WASHINGTON – His fellow Democrats are red hot with rage after the attack on the Capitol, but President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has maintained a studied calm and stayed largely away from the scorching debate that culminated Wednesday with the impeachment and keeping of President Trump's focus on fighting a deadly pandemic, reviving a faltering economy and lowering the political temperature .
Hours after the House vote to impeach Mr. Trump a second time, Mr. Biden denounced what he called a violent attack on the Capitol and the "officials in that citadel of freedom." He said a twofold group of lawmakers had condemned the violence by following "the constitution and their conscience."
But he also pledged to make sure Americans "stand together as a nation" when he becomes president next week, showcasing the deliberate approach to politics that became the hallmark of his march to the White House.
“This nation also remains in the grip of a deadly virus and a dwindling economy,” he said in a statement. "I hope the Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their constitutional impeachment responsibilities, while also working on this country's other urgent matters."
Rather than acting to lead his party's efforts to hold Mr. Trump accountable, Mr. Biden has deferred to speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats in the House and Senate. Over the past week, he honed policy proposals and introduced new hires, while delivering a carefully calibrated message. "What Congress decides to do is they decide," he said two days after the impeachment attacks.
Mr. Biden's emphasis on the governance challenge ahead is based on the belief that the nation is in a devastating crisis and that he must ensure that Americans remain healthy amid an ever-devastating pandemic and that the prosperity that has evaporated afterwards must be restored. But it also underscores the contrast between his cautious, centrist approach to politics and the swirling anger of many elected Democratic officials and voters over Mr. Trump's attacks on democratic standards and their desire to punish him for it.
The president-elect has made it clear that he intends to work to mend the rift in American political culture following Mr Trump's four tumultuous years in office.
"Too many of our fellow Americans have suffered too long in the past year to postpone this urgent work," he said in the statement. "I've often said that we can't do anything if we do it together. And standing together as a nation has never been more important to us than it is now."
But at the same time, he will pursue a democratic agenda in a highly divided Congress and force him into a balancing act that is sure to be particularly precarious in the opening weeks of his administration as the Senate is once again litigating and condemning Mr Trump's behavior.
"I think he looks calm," said Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist who helped lead Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and has become an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump. Part of this whole moment is a return to normalcy. Having a sober president who isn't mad at tweeting and trying to win every news cycle – it's a hallmark of the Biden people. They have been very patient. "
As a candidate, Mr. Biden embraced a strategy that deliberately kept him above the fray, refusing time and again to be drawn into the chaotic maelstrom of Mr. Trump's presidency.
But what worked to get him the Democratic nomination and the White House could wear off when he is sworn into the Capitol next Wednesday amidst extraordinary security, the potential for further political unrest and his own party's pent-up demand for legislative victories.
Once in office, Mr. Biden will likely find it nearly impossible to keep issues like impeachment at bay, especially as the spectacle of a senate process dominates media coverage and slows down his effort to gain confirmation for his nominees. Robert Gibbs, who was President Barack Obama's first press secretary, recalled how the White House struggled in the early days of the administration in 2009 to maintain their campaign's messaging discipline.
The Biden transition
& # 39; One minute you can decide what to comment on, & # 39; said Mr. Gibbs. "The next minute you can't decide alone, but you are all responsible for it."
The risk to Mr. Biden is that a determined effort to maintain his focus on a return to normalcy would be seen as separate from a moment that doesn't feel normal at all.
On the floor of the House on Wednesday, Ms. Pelosi called Mr. Trump "a clear and present danger to the country" and a handful of Republicans warned of "a grave danger" from the incumbent president, urging "we can't wait a moment longer "to remove him from office.
In contrast, in the week since Mr. Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol, introduced members of his cabinet, pushed for an increase in the minimum wage, pledged to support small businesses and vowed to take action against the pandemic. But while expressing his disdain and reiterating his belief that the current president is not fit to hold office – and Republicans like Texas Senator Ted Cruz for their role in promoting unfounded claims of widespread electoral fraud – Mr. Biden sidestepped whether Mr. Trump should be impeached and sentenced.
On Wednesday, even as lawmakers weighed in on making Mr. Trump the first president to be impeached twice, Mr. Biden's transition team sent out summaries of meetings with some of his cabinet nominees, including a & # 39; listening session & # 39; on environmental justice issues and a "Virtual Round Table" on education for people with disabilities.
People close to the president-elect say that Mr. Biden was shocked by the scene in the Capitol. But he's caught between competing priorities: holding Mr. Trump accountable for inciting violence against the residents of a building he worked in for decades, and quickly moving his agenda to an already deeply divided Congress.
Mr Biden's candidacy was at the heart of the actions that led to it Mr. Trump's first impeachment. Trump attempted to pressure Ukraine to help undercut Mr Biden through a complicated series of events related to the work done in that country by Mr Biden's son, Hunter.
But when Democrats announced their intention to impeach Trump for the first time in late September 2019, Mr. Biden was slow to embrace a process many of his fellow Democrats saw as long overdue. It was only two weeks after Ms. Pelosi started proceedings against Mr. Trump that Mr. Biden explicitly backed it.
That approach was in part a campaign strategy designed specifically to counter Mr. Trump's all-devouring tactics. But it was also a reflection of Mr Biden's temper and broader political instincts.
A creature of the Senate for over 30 years, many of them during an era of relative bipartisan comity on Capitol Hill, Mr. Biden was a deal maker who prided himself on working with Republicans, living up to Senate traditions, and less was then inclined to surf partisan passions by many of his colleagues. As a young senator in 1974, Mr. Biden was right wary of the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon.
"I don't know what's on his mind, but I suspect that because of where his body was over the past few decades, he would have mixed feelings" about the impeachment now underway, Representative James E. Clyburn said to the House. Democratic whip and good adviser to Mr Biden. "He is an institutionalist."
Mr Clyburn said the president-elect did not want to be distracted from the challenges the country would face once he succeeded Mr Trump in the Oval Office.
“He would love to get the country back on track, and I agree,” said Mr. Clyburn, who voted on Wednesday to allow Mr. Trump to impeach. He said Mr. Biden understood how "blatant" Mr. Trump's behavior was and was "seeking a level of comfort" that was balanced with punishing the president by turning the page about the Trump era.
Mr. Obama also faced tough decisions when he took office in 2009 about how much time and energy he should devote to litigating the recent past and holding George W. Bush administration officials accountable.
In April of that year, Obama approved the public release of Bush White House memos permitting the use of torture against terrorist suspects. But in a lengthy and Solomonic statement, Obama called for "reflection, not retaliation" on a topic that some Democrats have called for prosecution of war crimes.
But the likelihood of Washington being consumed by a Senate trial during the opening days of Mr. Biden's administration will make the tension between holding his predecessor accountable and the focus on the country's other pressing challenges.
"To the extent that the Senate is consumed by the former," said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama's chief political adviser in 2009, "he may fear it will be more difficult to follow his own appointments and agenda."