WASHINGTON – When Joe Biden walked into the Oval Office for the first time as president a month ago, his pens were ready. Already.
Lining a fine wooden box, they bore the presidential seal and an imprint of his signature, a micro-mission accomplished in advance of his swearing-in.
Four years ago, pens were just one more little drama in Donald Trump's White House. The gold-plated signature pens he favored had to be placed on rush order in his opening days. Over time, he came to favor Sharpies over the government-issued pens.
On matters far more profound than a pen, Biden is out to demonstrate that the days of a seat-of-the-pants presidency are over.
He wants to show that the inflationary cycle of outrage can be contained. That things can get done by the book. That the new guy can erase the legacy of the “former guy,” as Biden has called Trump.
On policy, symbolism and style, from the Earth’s climate to what’s not on his desk (Trump's button to summon a Diet Coke), Biden has been purging Trumpism however he can in an opening stretch that is wholly unlike the turmoil and trouble of his predecessor's first month.
The test for Biden is whether his stylistic changes will be matched by policies that deliver a marked improvement from Trump, and a month is not long enough to measure that. Further, the length of Biden’s honeymoon is likely to be brief in highly polarized Washington, with Republicans already saying he has caved to the left wing of the Democratic Party.
The first time the nation saw Biden in the Oval Office, hours after he was sworn in, he sat behind the Resolute Desk with a mask on his face.
Trump, of course, had eschewed masks. Not only that, but he had made their use a culture war totem and political cudgel even as thousands of Americans were dying each day from a virus that properly worn masks can ward off.
Though Biden wore a mask in the campaign, seeing it on the face of the new president at the desk in the famed Oval Office made for a different message. Biden wished to make a sharp break with his predecessor while his administration came to own the deep and intractable crises that awaited him.
The strategy had been in the works since before the election and began with Biden at the desk signing a flurry of executive orders. The intent was clear: to unwind the heart of Trump’s agenda on immigration, the pandemic and more while also rejoining international alliances and trying to assure historic allies that the United States could be relied upon once again.
“The subtext under every one of the images we are seeing from the White House is the banner: ‘Under new management’," says Robert Gibbs, who was press secretary for President Barack Obama.
"Whether showing it overtly or subtly, the message they are trying to deliver, without engaging the former president, is to make sure everyone understands that things were going to operate differently now and that hopefully the results would be different, too.”
In a whiteout of executive actions in his first weeks, Biden reversed Trump’s course on the environment and placed the Obama health law at the center of the pandemic response with an extended special enrollment period for the insurance program that Trump swore to kill.
The Iran nuclear deal that Biden’s predecessor abandoned is back on the diplomatic plate. The U.S. is back in the World Health Organization as well as the Paris climate accord.
But memberships and diplomatic outreach only go so far. The world wants to see how far Biden will actually go in making good on climate goals, whether he will steer more help to poorer countries in the pandemic and whether his words of renewed solidarity with NATO may only last until the next pendulum swing of U.S. politics.
In addition, Biden faces the reality that over the past four years China has moved in to fill the void left by the United States on trade, and allies have learned to rely less on the U.S. during the more hostile Trump era.
One month into Trump's presidency, he had already lost his national security adviser and his choice for labor secretary to scandal. The revolving door of burned-out, disgraced or disfavored aides was already creaking into motion.
Forces in the bureaucracy were leaking information and resisting his policies. Revelations were emerging about an FBI investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russian intelligence officials, a precursor of a special inquiry that would eventually morph into impeachment. Judges had already blocked his order to suspend the refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Biden's first month has been comparatively drama-free, with many of his Cabinet picks approved and no evident convulsions among his staff other than the departure of a White House press officer who made a profane threat to a journalist.
After 40 years in Washington, eight years as Obama's vice president and two failed presidential campaigns before his successful one, Biden has had a lifetime to think about the mark he wants to make as president and how to get rolling on it.
“Nobody who observed Joe Biden as a candidate should be surprised by any of this,” said senior adviser Anita Dunn. “He had no learning curve in terms of the issues but also in how to be president.”
There have been challenges nonetheless: the distraction of Trump's post-presidential impeachment trial, a more narrowly divided Senate than his predecessor faced and a nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget who's been busy deleting years of social media posts assailing Republicans and some on the Democratic left.
Much of what Biden has set out to do has been to mark a change from Trump in both style and substance.
The Democrat framed his first month as one to start to “heal the soul” of the nation, repair the presidency and restore the White House as a symbol of stability and credibility.
He has acted to lower Washington's partisan rancor, disengaging almost completely from the Trump impeachment spectacle that consumed the capital for much of the month and not watching it live on TV. Yet his early efforts to work with Republicans on COVID-19 relief have stalled.
Gone are the predawn tweets that rattled Washington with impromptu policy announcements and incendiary rhetoric. Gone are the extended, off-the-cuff, combative exchanges with the “enemy of the people” mainstream press.
Gone are rosy projections about the virus, with ill-fated promises that the nation is “rounding the corner” on the pandemic.
In contrast with his predecessor, Biden has leveled with the public about the pandemic and the resulting economic devastation, acknowledging that things would get worse before they got better.
“You had the former guy saying that, well, you know, we’re just going to open things up, and that’s all we need to do,” Biden told his first town-hall meeting as president, this past week. “We said, no, you’ve got to deal with the disease before you deal with getting the economy going.”
A pattern emerged: The president and his team would deliberately set expectations low — particularly on vaccinations and school reopening — then try to land a political win by beating that timetable.
How low? On Friday in Michigan, he held out only the possibility that the country will be returning to normal by the end of the year. “God willing, this Christmas will be different than last but I can’t make that commitment to you," he said.
Biden’s team has installed a new discipline within the walls of the West Wing. The new president has only held one extended question-and-answer session with reporters, and his exchanges in the Oval Office or before boarding Marine One have been brief.
The messages from the White House track with the assessments Biden delivered in his inaugural address: The U.S. is being tested and the answers will not be easy.
The daily press briefings are back, this time with sign language. Pets roam the White House lawn again. Fires crackle in the White House fireplace. Biden says he begins his day by working out, making coffee and eating yogurt or Raisin Bran.
At his town hall event in Wisconsin, Biden repeatedly talked about how he doesn’t want to talk about the former guy.
“I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump, don’t want to talk about him anymore,” he said. “For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump. The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people.”
That's a tall order. The ex-president maintains his hold on millions of supporters and his lock on much of the Republican Party, whether he ends up running again or not.
But to the extent Biden can, he is doing what Obama foresaw during the 2020 campaign if the Democrat won. Biden and running mate Kamala Harris would make it possible to ignore the Washington circus again, Obama told a rally, and give Americans some predictability whether they like Biden's course or not.
“You’re not going to have to think about them every single day,” Obama said. “It just won’t be so exhausting. You’ll be able to go about your lives.”