Sen. Merkley: ‘We are starting a new chapter in America’

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, fresh from his own third-term victory, offered a mix of personal observations and political comments Wednesday, Jan. 20, after he watched Joe Biden take the oath as the nation’s 46th president.

Outgoing Republican Donald Trump chose not to attend the ceremony, something Merkley said Trump should have done. But the Oregon Democrat also said the new Democratic president and the nation must get on with resolving the problems Trump left behind.

“We are starting a new chapter in America – a chapter in which I think we have that refreshed energy to tackle very significant challenges facing our nation,” Merkley told Oregon reporters in a conference call. “I think all Americans of every political party expect us to do it, and do it well.”

Given the deep divisions from the Nov. 3 election – which Biden won by 7 million votes and a state electoral vote count of 306 to 232, but which Trump refused to concede his loss — “this is a challenge that is not easy to solve,” Merkley said. “Those of us who are elected to lead have to redouble our efforts to reach across the aisle.”

On the other hand, Merkley said he is relieved to see Trump leave without further incident.

“I no longer have to worry about a president about to launch a war, sign dozens of new regulations to damage the environment in his final days in office, or hurt Americans in all kinds of other ways,” he said.

Merkley, 64, won his third six-year term by a 57% majority, slightly ahead of Biden’s 56.5% that secured Oregon’s seven electoral votes against Trump. As part of the Senate’s new majority party, Merkley does not have his committee assignments yet for the next two-year Congress.

Merkley acknowledged a long to-do list as Biden became president and Kamala Harris vice president, whose tie-breaker in a 50-50 Senate put Democrats in control by the most tenuous of margins. Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York displaces Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as the new majority leader. (Harris swore in her appointed successor as senator from California, and the two Democrats who unseated Republican incumbents in Georgia in runoff elections Jan. 5.)

Among the tasks: Confirmation of Biden’s appointments to his cabinet and other top jobs; Biden’s proposed economic recovery plan of $1.9 trillion, on top of $900 billion approved by Congress and Trump in late December, and above all, control of the coronavirus pandemic with a national death toll that has just topped 400,000.

Sparse crowd, show of force

The pandemic was one reason for sparse inaugural-day crowds on the National Mall stretching west from the Capitol. Merkley contrasted it with his first days as a senator in Washington, D.C., in 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation’s first Black president and the crowd extended to the Washington Monument and beyond.

“There were tears of joy, tears streaming down people’s faces. It was an incredible moment marking a transition from a world of discrimination to a world where a Black American had been elected to lead our country,” he recalled. “But today, the Mall was empty because of COVID and security — quite a different picture.”

The crowds were outnumbered by the show of force by the National Guard, Washington police and Capitol police, who provided security for an event just two weeks after a pro-Trump mob breached the Capitol. Trump urged the crowd to march on the Capitol — though he did not go himself — as Congress prepared to certify the electoral-vote victory of Biden and Harris. Five people died, including a Capitol police officer, but Congress completed the work after the disruption.

The last time the Capitol was ransacked was by British troops in 1814.

“To see the Capitol filled with troops conveyed such a difficult moment for our country, how deep the division is, how shocked we were about Jan. 6 and the storming of the Capitol,” he said. “All of this was about the big lie, the mega-lie Trump told that the election was rigged and that he had actually won it.”

Other observations

Three other observations Merkley offered about Wednesday’s ceremonies:

• The noticeable absence of Trump, who chose to fly to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. It was only the fourth time in U.S. history, and the first since 1869, that a president failed to attend the inauguration of a successor.

“The hallmark of a republic (is) that power passes based on the voice of the people, as manifested through the ballot box, from one individual to the next. Symbolically it is important for the president who is relinquishing power to be there to reaffirm this core principle,” Merkley said. “He left his stamp of animosity to the principle of the peaceful passing of power right up to the end with his absence.”

• The swearing-in of Harris as the first woman, also the first Black and South Asian, to one of the top two nationally elected offices. Two other women were vice presidential nominees on major-party tickets (Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, Sarah Palin in 2008) and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in 2016.

“It just brought a smile to everyone’s faces, the joy that these boundaries were being broken,” Merkley said. “It adds to the story that every child, despite where they come from — their family, their ethnicity, their color — have an opportunity to thrive and to be leaders in the United States.”

“If there is one place we should be able to work together to accelerate our efforts, it is in this area,” Merkley said. “It is a wonderful way to start and say how we can all work together, Democrats and Republicans, to make that happen.”