Joe Biden’s political opportunity: Begin at the center, then move left
Already afraid of losing their majority in 2022, some congressional Democrats have begun pressuring President-elect Joe Biden to ignore the mixed election results, claim a broad governing mandate and push forward a series of progressive policies at a fast and furious pace — to take advantage of any honeymoon period he might enjoy with the public.
This partisan policy push aligns with much of the conventional political wisdom about how presidents should begin their terms — with decisiveness and dispatch, strength and speed. Successful presidents, such as Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, are those who hit the ground running and exert their will on Washington.
But in the polarized era in which we live, this leadership strategy sows failure, not success.
While it’s likely to ingratiate a president to his supporters, it’s sure to inspire antipathy among his opponents. And after an initial burst of legislative achievements, his opposition will coalesce and have the partisan ammunition to transform the midterm elections into a negative referendum. In today’s politics, the most banal slight justifies an all-out war.
Said another way, a president will receive much approbation from his fellow partisans for acting swiftly and triumphantly. Reveling in a sense of righteousness, his base will crow “to the victor go the spoils,” or in more modern parlance, that elections have consequences.
But so do actions. No president will have a second chance to make a first impression.
This is why when elections are close and partisan distrust is high, a president should aim to move forward like the camel into the tent — slowly and silently. Otherwise, he’ll become both the catalyst that unifies his opposition and the character who ignites their rage.
And make no mistake about it, the Republicans are divided and in disarray. While President Trump persists in falsely claiming he won the election and his supporters irrationally rally to his side, other Republicans are looking to move forward. They want to celebrate the down-ballot successes, which they argue show that voters approve of their policy approach.
Beyond the electoral interpretations, Republicans are divided over the size and scope of the coronavirus relief and economic stimulus needed. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may succeed where Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has faltered, whatever legislation is passed during the “lame duck” session is likely to prove inadequate to address this increasingly out-of-control health care and economic crisis.
Come the presidential transition in January, even if one or more vaccines have begun to be distributed, Joe Biden’s administration will be expected to repair the damage that was wrought this winter. This issue will provide Biden with the opportunity to become a national leader: “A president for all Americans,” even for those who did not vote for him.
While the last three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — also pledged unity and possessed unique opportunities to forge bipartisan compromises, each took pride in his outsider status and relished the partisan adoration he had ridden to his presidential nomination. Each showed that he liked campaigning more than governing. Unsurprisingly, each left office with only his supporters still singing his praises.
This is where Biden has more than rhetoric in his corner than his predecessors. Biden has been a Washington insider who has spent his life forging compromises. He knows what it means to disappoint his most ardent supporters to bring on board his fiercest opponents for a larger aim. He has a long history with McConnell. Perhaps, most importantly, in this era of base mobilization, he is also far more likely to be interested in forging his presidential legacy than in positioning for reelection.
Under the auspices of a “new New Deal,” Biden could work across the aisle on legislation that would put America back to work — saving small businesses, repositioning agricultural trade, restoring critical infrastructure, rolling out rural broadband, and investing in clean energy technologies.
Progressives may feel neglected by an “economy first” approach, but a few bipartisan wins that help Americans financially rebound more quickly would provide Biden with more public support to push forward some of the more permanent reforms on health care and immigration that Democrats long have sought.
The one policy area on which Biden should confront the Republicans early in his term is criminal justice and police reform. His administration should frame this effort as a way to follow up on the First Step Act, which Republicans regularly offer as evidence of their party being better for communities of color than Democrats.
A successful presidency is possible for Biden, if he starts with the center and slowly moves left. If he is unable to pick off Republicans, such as Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, and is summarily rebuffed by the right, he can always pivot back to the left before the midterm elections.
But if he starts at the left, he’ll lose the opportunity to work with Congress and will be relegated to executive actions long before he reaches 100 days in office. Polarization fuels reactive and lasting enmity. Biden’s best bet is to proceed deliberately and gingerly — hitting the ground jogging, paced for a marathon, not a sprint.
Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University and the author of “Amateur Hour: Presidential Character and the Question of Leadership.” Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.