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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

President Joe Biden faces high hurdles to unity but easier bar for demeanor

President Joe Biden signs documents including an inauguration

President Joe Biden signs documents including an inauguration declaration in the President's Room at the U.S. Capitol after his swearing-in on Wednesday. Credit: EPA / Jim Lo Scalzo

President Joe Biden spoke in the opening moments of his elected term of "uniting to fight the foes we face — anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness."

After four-plus years of Donald Trump's nasty messaging, Biden's 21-minute address offered balm. Endorsing decency over cynicism, truth over lies, love over hate, and reason over lunacy sets a tone that sounds welcome enough to a mass audience.

"With unity, we can do great things, important things," Biden said.

That used to be a very typical sentiment from someone who just won an election. For the moment the old normal works for Biden.

"We can treat each other with dignity and respect," he suggested. "We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature."

At age 78, however, Biden undoubtedly knows that an appeal to better manners will take the United States only so far. For contrast, he mixed in a patriotic tone of defiance.

"Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground," he said. "It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever."

Rest assured, tension will build again on all sides over whatever recovery programs, reforms and compromises Biden seeks. After all, White House soundscapes change far more easily than Capitol Hill landscapes.

Partisan knives have been razor-sharp for a long time. The new Senate class is split evenly between Biden's Democrats and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell's Republicans. With Vice President Kamala Harris able to break tie votes, Sen. Chuck Schumer heads the thinnest of all possible majorities. The House remains in Democratic hands under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but includes more Republicans than it did last year.

Even within party caucuses, unity will be elusive.

Loyalty to the ex-president's impulses has emerged as a fault line within Republican ranks. The defeated president has even talked about spinning off a new party from the GOP. On the Democratic side, so-called moderates and centrists can be expected to slug out key details of legislation with so-called leftists and radicals.

Some of the simpler portions of Biden's agenda won't require consensus to blossom, such as reversing Trump's transgender ban in the military and issuing new executive orders on the coronavirus, immigration and the environment. But agreement on big crisis-time bills and budgets will require hard bargaining.

Like most adults, Biden should have no trouble behaving more properly than Trump did. He'd only need to negotiate, refrain from tweeting malicious lies, set conventional ethical standards, avoid illegal campaign activity and nepotism, appoint qualified professionals and make proper use of the White House and other public resources.

Such is the low bar Trump set for the presidency. Hopefully Biden can raise the standards.

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