The challenge of Biden’s first days: staying focused and on message
No president-elect has ever been as well-versed on the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — Congress and the White House — as Joe Biden. So, it’s with a little trepidation, just a little, that I offer advice.
One, never lose sight it’s an inside-outside game, a term I first heard in the 1970s from John Gardner, the former Johnson cabinet member and founder of Common Cause. The inside work for a president is dealing with Congress, state and local officials and party activists. The outside stuff is keeping the public informed and building support.
Two, don’t be distracted by less central matters — even if they are good, substantively or politically desirable. That sounds easy; often it’s not.
Finally, your message must be consistent, coherent and credible. At times that might alienate a few Democrats.
In the crucial initial weeks, the Biden-Harris administration will be in delicate negotiations with some Republicans and different factions of the Democratic party, the inside game. These will be private. At the same time, the president has to build public support, the outside one.
Decades ago, in his classic study of presidential power, the late Richard Neustadt wrote: “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” These times are no different — and far more challenging to persuade on both the inside and out.
The best lesson involves the former vice president who led the early 2009 Obama administration’s stimulus efforts to pull the country out of possible depression during the financial crisis. It required intense congressional negotiations — and necessarily accepting some onerous provisions like a special deal for Nebraska and protecting tax benefits for wealthier citizens.
Republicans, who pushed some of these provisions, charged the $800 billion bill was a profligate special-interest laden deal that would hurt the economy and criticized it through the 2010 election. Most economists and the evidence show that it helped rescue America from the economic precipice and saved millions from a personal cataclysm.
Yet as Barack Obama acknowledged, they lost the narrative by focusing so much on the inside game. In the weeks ahead, Biden also will have to cut deals — some unseemly — and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. He must not forget the outside game.
With the economic and ever-present possibility of a foreign policy crisis, the new team, experienced as they are, needs to avoid distractions. In 1993 Bill Clinton came to office with a laser focus; remember “It’s about the economy stupid; don’t forget heath care.”
Within a week of taking office a controversy ensued with the popular chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, over allowing gays to serve openly in the military. Clinton was absolutely right on the issue as time and experience have shown sexual orientation has no effect on military service. But the timing — at the very start of the administration — wasn’t helpful.
The probable Trump impeachment trial over the first several weeks of the new Biden administration will be a distraction, though that’d be mitigated by a two-track system. That makes it all the more important to avoid any divisive hot-button controversy in that first month or so.
In governance, perhaps even more than in the Neustadt-chronicled days, messaging matters. The president-elect has assembled a talented team for his cabinet and White House. It also is the most diverse with Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian and Native Americans occupying prominent roles.
Yet too often the transition, responding to pressure from outside groups, stressed more the diversity than the excellence. It’s important that Cecilia Rouse is the first Black chair of the Council of Economic Advisers; It’s even more important that she’s the best qualified for the post. It’s welcome that Katherine Tai will be the first Asian-American to serve as U.S. Trade Representative. More welcome still, she’s a superb choice, experienced in trade negotiations, with close congressional ties and expertise in China.
Looking ahead, the Biden-Harris message of ambitious aspirations tempered by political realities is sensible. It will draw fire from the Democrats’ left wing. Many just don’t get math; there aren’t the votes for what they want in an evenly-divided Senate and closely-divided House.
This is like 2009 when liberals complained the Obama stimulus legislation should have been bigger. It should have been, but there simply weren’t the votes — it barely passed as it was.
This will be tested right away with the new president’s request for another big COVID relief package, including much bigger stimulus checks, more assistance for health care resources and vaccine distribution and money for cash-strapped state and local governments. Biden, a creature of the Senate in days past, is optimistic he can get the 60 votes, including at least ten Republicans, to pass this legislation quickly.
Others are skeptical.
The backup then will be to fold the COVID relief initiative into the massive reconciliation bill which can be passed through the Senate in February with a simple majority.
Either way, he can’t afford to lose the narrative.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.