Evidence of the new era was visible by dusk on Joe Biden’s inauguration day. The new US president and first lady stood outside the door of the White House. And waited. And waited.
The wait, as the New York Times reported, lasted all of 10 seconds. Not long enough to be of consequence — but just long enough to merit a news story from the paper.
Other stories that have merited a mention in the Times: a piece detailing Mr Biden’s love of his state-of-the-art Peloton exercise bike, and the various risks its price tag posed to his “regular guy from Scranton” image; and a separate article analysing Mr Biden’s decision to wear a Rolex at the White House inauguration — in contrast to the plastic Timex watches sported by predecessors Bill Clinton and George W Bush, and the more moderately priced Shinola worn by Barack Obama.
Donald Trump, the paper acknowledged, also wore a Rolex, as well as other luxury brands such as Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, but arguably the norm-busting real estate tycoon was in a different category.
Reaction to the Peloton and Rolex stories have been two-fold. On one corner of the internet, there has been outrage. How dare the Times, or anyone for that matter, bring attention to Mr Biden’s $2,500 bike or $7,000 wristwatch? Were they not aware, as one person pointed out, that Mr Trump’s daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka, regularly sported $4,000 dresses? Or that Mr Trump owned a gold-plated Manhattan penthouse? Or that he had spent much of his presidency frequenting his own golf courses and using his luxury Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for federal business?
To another set of people, however, the articles signalled something else: sweet relief. As Jonathan Reiner, a George Washington University professor and CNN commentator put it: “I think it’s a sign of the nation’s return to relative normalcy that the is printing this bullshit.”
Or, in the words of Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, the Republican consultant turned TV host: “Thank God. We’re back to [the] good ol’ days of stupid-ass, meritless scandals like watches, tan suits & Dijon mustard” — a reference to two of the biggest controversies of the Obama years: the 44th president’s decision to don a light-coloured suit on an August workday in 2014 and his preferred burger condiment.
While Mr Biden’s inauguration ceremony was not normal in any typical sense — from the near-uniform mask wearing to the absence of parties and mass crowds — it was in many ways a return, if not to normalcy, then to predictability. And this will be a relief to both Democrats and some Republicans who, in private conversations, have been expressing elation at Mr Biden’s arrival, as it brings back a visible hierarchy and transparency in the legislative process. There are detailed briefing papers that lay out the new administration’s policy objectives, established political appointees whose policy leanings are easily tracked and anticipated, and clear timelines for when policies will be passed.
As one Republican lobbyist who cultivated close ties with the Trump administration put it: sure, the new president’s policies might be less favourable to clients, but at least there was some assurance that whatever policy was being worked on would not be scuppered by an errant tweet from Mr Trump’s Twitter account — or interference from a rival political faction, such as people close to his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.
In a Washington Post column last week, the conservative pundit Max Boot celebrated the inauguration as “thrilling in its sanity, exhilarating in its conventionality” — finding parallels in Warren G Harding’s 1920 campaign slogan “Return to Normalcy” in the wake of the first world war and the 1918 pandemic.
GOP senators Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney both praised Mr Biden’s inauguration speech as what the country “needed”. Even Kevin McCarthy, the House of Representatives’ top-ranking Republican, was in a buoyant mood.
The bipartisan bonhomie will fade quickly. No matter. Let’s enjoy this news cycle of Pelotons, Rolexes and non-scandal scandals while we can. Long may it last.