Chairman's Desk

Biden has taken up the challenge of his office and its history, proving Trump’s impact to be impermanent after all

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on May 8, 2021.

For those on Twitter or otherwise tuned into the political world’s 24-hour spin cycle, the past 100 days have been marked by an unusual phenomenon: the casual hum of political discourse in the absence of Donald J. Trump.

On the streets and in the news, Trump’s legacy marches on through COVID denial, hysteria about the “BIG LIE” of election fraud and the steady purging from the Republican Party of common sense and dissenting opinions.

But the troller-in-chief himself has been notably absent from the airwaves, providing nary a peep on social media. He’s barely engaging in interviews, or even appearing in public for that matter.

Of course, Trump’s quiet is due in part to his exile from the platforms he once held dear, but it is also a sign that his grip on American life is fading — that most Americans have tuned out his vision of the world.

Astonishingly, it may turn out that after all the insanity of the last four years, the damage and the impact of Trump may prove to have been all sound and fury. That the impact may be as ephemeral as the man is bellicose. With a legacy as enduring as a Popsicle in the summer sun, save for the wretched cultural division it has created.

For the past four years, many people — myself among them — have despaired at the damage Trump inflicted on the stature and legacy of the American presidency. He eschewed norms, abandoned allies and at times transformed the pageantry of the office into a pantomime or worse, an infomercial.

“How,” I wondered “will his successor ever achieve any measure of greatness with an office so diminished in stature both in the nation and the world?”

For that reason, many expected that any president who followed one as disruptive as President Trump would need to be a transitional president. One who would give the country time to catch its breath and to throw off the chaos of the previous four years.

After the Watergate scandal, for example, left the presidency in tatters, it took the presidencies of both Ford and Carter before Americans were ready for another transformative president — Ronald Reagan

Now, just over 100 days since Trump left office, President Biden has determined to avoid the same fate. Far from proving Trump’s erosion of the office irreparable, Biden has shown himself capable of being so much more than simply an interim president.

In fact, he has chosen the opposite playbook. Biden has surprised many by enthusiastically and unapologetically taking up the mantle of his party. He has paid a homage to its history by expanding the American social safety net in ways unprecedented since the mid-20th century. With a sure-footedness that belies his status as a rookie president, Biden is moving, leaps and bounds, to transform the role of the state in American life. If he succeeds, his legacy will be paralleled only by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.

What’s more, Biden’s undertaking is about much more than an injection of spending or increased supports for the middle and working classes. It is a move to reshape the social contract Americans have with one another and their government. And in doing so restore the stature — and power — of the presidency itself.

In his speech to both houses of Congress last month, Biden spoke of his plans as a “once in a generation investment in our families and our children,” acknowledging the position of his undertaking alongside FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. Whatever moniker is bestowed on his own administration’s legacy — even if there is none at all — no one can call it an interim presidency.

If he fails to pass the legislation foundational to his vision, Biden will nonetheless have proven that the president can attempt truly transformational change. That the office he holds can still live up to the challenge of its history. In doing so, Biden will help to clear the rubble of his predecessor, further drowning out the sound and fury of a past presidency which stood for little beyond its own grim world view.