration,” Watson said.
For this new president and vice president, clearheadedness about this choice is more important, and more difficult, than it was for nearly any of their predecessors. It’s more important because they are moving into a house that’s on fire. They are taking responsibility for a range of emergencies not seen since Franklin D. Roosevelt followed Herbert Hoover in 1933, and exceeded only by what Abraham Lincoln faced in 1861. Just a few items on a very long list are a surging pandemic, a damaged and unsustainably imbalanced economy, and a governing system whose basic principles are under direct attack and whose operational competence has been hollowed out.