The Constitution endures
Syracuse Post Standard
Editor’s note: Since this was written prior to the inauguration, it was moderated to reflect the presence.
For all of our reverence for the Constitution, the past four years have taught Americans that a great deal of our political stability depends on traditions, precedents and norms reaching back to our fledgling republic.
George Washington’s decision to step away from the presidency after two terms became the unwritten rule for every subsequent president until FDR. After losing the bitter election of 1800, John Adams left Washington before dawn to ensure a peaceful transfer of power to Thomas Jefferson, setting the precedent for a handoff from one political party to another. Richard Nixon (in 1960) and Al Gore (in 2000) conceded defeat in razor-close elections to protect the institution and preserve national unity.
Inaugurations have gone forward in times of peace and war, prosperity and strife. But there is no precedent for an inauguration conducted after a violent insurrection incited by the outgoing president against the Congress certifying the election of the incoming one. One has to reach back to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 for a swearing-in guarded by the military against a domestic threat.
And yet, here we are.
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. [took] the oath of office at noon Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol, with Washington in lockdown, no spectators allowed and 25,000 National Guard soldiers standing guard at a security perimeter called, unironically, the Green Zone.
President Donald Trump [did] not attend his successor’s inauguration, the last in the long list of norms he shattered over the past four tumultuous years. He planned a grand military sendoff before boarding Air Force One for the last time as president and flying to Florida. An impeachment trial on a charge of inciting his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 guarantees the former president will still loom large in the public discourse. But we are ready to turn the page.
The task ahead of Biden is enormous. The coronavirus pandemic is growing worse. The vaccine rollout is a mess. Americans are suffering economically. The nation is deeply divided. And then there is the rest of the world to worry about.
Biden’s inaugural address set Americans’ expectations for his presidency. Presidential historian Jon Meacham, a friend of Biden who had a hand in drafting his victory speech, is likely to lend his writerly touch to this one. Meacham, a biographer of Jefferson, might well reach back to the third president’s conciliatory tone after a divisive election that eventually was settled by a vote of the House of Representatives:
“… every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” Jefferson said in his first inaugural address. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans. We are all federalists.”
Such a call for unity sounds naive in light of the events of Jan. 6. But whatever else may happen, one thing is for sure. The transfer of power happened, like clockwork. The term of the old president ended at noon, and the new president assumed the office. How do we know? The Constitution says so. No norms required.