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How Joe Biden met the 2020 moment

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden announces his choice for several positions in his administration during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 11, 2020.Susan Walsh / AP

WASHINGTON — Over the last two years, it was easy to see how today’s moment — Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. being sworn in as the nation’s 46th president — wasn’t going to happen.

Biden, the thinking went, was too old. He wasn’t inspirational or exciting enough as a former vice president. He was prone to gaffes. He wasn’t great on the stump. And he often stumbled in debates.

But what Biden achieved was meeting — and understanding — the moment that presented itself during a presidential campaign unlike any other.

After Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Democratic primary voters decided that defeating Trump was more important than in achieving revolutionary or big structural change.

After the start of a pandemic that’s now killed more than 400,000 Americans, experience (as well as empathy) became a selling point instead of a liability.

After the pandemic, campaigning on the stump became less important, and it also became unnecessary for Biden to introduce himself to the public (which wouldn’t have been true for any other lesser-known Democratic candidate).

After winning the Democratic nomination, many of Biden’s weaknesses and faults — age, verbal gaffes, shaky debate performances, nepotism — got canceled out by Trump’s equal or greater problems on these same issues.

And now after a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol just two weeks ago, Biden’s call for unity that was foundational to his presidential bid — which many Dem critics and pundits snickered at during the primary season — seems more important than ever, no matter how difficult (or impossible) it will be to achieve.

It was always easy to underestimate Biden.

But after a much closer race than all of the polling suggested, Biden might have won a race that no other Democrat in the 2020 field could have carried.

Tweet of the day

It’s been a long — and damaging — two months for Trump

Two months ago, you could say that Donald Trump was a failed one-term president, but still the leader of a successful political movement that will dominate the Republican Party for years to come.

But today, it’s less certain that you can say that about his political movement.

That’s what has changed after the last two months — Trump’s refusal to concede an election he lost, his unsuccessful attempts to overturn the results, the controversial pardons, the violent attack on the Capitol, and Trump’s second impeachment.

Trump is still a force inside the GOP. It’s just not clear that force is going to be as big as we thought on Nov. 4.

The last two months might have been that damaging to the outgoing 45th president.

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

143: The number of pardons and grants of clemency issued by Trump overnight, including for former campaign strategist Steve Bannon and rapper Lil Wayne

15: The number of executive actions Biden plans in his first day in office.

12: The number of National Guard troops who have been relieved of Inauguration duty after vetting.

Up to 35 mph: How high winds in D.C. could be during the inauguration ceremony

1.22 percentage points and 54,944 votes: Jon Ossoff’s final margin of victory over David Perdue. (Ossoff and Warnock will be sworn in today)

2.08 percentage points and 93,272 votes: Raphael Warnock’s margin of victory over Kelly Loeffler.

0.24 percentage points and 11,779 votes: Joe Biden’s 2020 margin of victory over Donald Trump in Georgia.

Exactly one year ago: The date when Covid “Patient Zero” in the U.S. was admitted to a hospital in Everett, Wash.

24,372,305: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 194,731 more than yesterday morning.)

402,914: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 2,811 more than yesterday morning.)

123,820: The number of people currently hospitalized with coronavirus

285.73 million: The number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

What happened at yesterday’s confirmation hearings

Five of President-elect Biden’s secretary-designees testified at their Senate confirmation hearings on Tuesday. And their testimonies gave us a sense on how they viewed their confirmation challenges, Biden’s campaign promises and their Trump-appointed predecessors.

Janet Yellen, Treasury: When testifying, Yellen said this about Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid recovery package: “Neither the president-elect, nor I, propose this relief package without an appreciation for the country’s debt burden. But right now, with interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big.”

Avril Haines, DNI: Haines took a thinly veiled swipe at the current DNI, John Ratcliffe, during her testimony: “The DNI must insist that when it comes to intelligence there is simply no place for politics, ever, the DNI must prioritize transparency.” Haines also said she aimed to restore “trust and confidence both within the intelligence community and among those we serve and protect.”

Lloyd Austin, Defense: Austin’s biggest confirmation challenge lies in getting a waiver since he hasn’t been in civilian life for at least seven years. Austin said he understood the concerns: “The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces. The subordination of military power to the civil."

Alejandro Mayorkas, DHS: While some senators advocated for Mayorkas’ nomination to be held for a Senate floor vote on Wednesday in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection (Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley will block the quick consideration process from occurring), Mayorkas’ marked the riot during his opening statement: “If I should have the honor of being confirmed, I will do everything I can to ensure that the tragic loss of life, the assault on law enforcement, the desecration of the building that stands as one of the three pillars of our democracy, and the terror felt by you, your colleagues, staff, and everyone present, will not happen again.

Antony Blinken, State: WhileBlinken drew distinctions between himself and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his testimony, he made clear he also believed that overseas involvements should be to the benefit of Americans at home – something the Trump administration has made their main foreign policy goal with “America First”: “We can revitalize our core alliances – force multipliers of our influence around the world,” Blinken said. He later added, “And in everything we do around the world, we can and we must ensure that our foreign policy delivers for American working families here at home.”

The Lid: White House Downer

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at how pessimistic the electorate is as Biden takes office.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

Here’s NBC’s Viewer’s Guide to today’s festivities.

Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s pick for Transportation secretary, appears on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Biden supporters say they’re hopeful — but many are also anxious.

Here’s how the handoff of the nuclear football will work today.

Here’s what Trump said in his farewell video message.

Trump is reversing a rule meant to prevent White House staff from lobbying.

Don’t miss what Mitch McConnell had to say on the Senate floor yesterday about the Jan 6. Capitol riot.

The New York Times looks at Raphael Warnock’s lonely journey as an incoming Black senator.

Parler is trying to stay alive — with the help of a Russian company.