Ursula von der Leyen – America’s day: Lessons in power
By Kayode Robert Idowu
It’s a new day in America.’ That was the first tweet sent out by Joe Biden as the incoming President of the United States (POTUS) moments before he took the oath of office and shortly after his predecessor, Donald Trump, left Washington area for the last time as president. Later in his inauguration address at the US Capitol, Biden described the transition as “democracy’s day, a day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve.” He declared: “America has been tested anew, and America has risen to the challenge,” adding: “The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded.”
Biden’s advent in office effectively pulled the curtain on nearly the most roguish era of American presidency that the Trump years marked. The former leader had by his personality tendencies energised the demons of racial supremacy and ultra-nationalism and rolled back the liberal multiculturalism that historically characterised America, leaving the country in its most disunited state since the civil war. The Biden administration promises an opportunity for rapprochement and national healing, and the new president strongly pushed for this in his inaugural speech. He called for a fresh start as the country experiences “historic moment of crisis and challenge,” saying: “Without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.” Biden highlighted the various challenges currently facing America, most notably the Covid-19 pandemic in which more than 400,000 lives have been lost, urging that: “To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity.”
But the 20th January event was not just an American affair, there were germane reasons that change of guard also resonated across the globe. One is: Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ nationalism had led the country, which was looked to as a world leader, into global isolation that Biden promised during electioneering to urgently reverse. And upon taking office last Wednesday the 46th POTUS boldly signalled that America was back, to the delight of its international partners. On the heels of his inauguration, he signed a raft of executive orders that marked the start of an aggressive plan to unpick the Trump presidency, among them orders by which the US headed back into the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization from which his predecessor had pulled the country. Biden also wasted no time purging Trump’s imprints from American values by defusing the xenophobic fervour of the outgone era; among his executive actions were orders that rescinded Trump’s ban on travellers from some nations, and eased visa restrictions on citizens of others including Nigeria.
During his inaugural address at the US Capitol, the new POTUS had paused in prayer for the more than 400,000 persons in America who died of the coronavirus pandemic – signalling that the days of ignoring the threat of the pandemic as characterised Trump’s presidency were over. By way of practical steps, he swiftly signed the “100 Days Masking Challenge” through which the new administration asked Americans to wear facemask for the next 100 days, besides a national mask mandate requiring wearing of masks on all federal premises.
Friendly nations applauded the fresh dispensation in America. “This new dawn in America is the moment we’ve been waiting for so long. Europe is ready for a new start with our oldest and most trusted partner,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in Brussels. Non-aligned Nigeria was not left out as President Muhammadu Buhari said he looked forward to Biden’s presidency with “great hope and optimism for strengthening of existing cordial relationships, working together to tackle global terrorism, climate change, poverty and improvement of economic ties and expansion of trade.” Even adversarial nations like China hoped for a reset of ties with the US. “In the past four years, the US administration has made fundamental mistakes in its strategic perception of China,” the country’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said at a news conference ahead of the US inauguration, urging the new Biden administration to “look at China rationally and objectively (and) meet China halfway.”
For Africa and other regions of the world challenged by autocratic tendencies of leaders, the affirmation of the 2020 US election results and inauguration of Biden marked a luminous showpiece of the triumph of democracy. The refusal by ex-President Trump to accept defeat in that poll and his shenanigans to overturn its results had emboldened autocrats elsewhere, such that when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was accused of brutalizing opponents in the run-up to the recent presidential election in the East African country, he equated the opposition actors in Uganda to anti-democracy protesters who stormed the US Congress on 6th January to abort its certification of Biden’s win and were strong-handedly beaten back by security agents. The Trump aberration had knocked the US off its historical pedestal as the world’s beacon of democracy, and it is now hoped the emergence of Biden would restore the country back.
The last hours of Trump in the US presidency were a profound lesson in power. From ruling the global airwaves and being the most domineering focus of the world’s attention, Trump left office with a grumpy whimper. Twitter did not help matters by shutting the ‘Commander-in-Tweets’ out of his most favoured means of communication. The manner of his exit portrayed someone fully aware he was headed into inconsequence and maximising the last minutes of significance that constitutional order afforded him. Now that he is off the stage, all he has left is the verdict of history that all leaders ought to be mindful of while power yet gives them relevance.
Trump held to the bitter end the lie that the election was stolen from him. He never once spoke with Biden since the November 2020 poll and was the first POTUS in 150 years to shun the inauguration of a successor, though he kept faith with the age-long presidential tradition of leaving a parting advice for the incomer. On the heels of taking the oath on Wednesday, Biden confirmed that Trump left him “a very generous letter” that he refrained from disclosing its content because it was private and he would not talk about it until he talks to Trump. But the irrepressible social media have thrown up an apparently pseudo-narrative based on familiar tendencies of Trump, showing the letter to be a cheerless, accusatory one-liner stating: “Joe, you know I won.”
Despite disruptions fomented by the ex-president, however, the decency of constitutional order glittered through. Trump was the first American leader in modern history to leave Washington while still officially president. His tenure expired at 12noon on Wednesday when the new president took the oath; but because he chose to shun Biden’s inauguration, he left the White House much earlier and took his last flight with the presidential crafts still designated ‘Marine One’ and ‘Air Force One’. The helicopter flight for an outgoing president is typically known as Executive One, while the airplane flight is usually called a Special Air Mission, which conventionally are courtesies extended to the outgoer by the incomer. But Trump left the White House for the last time early Wednesday en route Palm Beach where he has chosen as base for his post-presidency life; and by his early departure, he retained the full trappings of presidency for the entire flight to Florida.
The catch, however, is: while Washington bustled with Biden’s inauguration, only about 200 family members and personal staffers attended a short farewell ceremony at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland where Trump promised to “always fight” and wished the incoming Biden administration “great luck.” Even his vice president, Mike Pence, did not see him off and rather attended Biden’s inauguration at the Capitol. For Trump, the world had revolved away. Such is the transience of power.
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