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A new day, and a new moment for America.
Time to let the healing begin.
Republicans, Democrats and people across the nation echoed those themes when expressing their hopes for Joe Biden’s new administration and a future less fraught with anger and division in the United States.
“There are times in America that have felt very charged with political tension and a great sense of fear and discord. But that’s the beauty of the new election: to turn the page on that and try to move on to something more positive,” said Ken Gormley, president of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
The former law professor is a constitutional law scholar who has written extensively on the presidency, penned two best sellers and edited a book of essays on the presidency and the U.S. Constitution.
Though some have compared President Biden assuming office in the wake of an angry mob’s attack on the U.S. Capitol to Lincoln taking office as a nation was pulling apart over slavery, Gormley views events through a broader lens of history. He said when presidents have assumed office following periods of great turmoil, they often have moved to soothe an anxious nation. Warren Harding (1921-23) moved to undo some of the harsh restrictions on speech and expression enacted in the final years of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency and ratcheted back the conversation about a socialist threat.
Franklin Roosevelt (1933-45) moved to intervene in the economic policies of a nation that had been thrust into a deep depression, as his predecessor Herbert Hoover refused to act.
In the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford (1974-77) and Jimmy Carter (1977-81) emphasized ethics in government. Ford pardoned Nixon, and Carter went on to pardon many of those who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War.
Coming into office following a rush of disinformation about mail-in ballots cast in the middle of a raging pandemic that sent the economy spinning, even as calls for racial justice caromed around the nation, Biden faces multiple crises.
“There’s really no precedent exactly for this, so we’re writing history here, I’m afraid,” Gormley said.
‘Soundness of our republic’
Despite the uncertainty of a new administration taking office two weeks after a domestic attack on the Capitol, many are optimistic that this chapter of the American story can end on a positive note.
Bill Bretz, chairman of the Westmoreland County Republican Party — many of whose members were ardent Donald Trump supporters — couldn’t agree more with Biden that the nation’s top priority must remain the pandemic.
“The hope that I have is that we continue in a positive direction with recovery from the coronavirus,” Bretz said. “And I hope we don’t adopt policies that run counter to the things that were successful in the run-up to the pandemic. That goes to taxation, trade with overseas nations, energy development and independence. Those are the keys.”
Moreover, Bretz said there is a chance for political unity.
“I think the divisive rhetoric is driving a wedge in between folks that is really artificial. I do think we can all work together,” he said. “We may have slightly different visions of where we want to go, but on the whole, the soundness of our republic is the thing that counts.”
Political scientist David Chambers, who chairs the political science department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said there’s little question that Biden likewise grasps the big picture where the nation is concerned.
Biden, a Scranton native, was elected to the U.S. Senate to represent Delaware in 1972 — two weeks before his 30th birthday, the age constitutionally required to hold such a position. He held his Senate seat until 2009, when he began two terms as vice president with Barack Obama.
Now 78, Biden was sworn in as the 46th U.S. president on Wednesday.
“His entire professional life has been in public service. He is probably among the most well-trained presidents we’ve ever had,” Chambers said.
Some have been quick to deride Biden as part of the problem with Washington, citing his 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president. Gormley argues otherwise.
That service has prepared Biden with experience few can match, he said.
“At this time, when there are so many pieces of the government that are in shambles, you need someone who can step into these spaces and know what he’s doing,” Gormley said. “Biden has experience at every level. He knows how the legislature works, and, if anyone can work to reach compromise there, he can. He has been vice president and knows how the executive works. He’s done foreign policy. And he can walk into nearly every city in the U.S. and know the leader there and what they need.”
Tracy Baton is a grassroots organizer from Pittsburgh’s East End who pulled together the local Women’s March every year during Trump’s presidency. She said she is optimistic that the Biden-Harris administration can advance what she sees as one of the most progressive platforms of any administration in her lifetime.
Her optimism — the optimism of an urban Black female activist — is founded in part on an experience she hopes all Americans can share soon. It harks back to what Bretz, the Westmoreland Republican leader, cited: controlling the pandemic.
“I got vaccinated, and that is the fount of all hope,” Baton said.
“One of the things many people are hoping for is the restoration of optimism — of hope for the American promise, and the American future,” she continued.
She dreams of an America that acknowledges its racial history and works to erase disparities and level hurdles to racial equality.
“I have every confidence that Joe Biden is aware that a Black constituency elected him — and not just any Black constituency, but one that is committed to our cities and committed to building up and not tearing down,” Baton said. “And that constituency has been a moderating factor in American politics for 50 years.”
While the new administration faces an economy in shambles, a raging virus and calls for racial justice all at the same time, none of those are new to the American picture. It is the combination of multiple crises on Day One that is perhaps more daunting than anything Biden’s predecessors have faced at the starting gate.
Gormley said those challenges are compounded by a disinformation crisis and the world of “alternative facts” that have metastasized across the digital landscape.
Multiple controversies over mail-in balloting that opponents used to cast doubt on an election Biden won by 7 million votes festered and points to a need for extra care going forward, said two local women on opposite sides of the aisle.
Tricia Cunningham, a Washington Township resident and ardent Trump supporter, traveled the nation campaigning for the former president. She said her hope lies not in anything Washington can do, but in Pennsylvania ironing out bumps in its election procedures.
The state, she said, was ground zero for controversy as candidates focused their energies here and voters flocked to new vote-by-mail options in numbers never seen or anticipated. Of the 6.8 million votes cast by Pennsylvanians in the presidential election, 2.6 million were cast by mail, an option allowed after Act 77, Pennsylvania’s new election law, easily passed in the Republican-controlled state legislature in 2019.
“We had a lot of faults on all fronts,” Cunningham said. “But my hope is Pennsylvania repeals Act 77. Everybody is gathering their pieces and dusting it off. We saw what the problems were, and now we need to move forward.
Michelle McFall, a Murrysville Democrat and local party activist, helped organize an independent push for Biden in the affluent Republican community along the Allegheny-Westmoreland county line. Like Cunningham, she sees solving issues that led to questions about the election integrity as critical.
Unlike Cunningham, she is not advocating casting aside the new procedure. Instead, she wants to ensure there is no cause for questions of any sort in the future.
McFall said her group will focus on education about mail-in balloting: what’s involved, how to request and use a mail-in ballot and how to cast a properly completed ballot in a timely fashion to ensure there are no questions about any vote being counted.
“First and foremost, we need to get past this moment of discord, turmoil and war,” McFall said.
“We need to find the things we can agree on. We’re hoping, despite all this turmoil, Joe Biden can start moving us toward unity.”
Comments like that give Gormley cause for hope.
“It’s encouraging to see politicians in Washington and Pennsylvania realizing that citizens do want them working together,” he said. “I do think, even though it was a hard way to get there, that we may be poised to turn the page because people realize this is not where we want to be.”
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