In his first hours in the White House, President Joe Biden issued a stern warning to his incoming staff about the tone he expects from his administration: Honesty and integrity are paramount -- no exceptions.
"If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot -- on the spot," Biden said gravely. "No ifs, ands, or buts -- everybody, everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity. That's been missing, in a big way, the last four years."
His aim was clear: Biden is projecting himself to be an anti-Trump figure, a president who restores calm and expects competence where his predecessor relished disruption and divisiveness.
"We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos," Biden said in his inaugural address Wednesday.
President Donald Trump's 2017 inaugural address, meanwhile, painted a portrait of America in ruins. Using the phrase "American carnage," Trump described inner-city poverty, rusted out factories, and rampant gang-related crime. Though he vowed to solve all those issues, the use of those politically charged tropes cast a negative pallor to Trump's remarks, kicking off his presidency with an unnerving tone.
The images of Biden's first hours in office made an abrupt shift in style evident. As Biden signed executive orders at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office Wednesday evening, he donned a mask: the first time a president has done so publicly in that setting, which has historically embodied leadership. Trump never did.
And at the swearing-in ceremony on Capitol Hill, politicians on both sides of the aisle dutifully wore masks. Gone are the days when Trump's supporters would gather en masse, maskless at the White House. Even congressional Republicans, who have flouted mask-wearing in the House and Senate, adhered to safety precautions Wednesday.
Biden's agenda Thursday will also demonstrate a sharp contrast with Trump. Focused on mitigating the raging COVID-19 pandemic, Biden has brought dozens of former Obama administration officials back into the fold, emphasizing the air of competence they will bring to the West Wing, after an administration that prioritized inexperienced Washington outsiders.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki is set to bring Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation's foremost infectious disease experts, to the briefing room podium Thursday afternoon. Fauci's presence there marks a return from a months-long absence, after Trump soured on Fauci for not hewing to Trump's false claims about the pandemic, including frequent repetitions that the virus would simply "go away."
Biden's efforts to prioritize science are illustrated by some of the new decor in the Oval Office: a painting of Benjamin Franklin, a prodigious inventor and scientific mind, is placed near a moon rock on a bookshelf, meant to symbolize American achievement and ingenuity, according to what a Biden aide told the Washington Post. Vice President Kamala Harris has joked that she and Biden "can nerd out a little at times" when it comes to science.
Biden has also elevated the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to a Cabinet-level position. Trump, on the other hand, waited 19 months to fill that position.
As his chief spokesperson, Psaki is also doing her part to set a new tone and emphasize truth-telling and transparency. She has promised to bring back daily press briefings, and is already making good on that promise, beginning on inauguration day.
"There will be moments when we disagree, and there will certainly be days where we disagree for extensive parts of the briefing, even, perhaps, but we have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people," Psaki today reporters in Wednesday's briefing. Biden's goal, she said, "is to bring transparency and truth back to government, to share the truth even when it's hard to hear, and that's something that I hope to deliver on in this role, as well."
But the administration's efforts to convey calm and respect will be immediately tested by a messy political fight: the looming Senate impeachment trial of the former president.
Psaki denies the trial poses a problem: "We are confident, though, that just like the American people can, the Senate can also multitask. And they can do their constitutional duty while continuing to conduct the business of the American people," she said Wednesday.
Still, the trial can't be entirely ignored, and could be a distraction from an ambitious agenda, one that could scuttle a sense of competence and momentum, and drag the respectful new administration into a partisan battle.