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Trump leaves, disgraced but unpunished

As Joe Biden finally takes office as president, Donald Trump departs having finished his term still facing trial in the Senate after the House of Representatives impeached him for a second time.

That formal indignity is well deserved, although the process is an unwelcome intrusion on Biden’s long-sought day in the sun, after nearly half a century of dogged public service in the Senate and as vice president in the Obama administration. Trump can be counted on to leave kicking and screaming “foul” as most of the country breathes a sigh of relief.

At the same time, the destructive Trump experience provides a constructive opportunity for Biden to restore the nation as an exemplar of small-d democracy, with its commitment to equality of all regardless of race or creed.

Biden repeatedly said in his winning 2020 presidential campaign that he would work to restore “the soul of America” after Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. A good first step in that process would be a swift Senate vote to convict Trump in recognition of the damage this unfit president inflicted on both the nation and his party in four short years of political and economic chaos.

That all this occurred in the midst of a severe pandemic compounded the pain and underscored Trump’s massive negligence as a political leader.

However, now the crisis provides Biden a timely framework in which to demonstrate his own ability and commitment to right the ship, after his lengthy service in Washington, where he often was mocked as an unsubstantial figure given to talking too much and, is recent years, dismissed as too old for the presidency now, at age 78.

In a brief address to the nation since he won the largest popular vote in history over Trump, Biden laid out an ambitious plan to combat the pandemic with an expanded medical team of experts and more aggressive development and distribution of vaccines in coordination with state governors.

Biden has spoken of pursuing an “FDR-style presidency” modeled modeled on the New Deal, which provided emergency relief for working-class Americans in the midst of the Great Depression as well as programs to provide employment and build the nation’s infrastructure. Biden has cited his own role as the lead official in addressing the Great Recession that was unfolding as the Obama administration took office in 2009.

In all this, Biden comes to the presidency as a familiar old political hand who made a remarkable comeback in 2020. After being widely viewed as a loser in early primary setbacks, he emerged as the best candidate for ousting Trump. And he did so convincingly.

In selecting Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his running mate, he demonstrated a deft awareness of a changing political landscape, and there’s no doubt he will assign her a conspicuous role and voice in his administration. In pointed contrast to Trump’s epithet “Sleepy Joe,” Biden has even seemed to jump the gun in presenting himself as a working president before actually taking office.

Perhaps never has the inauguration of an American president been so eagerly awaited. And Biden, despite being a fixture in American politics for decades, now seems like a fresh face in terms of the kind of president he will be.

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Jules Witcover is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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