There’s no playbook for Joe Biden now.
There wasn’t on Wednesday, either, as a mob laid deadly siege to the Capitol. But it wasn’t too complicated for the president-elect to get onstage in Wilmington, Delaware, that day and insist that “this is not who we are,” warn that the insurgency “borders on sedition,” and urge Donald Trump to get on TV and call it all off. There was no precedent — no instructions — for Biden on Thursday, either. But it was still an easy call for him to label the previous day “one of the darkest” in the country’s history as he decried the obvious, “totally unacceptable” disparity in law enforcement’s treatment of the white Trump-instigated rioters compared to that of last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrators. There wasn’t even anything remotely complicated about his choice to remind Americans, “Our president is not above the law.”
But what about now that his party is united in demanding Trump’s resignation and threatening impeachment, less than two weeks before Biden’s inauguration?
“He has got to be not just the president-elect but the moral leader and the calming leader and the voice for America while we have a president who is literally smoldering in the White House, spewing anger,” said Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, who for weeks had been warning of the threat of violence from Trump supporters.
Biden has made no secret of his view that his role as president will be as much about civic healing as about economic and global recovery from both the pandemic and the Trump years more broadly. On Wednesday, when senators from both parties were sheltering for hours in a secure room in the Capitol, they fell silent only once: when Biden came on television to address the nation and denounce the violence. Each of them applauded when he finished speaking, Klobuchar said.
Faced with uncharted territory and a potential constitutional crisis as lawmakers explore ways to oust the outgoing president, Biden has opted to play a relatively light public role so far and to highlight the distinct roles of the presidency and Congress by refusing to weigh in heavily on Trump’s fitness for office and what should come next.
Viewed from the outside, it’s a politically uncomfortable position: Biden is close to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, but he sidestepped the first question he faced about Trump’s fate and a possible second impeachment, which they favor. “What the Congress decides to do is for them to decide,” he said on Friday afternoon. He would also not go as far as his leading Senate ally, Delaware’s Chris Coons, who called for Republican senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley — widely seen as accessories to the violence thanks to their objections to Biden’s certification as the winner of the 2020 election — to be expelled from the body. Biden just said they should be defeated at the polls.
Biden’s top elected allies on Capitol Hill see no need for him to do anything other than hang back on the impeachment talk and to leave it to them. “We have three distinct branches of government. He’s preparing for one; we’ll continue our work with the other and hopefully do it in such a way that it will be able to withstand the scrutiny of the third branch,” said South Carolina representative Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip who saved Biden’s presidential campaign with an endorsement last year and who is one of the few lawmakers with unfettered access to Biden’s ear when he wants it. Clyburn said he had not yet spoken to Biden as of Friday afternoon, as House Democrats neared impeaching Trump for a second time. He said he didn’t anticipate needing Biden to weigh in at all.
Having Biden’s explicit support for an impeachment trial would be “helpful,” said Florida representative Charlie Crist, one of Biden’s first endorsers, but it’s far from necessary. Instead, many of the incoming president’s allies said, Biden would be wise to continue speaking out occasionally over the next two weeks to counter Trump’s antics but to keep his focus on ensuring that the transition to his government can happen especially swiftly now, after months of obstruction. While the circumstances have forced Biden “to speak out in ways that a president-elect [usually wouldn’t],” in the words of Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey, they have also kick-started conversations among senators about speeding up the confirmation processes of his Cabinet and the rest of his administration team. So far, that looks like “having some more engagement” between nominees and senators and starting “hearings, which would have to be virtual for now, to get some of that work done now, before the 20th,” Casey said.
That’s a shift, but it’s one that even mild-mannered Democrats on the Hill are demanding. “I’m a patient person, but I’m running low on patience of late,” Casey said. After Wednesday, some close to Biden now expect less showboating Republican opposition to some of his nominees, and not just because of the dual wins in Georgia that handed Democrats the Senate. “The plans of a few of our colleagues have gone up in smoke,” said Clyburn. “I believe these nominees are going to be able to be confirmed without a whole lot of fanfare.”
Biden is likely to address cameras multiple times in the coming days, as more information comes out about how Wednesday’s riot transpired and as his own understanding of what’s needed from him shifts. “He needs to be the healer-in-chief, but being the healer isn’t all soft,” said Ohio representative Tim Ryan. “Sometimes it’s about being very candid about who’s doing the misbehaving in order for us all to be on the same page.” That’s a political opportunity for Biden, Ryan continued. “I think there are a lot of people who voted for Trump who were appalled by what happened yesterday. You can’t convince me that 70 million Americans think that’s great.”
Still, there are practical matters, too. Ryan oversees the Capitol Police budget and has spent the past two days demanding answers and promising firings. He said Biden can’t look past the preparations for his first day in office and the behind-the-scenes coordination with the Trump administration’s security planners. “I don’t think he needs to oversaturate [the news himself] but to press on the transition team: Make sure that the information is being shared with how we’re going to protect the inauguration.”
“If people didn’t cherish our peaceful transfer of power before,” said Klobuchar, who co-leads the committee for the inauguration, “they sure will on that day.”