After three attempts and close to 50 years in federal office, Joe Biden has achieved his life’s goal. He won the most votes of any presidential candidate in history. He is the first Democrat to win Georgia since 1992, and to win Arizona since 1996. His majority draws strength from the suburbs, from college-educated professionals, from racial and ethnic minorities, and from young people. His party has unified control of Washington for the first time since 2010. These achievements are enough to warm the heart of any new commander-in-chief. But it is no time for Biden to get all warm and fuzzy inside. On the contrary: The moment demands calm, realism, and caution. Setbacks and reversals are inevitable.
Biden’s political strength diminishes on close inspection. The country only avoided an Electoral College tie, and a likely Trump victory in the House of Representatives, by fewer than 43,000 votes. Biden’s congressional majorities are just as paper-thin. There are 222 Democrats and 211 Republicans in the House, and the Senate is split 50–50, giving Vice President Harris the tie-breaking vote. Control of state legislatures has barely changed. The only governor’s mansion to flip, in Montana, went to a Republican. The majority of Supreme Court justices belong to the conservative Federalist Society. Yes, Biden and the Democrats will be able to raise taxes, hike spending, confirm activist judges, and impose regulations. But it won’t be easy. They will be hemmed in.
Biden also faces a staggering list of challenges. This is the deadliest phase of the coronavirus pandemic. The economic rebound has stalled. Many blue states remain in different stages of lockdown. Schools continue remote instruction. The murder rate spiked last year. And there is a panoply of foreign-policy dilemmas: Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, Russia’s cyber-espionage, China’s growing power, Venezuela’s autocratic government, Turkey’s drift from NATO, and the asylum-seekers gathered at America’s southern border, as well as a war in Afghanistan that turns 20 years old in October. Biden seems to recognize the size of the burden. But he also seems eager to shoulder additional responsibility by addressing the intractable issues of climate change and racial inequality.
Managing any of these crises will require leadership, prudence, energy, and strength of will. Such qualities are not the first things that spring to mind when thinking about Biden, who is the oldest president in U.S. history and whose career is littered with gaffes, garbled sentences, awkward touches, and babble. But national emergencies do draw out the best—and the worst—in elected officials.
And there is no question America exists in a state of emergency. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, fomented a riot in the U.S. Capitol on January 6 that interrupted the certification of the Electoral College, killed five people, including a police officer, and might have proved even more deadly and devastating had not Congress evacuated as the mob stormed the building. Trump’s despicable behavior caused damage to the political and constitutional order that will take years to measure and to repair.
One aspect of the lawlessness is already plain. The U.S. government and its system of democratic capitalism are under threat from within. The problem is not just the radical left. Violent extremists associated with the radical right have insinuated themselves into the Trump coalition and into parts of what remains of the conservative movement. Trump and his allies amplify conspiracy theories that erode confidence in institutions that do not bend to his will. He has forged a personal connection with his followers that is more characteristic of autocrats than democrats. More than 80 percent of Trump voters deny Biden’s legitimacy. More than 60 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s handling of the Capitol riot. Not only does Biden have to run the executive branch during a moment of trial. He must do so while tens of millions of his fellow citizens believe in the falsehood that he attained his office through criminal means.
If there is a political upside for Biden, it is that Trump’s failure to concede and the terrible events of January 6 are igniting a civil war within the Republican Party. The conflict began in Georgia, where Trump spent two months accusing the Republican governor and Republican secretary of state of assisting in voter fraud. It spread to the U.S. Congress, where 106 representatives and eight senators obeyed Trump’s demand to reject certification of the Electoral College. It consumed Trump’s final days, as Republicans debated whether he should pay a price for his betrayal of office, and how high that price should be. And it is sure to continue in the months and years ahead, as pro- and anti-Trump factions of the GOP battle for local, state, and federal office, and as Trump faces indictment in New York. The Democratic Party also has divides within its coalition—divides that Republicans could have exploited had Trump accepted the reality of his loss. But the Democrats look like the Partridge family compared to the Republican Snopes clan.
Biden has something else going for him: Simple exhaustion. If you looked at Republican and Democratic senators’ faces as they returned to the nation’s business after the attack on the Capitol, you saw frustration, anger, resignation, and fatigue. Lindsey Graham spoke for many when he said, “Count me out. Enough is enough.” Trump crossed a line on January 6. Not all his voters or supporters went with him.
The capital’s eagerness to move on from Trump manifests itself in various ways. Prominent Republicans, from Mike Pence to Mitch McConnell to Nikki Haley to Tom Cotton, have put distance between themselves and the former president. Senators Manchin, Collins, Murkowski, Romney, and Sinema, who are willing to strike deals between parties, will have greater influence than before. Biden, unlike Trump, will enjoy a honeymoon period after his inauguration.
How long will it last? Politics moves quickly, the two sides are evenly matched, and appeals to radicalism are widespread. The pull of inertia is strong: After Congress certified Biden’s win in the early morning of January 7, the usual suspects began to downplay the enormity of the mob assault on the Capitol. At some point, Biden and the Democrats will overreach—it’s what Democrats do—and test whatever goodwill the president has established with Republicans.
Nor is it clear how the public will view Biden when he doesn’t have Trump to kick around anymore. Over the last year, Biden has done a good job of not saying much. He’s limited his appearances and statements to one or two a day. A busier and more free-wheeling schedule would expose him to the sort of embarrassments that characterized his first 48 years in national politics.
Biden was elected to be the non-Trump. Hence whatever continued role Donald Trump plays in American life will help him. If Trump continues to divide the GOP, if his legal jeopardy turns into a public spectacle, if he demands revenge on the Republicans who did not acquiesce in his attempt to overturn the election, if his rallies attract widespread media coverage, if he somehow finds a way around social media’s ban on his accounts, most of America will cling to Biden as a buoy of normalcy in a raging storm. Compared with Trump, Biden is calm and tame and unthreatening to the majority of Americans. Trump is what rescues Biden from becoming just another liberal Democrat.
If Trump fades, then, Biden will find himself in the same position as other Democratic politicians, such as Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom, who combine heavy-handedness with ineffectuality. No longer will Biden be a foil. He will be judged on his performance. And he might not like the verdict.
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