Given all this, how is a President Biden to act? Some clues might lie in the records of those presidents who followed not successful disrupter presidents — all of whom succeeded in putting their handpicked successors into power, one more proof of the popularity of their projects — but in those presidents who followed what Mr. Trump now appears to be: not a true disrupter at all, but a merely contentious president, with a rejected agenda.
These would include the likes of both Adamses, John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Succeeding even such unpopular figures has often not been easy. But here a good model for Mr. Biden might be found in President Ulysses S. Grant, who replaced Andrew Johnson, an accidental president who ended up being at least as widely hated as Donald Trump. The slogan of Grant’s campaign — and his administration — came from his famous reply accepting the Republican Party nomination: “Let us have peace.”
This was more than merely a pious wish for harmony. Peace, for Grant, would mean suppressing the first Ku Klux Klan by force and trying to guarantee the civil and voting rights of newly free African-Americans through signing the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and supporting the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. He also appointed his longtime aide, Ely Parker, a Native American from the Seneca nation, commissioner of Indian Affairs, as part of a bold new “peace policy” of justice and reconciliation with Native American peoples throughout the continent. “Peace,” in other words, was not simply a sentiment, but an active effort to right old wrongs and forge a path to a more just and equal future.
Things didn’t work out as Grant hoped. White supremacists ended Reconstruction and canceled civil rights for Black people almost as soon as he was out of office. His Native American policies, well-intentioned though they were, proved to be misconceived and meaningless in the face of whites’ continuing desire to grab Indian lands. The runaway corruption of his own administration — and throughout American politics at the time — along with an economic crash in 1873, negated Grant’s large majorities in the Congress, and most of his reforms. But Grant’s essential decency shone through — at the time, and in a legacy that at least demonstrated what might be possible in American race relations (and for which his standing in the historical record has skyrocketed of late).
Or — for another example, there is Mr. Biden’s old boss, President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama’s caution frustrated many of us who had supported him, and he, too, ended up losing a congressional majority of a size that Mr. Biden will never get to enjoy. But he did guide America out of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, passed the first major, social welfare reform in forty years, and established a new presidential benchmark of decency, class and incorruptibility for the American presidency.
If Mr. Biden can emulate this achievement, it will be a good start toward mending the country without surrendering his principles or the reform platform he ran on. He will probably have to do it mostly through executive orders and key appointments — choosing a truly liberal secretary of labor or head of the Environmental Protection Agency would alone do wonders — but if nothing else, maybe the sense of empathy he will restore to the White House can pull him, and us, through.
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