Executive Branch

Biden's Inauguration Was Small and Quiet. Good.

The cult of the imperial U.S. presidency has come to feel like a national religion.


Former President Donald Trump's tenure started off with a loud debate over his inauguration crowd size. After his swearing-in, Trump insisted for months that he had attracted a larger crowd than his predecessor, former President Barack Obama.

The discussion seemed to never end. It ushered in a flurry of legitimate news reports seeking to debunk the president's obvious lie—as if those organizations truly had nothing better to report on for the American public. It also attracted the characteristically stubborn, whimsical response that came to define the Trump administration: They were just adhering to "alternative facts," according to then-Senior Counselor Kellyanne Conway. One can't be sure what that means, but it was intended to acquit the president.

As Trump flew away from D.C. today via Joint Air Force Base Andrews, he could at least take comfort in the fact that his inaugural crowd size bested President Joe Biden's, thanks to restrictions put in place after the January 6 Capitol riot as well as to curb the spread of COVID-19. Point for Trump? No, point for Biden.

To be clear, I care a negative amount about the great crowd-size debate of 2017, and all the crowd-size debates that followed. I'd rather us compete over whose crowd was the smallest, not the largest. Biden wins that trophy by a mile. Though it's widely due to circumstances out of his control, perhaps we should work on making some parts of today the new normal for future inaugurations.

The cult of the imperial U.S. presidency has come to feel like a national religion in the last decade and change. Whoever assumes the executive title also inherits icon status: There were Obama "HOPE" t-shirts, Trump's "Make America Great Again" hats, along with bumper stickers, flags, and Catholicism-inspired prayer candles featuring pols in saintly postures. Cries of "My president!" have become commonplace among a certain subset of online political types, sending a queasy message that whoever holds the office is a paladin worthy of hero-worship.

That obsession is decidedly unhealthy. The Founders intended the president to be a political figurehead and a government manager, checked in both roles by the people. "[T]he first thing [the Constitutional Convention] had to discuss was if there would be one chief executive or more than one chief executive," said historian Ray Raphael in a 2017 interview. "People were very suspicious of anything that would resemble monarchical rule." Expecting a president to be something like a king is not only an improper elevation of the role, it is also, as Trump proved to countless industries and individuals, a very risky betting proposition.

How do we put the imperial presidency back in its box? We can start by dialing back the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration, which sees people come from far and wide to flood the national mall so that a new president can take office in front of a sea of loyalists.

That wasn't the case this year, thankfully. Even so, it appears that, as of this morning, the crowd-size discourse still wasn't over. CNN's Wolf Blitzer called the number of people at Trump's farewell sendoff "pathetic," and Jim Acosta noted seriously that it was "the smallest…of [his] presidency," which we can presume was supposed to be the perfect full-circle "gotcha" as the nation witnessed the end to Trump's time in the Oval Office.

I'll take it.