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Biden calls for unity, but 'clash of ideologies' looms

Democrats and Republicans hone contrasting strategies to restore the middle class

U.S. President Joe Biden signs executive orders at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office of the White House on Jan. 20.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., a son of an auto dealership manager, a longtime senator and a former vice president, was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States shortly before noon Eastern time on Wednesday.

"This is America's day. This is democracy's day. A day of history and hope," he said to open his speech, the last phrase taken from his favorite poem by Seamus Heaney (more below).

And he proclaimed that despite the Capitol riots on Jan. 6, and his predecessor Donald Trump's attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election, "democracy has prevailed."

The inauguration ceremony kicked off with Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first South Asian American to become vice president, being sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, herself the first Hispanic member of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Then, in a formality administered by Chief Justice John Roberts, Biden placed his hand on the Bible and recited the oath of office as is stipulated in the Constitution.

Most of Congress and the Supreme Court were in attendance, as were former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, with their respective former first ladies. The 96-year-old Jimmy Carter, the country's oldest living former president, and former first lady Rosalynn Carter were not there, marking the first inauguration they have missed since Carter was sworn in back in 1977.

Biden said he spoke to Carter on Tuesday night.

Notably absent was Trump. Before the inauguration, he moved out of the White House and flew to Florida on Air Force One, without a known meeting, phone call or handshake with his successor. The last outgoing president known to have skipped his successor's inauguration was Andrew Johnson back in 1869.

Trump's uncharacteristically early morning departure may have been linked to the fact that once Biden is sworn in, he would have needed permission to travel in government aircraft.

At a send-off event at Joint Base Andrews, Trump said that he has laid the foundations of economic growth. "You're going to see incredible numbers start coming in," he said, if the Biden administration does not mess things up.

"You're going to see some incredible things happening, and remember us when you see these things happening," he said.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump returned to his Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 20.   © AP

Biden inherits a deeply divided nation rattled by the Capitol riots just two weeks ago. The new leader's inaugural address was heavy on the topic of healing the nation and bringing people together.

"Look, I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs. I understand, like my dad, they lay at bed staring at the night -- staring at the ceiling wondering can I keep my health care, can I pay my mortgage? Thinking about their families, about what comes next," he said, going off his prepared script and referencing his father.

"I promise you, I get it, but the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don't look like -- look like you or worship the way you do or don't get their news from the same source as you do," he said.

Instead, he said Americans must end "this uncivil war" that pits red (Republicans) against blue (Democrats), rural versus urban or conservative versus liberal.

"We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts," he said.

But the steps the Biden team has pledged to take on day one and in the initial days of the administration are expected to irk conservatives.

In his first hours as president, Biden signed actions to combat four crises -- COVID-19, the economy, climate change and racial inequality. "We are going to rebuild the backbone of this country, the middle class," he said as he sat at the Resolute Desk of the Oval Office, with at least 15 executive orders stacked next to him.

Rejoining the Paris Agreement, repealing a travel ban on visitors from several predominantly Muslim countries, asking the Department of Education to extend the existing pause on student loan payments and interest for Americans with federal student debt, and a mask mandate are among these actions.

One particularly controversial move is the introduction of a sweeping immigration bill that hopes to provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status.

"No government in Europe would implement the kind of amnesty proposals that he's talking about, granting citizenship to 11 million illegal immigrants," said Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

"When Chancellor [Angela] Merkel opened Germany's borders, it was anywhere between 1 to 2 million refugees, migrants, and it was the biggest influx into a Western European country in many, many decades," Gardiner told Nikkei Asia.

A tremendous clash of ideologies awaits in the next few years, Gardiner predicted, under which Republicans will look to set a fresh agenda to counter Biden's policies.

"The essence of the conservative message over the next four years is firstly that there has to be a limit to government spending, secondly, securing America's borders and having sensible immigration policies rather than ideologically driven open-borders policies, thirdly, to block the attempt to pack the Supreme Court, and fourthly, to win in the cultural domain and prevent statues being taken down and streets renamed," Gardiner said.

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee during its removal from the U.S. Capitol's crypt in Washington on Dec. 21, 2020.   © Reuters

But with control of the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, Biden will have the opportunity -- at least for the two years until the midterm congressional elections of 2022 -- to implement policies as long as he can keep his fellow Democrats in line.

One consistent theme that Biden has pursued since becoming the sixth-youngest senator in January 1973 at the age of 30 has been to focus on the middle class.

When Obama asked Biden to be his running mate in the summer of 2008 at a secret meeting in Minneapolis, the senator asked the young presidential candidate if he meant what he said about the restoration of the middle class being a defining issue of his presidency.

Obama said, "Yes, I really mean it," and this was a major reason he accepted the offer, Biden wrote in his 2017 book "Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose."

At the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Biden gave a passionate shout-out to the middle class to tout nominee Hillary Clinton's candidacy for president.

"I know I'm called middle-class Joe. In Washington, that's not meant as a compliment. It means you're not sophisticated," he said. "But I know why we're strong. I know why we have held together. I know why we are united. It's because there's always been a growing middle class."

"Because, folks, when the middle class does well, when the middle class does well, the rich do very well and the poor have hope," he said.

The focus on the middle class extends to foreign policy. His pick for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, co-edited a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report last year titled "Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class," which called for a humble, "less ambitious" foreign policy that eschews regime-change wars and ensures that decisions are made to benefit the middle class back home.

Then-vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama wave during a rally at the Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida, in October 2008.   © AP

But Biden's middle-class dreams may be an uphill climb. 

Several years ago, Claude Smadja, the head of Smadja & Smadja Strategic Advisory, said at a seminar in Tokyo that the middle class is in retreat around the world.

"What constituted the basis of stability and sustainability of our democratic system, which is a stable and expanding middle class assured of its future, is eroding," Smadja said.

"In all the developed countries, the middle class is on the defensive, he said. "It is anxious about the future, and this is causing a polarization of politics."

The message of the extreme right and the extreme left "is exactly the same," Smadja said, and "what they all want is a return to the status quo, which is today not achievable."

Biden assumes office at a crucial period in geopolitics as China is expected to overtake the U.S. as the world's largest economy as early as 2028. When China overtook Japan as No. 2 in 2010, it led to a period of high diplomatic tensions between the two countries. This was fueled by the issue of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, during which the neighbors ceased to talk to each other.

But like his partner of eight years, Obama, Biden is a man of hope.

His favorite poem to recite is by Irish poet Heaney. From the play "The Cure at Troy," Biden has quoted it multiple times, including at his acceptance speech last year.

Human beings suffer,

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.

No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong

Inflicted and endured. ...

History says, Don't hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime,

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

Can the American middle class be put back on track? That may be the defining question of the Biden presidency.

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