President Biden departs the White House on Feb. 12 to spend Presidents’ Day weekend at Camp David. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
The president returned the toy that had tumbled to the floor. He left his chair, reached down to pick it up and carried the little replica of the Capitol dome back to Abigail Evans, the daughter of Capitol Police officer William Evans. He was killed while on duty and was now lying in honor at the Capitol, and the president had come to pay his respects.
Instead of delivering remarks about the violence that keeps ripping through the country with a tone of intellectual detachment, President Biden’s words were intimate and kind and respectful of the personal pain of this child and her family.
During his first 100 days in office, the president has cast his ambitions high, but he has kept his gaze at human level.
He has unfurled trillion-dollar proposals to lift the country out of the economic cavern caused by the coronavirus pandemic and to rebuild the nation’s long-neglected infrastructure. He has announced that he will do what has stymied his most recent predecessors, which is to extract our military from its two-decade-long war in Afghanistan. And he has signed off on governmental committees that will ponder the thorny question of reparations for the country’s founding sin and engage in a rethinking of a Supreme Court that seems under constant political assault.
He has asked Vice President Harris to investigate ways to bring both order and compassion to the dysfunctional immigration system that’s created a logjam of humanity at the southern border and has caused both citizens and migrants to question whether America’s heart has turned to stone. And after yet another mass shooting, Biden declared the country’s deadly gun culture an “embarrassment” during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga — the first foreign head of state to visit the White House since Biden became president.
Biden has big ideas. He’s made bold statements. The oldest man to be sworn in as president has moved through his first 100 days with an air of impatience and urgency and little evidence of fretful indecision. And yet, some of the most powerful moments these last few months have been human-scale gestures — instances of stillness and quiet rather than bombast.
They have been embedded in formal ceremonies and planned speeches — but they’ve also come in the day-to-day routine. They are grace notes that not only tell us something about the politician who is conscious of the performative nature of the presidency, but also about the man who inhabits that character.
After he announced the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, Biden visited Arlington National Cemetery and laid a wreath in Section 60, where the men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.
It was a rainy, late afternoon, and the rows of etched, white headstones were seemingly endless and particularly stark against the grass and in the hazy light. After presenting the wreath, Biden walked over to the assembled press and began by asking, “Hard to believe, isn’t it?” He answered a couple of questions, then he thanked the press, as if he was grateful that they’d brought their pens and pads, recorders and cameras — as well as their attention — to this graveyard filled with those who’ve died in a war that had become a barely perceptible background hum in the lives of most Americans.
“Thank you all for being out here in the rain,” Biden said. “It means a lot. Thank you.”
Then he walked through a row of headstones, pausing periodically to read the inscriptions. His being there was personal political theater. But it also allowed for a fresh photographic record, a fresh glimpse at how many the country has lost because of the war in Afghanistan. The point was not the president’s words or a remembrance in flowers. It was the field of the dead; the only explanation needed for his decision.
These moments speak of history. They tell us something about a nation of people who feel isolated and exhausted by a pandemic, by scandals and wee hour tweets, by polarizing rage. And they remind us how desperate we are to simply breathe.
Biden is a man who has been defined by family — by his losses and its fragility. And so at his inauguration, when he wrapped his surviving children in an embrace but drew his son Hunter especially close, it was a moment of particular humanity. It was the president as a father who loves his children unconditionally. He kissed Hunter on the cheek — not politely or formally, but with unabashed gusto.
Hunter Biden had been a source of controversy throughout the campaign, from Burisma to the missing laptop. But mostly, Hunter was the child struggling with addiction, the one trying to exorcise demons that ordinary Americans know so well. The president’s embrace of Hunter was a reminder that no matter one’s status or wealth, sometimes all you can do for your children is to agonize over them and love them.
This was part of Biden’s story. It was a reminder that compassion had been on the ballot in 2020 just as surely as taxes and immigration. The president is a deep source of empathy for a country that seems to have a shortage of it.
Relationship with Harris
In choosing Harris as his running mate, Biden made history. And throughout the transition, each time he took the stage to introduce nominees for Cabinet positions, Harris was there. She’d offer a few remarks at the lectern, then cede the stage to him.
She is on his regular schedule, her private lunches with him duly noted for public consumption. Her portfolio is becoming more defined as she takes on immigration, touts the American Rescue Plan and addresses issues such as maternal health. But she also has the capacity to speak on subjects in a way that the president cannot.
After eight people — six of whom were Asian or Asian American women — were killed outside of Atlanta in March, Harris, who is the first Asian American and Black vice president, spoke succinctly and clearly about the horror. She talked about the ways in which Asian Americans are so often categorized as “other.” They have their patriotism questioned.
“Everyone has the right to go to work, to go to school, to walk down the street and be safe, and also the right to be recognized as an American — not as the other, not as them, but as us,” Harris said. “A harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us.”
A minority that had long complained of not being fully seen by their fellow Americans was cast into the light with nuance and emotion by Harris.
After Harris spoke, Biden addressed the issue — and went on to talk about his American Rescue Plan. But for the few minutes that Harris stood at the lectern, the president stood behind her. His face was obscured by a face mask. At times, his gaze was cast downward. That simple image — which foreshadowed the choreography of their remarks following the guilty verdict in the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin — was a reminder of why diversity matters at the highest levels. Sometimes those who have always led and whose voices have always been heard and heeded, need to stand quietly. Doing so is not a sign of weakness or acquiescence but an indication that they understand that listening is part of the way forward.
Nothing has defined the early days of Biden’s presidency more than the coronavirus pandemic. On the eve of his inauguration, a memorial of light rimmed the Reflecting Pool in tribute to 400,000 people who’d died of the coronavirus in the United States. Barely a month after he moved into the Oval Office, the country was marking 500,000 deaths. We have endured one ghastly milestone after another. The president will not allow the dead to be forgotten.
As a candidate and as president, Biden modeled best practices as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has been sure to maintain social distance — even if the first lady has had to remind him to take a step back as he leans in to others to hear and to make sure that’s he’s heard. He is dedicated to wearing a mask. When he was vaccinated, he made the event into a public service announcement. And when he posed for the official portrait with his full Cabinet in the Grand Foyer of the White House, the image was essentially a chorus of socially distanced men and women in masks.
Biden and Harris sat in the front row. Seated just behind them were Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. It was two rows full of firsts. Harris, who is also the first female vice president; Yellen, who is the first woman to lead the Treasury Department; and Austin, who is the first Black person to oversee defense. Beyond them, there were other firsts and examples of diversity. But much of that was obscured by the masks. Instead of a celebration of individual achievement, the photograph was a declaration of unity in the face of a dire circumstances.
Major, the dog
There’s so much with which a president must contend. The problems are massive; Congress is a morass; humans have shown their worst nature over these past few years. But the country now has Champ and Major, the presidential dogs. And all dogs are good — even Major, with his two biting incidents notwithstanding. He’s working on his disruptive behavior. The country is with Major — also working on its worst qualities.
The dogs in Biden’s White House are a distraction from the bad. A bit of joy in the midst of sadness. A reminder to humans that there’s valor in the trying and courage in relentless optimism.