You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

What Now?

How President-elect Joe Biden can start the hard work of rebuilding a fractured country

The euphoria from Joe Biden’s long-count victory is like the last leaf clinging to a late-autumn tree. Before that stubborn final leaf withers on the branch, here is a hopeful—yet realistic—scenario for Biden’s first year or so in the White House.

In much the same way that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was known as “Dr. New Deal” and “Dr. Win-the-War,” Biden could well be the Victory Over Covid president. The optimistic postelection news from Pfizer and Moderna on their vaccine trials suggests that there could be a massive national inoculation program during the first half of 2021. And, if the treatment proves successful, much of American life may have returned to something resembling normal by the end of Biden’s first year in office.

The taming of the pandemic could unleash an economic boom, even if the stimulus bill that President Biden extracts from the Senate will be much less than Democratic and liberal economists hope. Such a recovery would be partly fueled by pent-up consumer demand after anguishing months of partial lockdowns and curtailed spending. But Biden’s regulatory powers (for example, easing the repayment plans for student loans, a decision the Biden team has signaled would be coming early in its term) could also help energize the economic comeback.

As president, Biden will definitely restore the rule of law, drive the grifters out of the White House, and bring a level of peace and stability to Washington. Americans have gotten so accustomed to Donald Trump’s deranged, ego-driven incompetence that it has become easy to forget the humble joys of not thinking about the president for days at a time.

This is not the typical list of accomplishments that political consultants cobble together at election time. Taken together, this highly plausible chain of events would transform the lives of all Americans. This projected turnabout would establish a strong political base for the Democrats going into the difficult 2022 congressional elections—and beyond.

At Passover Seders, Jews sing a song with the refrain “Dayenu,” which is translated as, “It would have been enough.” For a Biden presidency, taming the pandemic, jump-starting the economy, and restoring sanity to Washington would be more than enough.

But for many Democrats, especially on the left, the 2020 election is already remembered for its dashed dreams. More than 73 million Americans followed Trump with his Pied Piper refrain of denial, denunciation, and destruction. Republican senators such as Susan Collins in Maine defied the polls in easily winning reelection. And instead of gaining House seats, Nancy Pelosi’s majority dangerously dwindled.

As a result, Biden will take power in January without any ambitious plans to convince Senate Democrats to scuttle the filibuster or expand the Supreme Court. That goes double for fond left reveries of an economic recovery agenda to rival Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and a sweeping voting rights agenda to build on Lyndon Johnson’s legacy. Climate legislation in the incoming Congress will be at the mercy of Senate Republicans and energy-state Democrats—meaning that talk of a Green New Deal will be strategically downsized into an infrastructure repair package. And Biden can respond to most pressures from the left by saying, with arithmetic honesty, “We just don’t have the votes.”

In truth, though, the notion that the nation would pivot from Donald Trump’s America to a social-democratic dreamscape always reflected a misreading of political history. Only at rare moments in the past century have the Democrats possessed the votes on Capitol Hill to dramatically revamp American society. What made the New Deal possible was just such a rout of the GOP in Washington: From 1935 to 1939, the Democrats held three times as many House seats as the Republicans—and by 1937, there was a pitiful band of just 16 GOP senators. In similar fashion, LBJ was blessed with two-thirds majorities in both the House and the Senate when Congress approved the Voting Rights Act and Medicare in 1965.

Liberal change, when it happens, is incremental and controversial. Passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 helped fuel the Tea Party movement and the loss of a House majority for the remainder of Barack Obama’s presidency. Crafted without a vote to spare in Congress, Obamacare has legislative flaws that normally would have been fixed long ago. But Republican obstructionism has meant that the legislation is again facing judicial scrutiny and possibly could be upended by the new six-to-three Supreme Court majority, though the legislation’s survival appears likely after oral arguments in November.

Still, in spite of the disappointing political landscape Biden will face in January, he does come into power with a popular mandate. The slow pace of the election returns has meant that the full dimensions of Biden’s victory have not been appreciated. On his third bid for the White House, Biden has matched Trump’s 2016 electoral vote total of 306—an achievement that once prompted the former reality-show host to breathlessly claim, “We had a massive landslide victory ... in the Electoral College.” And the popular vote numbers suggest that, when the final ballots from California and New York are tallied, Biden will end up winning by a larger percentage margin than any candidate in this century aside from Barack Obama in 2008.

But it was in congressional races and state legislative battles where the Democrats took a major hit. The disappointment was particularly acute in the Senate contests, where misleading polls and a lopsided Democratic fundraising advantage created unsustainable expectations. There’s still a Hail Mary scenario for Democrats to engineer a split Senate, if they manage to win both seats in the January runoff Senate elections in Georgia. And behind the apparent hold-the-line victory for Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority, there’s a reminder of how deeply polarized the electorate remains: Susan Collins in Maine was the only GOP incumbent reelected in a state that Biden carried.

It will take time and rigorous analysis of voting patterns to develop a firm understanding of why Biden’s coattails were clipped at the polls by an aggressively manic tailor. There’s a range of intriguing theories to test. One holds that never-Trump Republicans voted for Biden before returning to their GOP proclivities in congressional races; another suggests that a significant number of Americans prefer divided government. It is also conceivable that down-ballot Democrats were hurt by the Biden campaign’s decision to curtail its ground game because of Covid. Personally, I’m left wondering whether the heavy Democratic emphasis on early voting by mail meant that some voters felt they didn’t know enough to cast ballots in nonpresidential races.

Despite all the uncertainty about what caused the down-ballot defection, the left and moderate wings of the Democratic Party quickly abandoned their preelection truce to go at each other with a vengeance. So far, however, most of the arguments consist of each side shouting, “We were right all along.”

Despite this sound and fury, there should be some self-awareness on the Democratic left that winning majority support in a deeply divided nation requires more than slogans that are cheered by true believers but sound threatening to otherwise winnable voters. That’s why the most sobering postelection assessment came from Jim Clyburn, the House Democratic whip and the man whose endorsement saved Biden in the pivotal February 29 South Carolina primary. Appearing on Meet the Press on the Sunday after the election, Clyburn referred to Democrat Jaime Harrison’s double-digit loss to Lindsey Graham in the South Carolina Senate race. “Jaime Harrison started to plateau when ‘Defund the Police’ showed up with a caption on TV right across his head,” Clyburn said. “That stuff hurt Jaime.”

We do have enough perspective on the 2020 campaign season to recognize there is a convincing case that only Biden among the leading Democratic contenders could have defeated Trump. It is hard to imagine another Democratic contender who could have forged party unity and also strongly appealed to Black voters, who played a major role in Biden winning back Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. And Bernie Sanders’s argument that all that the Democrats needed for victory was to increase turnout foundered in Texas, where voter participation surged and Biden still lost by 6 percentage points. (Indeed, the 2020 election saw the highest overall turnout in a presidential year since 1900, which stands as a strong rebuke to the notion that heightened voter turnout always and everywhere benefits Democratic candidates.)

No Democratic leader understands the arc of American politics better than Biden, whose public career covered seven different presidencies even before he was tapped as Obama’s running mate in 2008. Biden is one of the last graduates of the shoe-leather school of politics, which permits candidates to win a Senate seat in a tiny state through personal campaigning rather than with a multimillion-dollar media buy. On Election Night 1972, as Richard Nixon was sweeping 49 states, NBC correspondent Garrick Utley reported, “Not many people paid much attention to the Senate race in Delaware. It’s between Caleb Boggs, the Republican incumbent, and James Biden, a Democratic challenger.” That wasn’t a momentary slip of the tongue, by the way—Utley called Biden “James” a second time during the 55-second news clip.

Biden’s twentieth-century reputation as a moderate on hot-button social issues flowed from the politics of self-preservation. Despite its current image as a deep blue state, Delaware went Republican in four of the five presidential elections in the 1970s and 1980s. This partly explains Biden’s strong opposition to court-ordered school busing (the subject of a surprise attack from Kamala Harris in the first Democratic primary debate) and his fierce advocacy of the 1994 crime bill. As a churchgoing Roman Catholic politician (soon to become only the second Catholic U.S. president), Biden supported the Hyde Amendment banning all federal funding for abortion until he got ready to launch his 2020 presidential race.

Throughout Biden’s political career, he groped for a compelling message to lift him out of the ranks of long-serving senators who talk of “working across the aisle” and “co-sponsoring amendments.” Indeed, much of Biden’s almost four-decade quest for the nation’s highest elected office can be understood as the struggle to define and deliver a powerful reason for his candidacy.

The plagiarism scandal that derailed Biden’s first race for the White House in 1987 was rooted in an unsolvable problem—too many consultants hovering around the Delaware senator and no rationale for running beyond ambition. As Richard Ben Cramer wrote in What It Takes, his enduring portrait of the Delaware senator at midcareer, “Everybody in the country who could read knew that Biden wanted to run, but he wasn’t going to run without message ... and he didn’t have a message ... nothing to say.” The missing words were provided, sometimes without proper credit, by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock and Robert Kennedy.

A different Biden ran for president in 2008 in a field dominated by Obama and Hillary Clinton. As I wrote at the time for Salon, after spending a summer 2007 day with Biden in Iowa, he is a candidate “who never stops talking but often has much to say.” Then, too, all the words never managed to cohere into a compelling campaign theme. When Biden dropped out of the race after finishing fifth in the Iowa caucuses, only one cable network even carried his withdrawal speech—in which he quoted the Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s now-famous injunction to “make hope and history rhyme.”

Biden was not the first American political leader to look to Heaney for inspiration: Bill Clinton used Heaney’s lines from The Cure at Troy at the time of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland. But Biden has made them his signature—and these words help explain his worldview that combines a world-weary sadness with a stubborn, optimistic faith.

The first time that Biden publicly quoted Heaney (as near as I can tell after searching multiple news databases) was in a 2006 commencement address at Syracuse University College of Law, his alma mater. But Syracuse was also the school where Biden almost flunked out—and where his failure to properly cite a law review article played a peripheral role in the 1987 uproar over plagiarism.

As a result, Biden’s remarks at Syracuse were more personal than those of most graduation orators. Biden talked at length about his childhood stutter, failing the District of Columbia bar exam, the death of his wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash, and his father’s advice, “Success is not measured by whether you are knocked down, everyone is. It is measured by how rapidly you get up.”

Then Biden—who had conquered his stutter by reciting the poetry of Yeats and Emerson—ended his commencement address with Heaney’s enduring words:

History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

That passage has been Biden’s companion ever since. Heaney provided the coda to Biden’s acceptance speech at August’s virtual Democratic National Convention. In the closing days of the presidential race, the Biden campaign released a nearly 90-second video of the candidate reading slightly rearranged words from The Cure at Troy. Stef Feldman, the campaign’s policy director, tweeted, “This is the most Biden ad I’ve ever seen and I love it.”

In a phone interview just before the election, I asked Feldman, who had worked for the vice president in the White House, why she thought this poem was so emblematic of Biden and his campaign. “I think this is a moment when ‘hope and history rhyme,’” she said. “We need somebody who understands grace, who understands healing, who understands how to bridge divides. In many ways, it seems as if Biden’s entire career was preparing him for a moment like this.”

This message helped to steady the Biden campaign through an unprecedented general election race defined by the Covid pandemic and deranged by the anti-democratic and conspiratorial tirades of an incumbent president. More than almost all modern presidential campaigns, Biden’s effort was a portrait in consistency and caution.

The former vice president launched his candidacy in April 2019 with a three-minute video that featured footage from the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, as Biden said directly to the camera, “If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.... And I cannot stand by and watch that happen.” Eighteen months later, at Gettysburg in October, Biden again invoked the Charlottesville march as he offered his alternative vision of the nation’s future: “We must seek not to build walls, but bridges. We must seek not to clench our fists, but to open our arms. We must seek not to tear each other apart, but to come together.”

Of course, no one envisioned the pandemic. As the oldest presidential nominee in history, the 78-year-old Biden is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. If Biden had been felled by Covid-19, Trump and his Republican mouthpieces would have cruelly seized on the virus as a metaphor for Democratic weakness. As a result, Biden—whose tactile campaign style makes Bill Clinton seem like a shrinking violet—spent 174 days without doing a single public event.

That’s right: nearly six months enduring the ridicule of Republicans and the pleas from nervous Democrats without a single campaign appearance in person rather than on Zoom. This wasn’t William McKinley’s 1896 front-porch campaign, with trainloads of Republicans arriving every day to cheer the candidate as he spoke from his home in Canton, Ohio. This was something far riskier, as Trump campaigned vigorously and heedlessly held mass rallies filled with adoring, unmasked camp followers, as if his political role model were Typhoid Mary. But, in the end, Biden’s restraint and faith in rationality prevailed—even as the Trump-led GOP sought to undermine the verdict of the voters after the fact, amid a fresh round of lies and frivolous legal challenges. So on January 20, 2021, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. will be sworn in as the forty-sixth president of the United States. 

 What happens then?

Presumably, Trump will have slunk off to Mar-a-Lago on Inauguration Day, plotting revenge from his Florida version of Elba. In moments of optimism, I envision that most congressional Republicans will eventually accept the legitimacy of Biden’s election once the need to rouse the far-right booboisie ends with the Georgia Senate runoffs on January 5.

Biden, who has more varied government experience than any incoming president in the last half-century, is not naïve about the Republicans and the challenges ahead. Even Biden’s stories about the Senate in the 1970s—when Southern segregationists were almost always courtly—come with a political edge.

After his initial campaign trip to New Hampshire, Biden was warned by his aides not to wallow in his anecdotage. But a revealing moment occurred in a Nashua backyard on a damp afternoon in May 2019, when Biden responded to an open-ended question about the Senate with a rambling eight-minute answer.

As Biden recalled, during his first year in the Senate in 1973, reeling from the death of his wife and daughter, he would be summoned for weekly chats with Mike Mansfield, Lyndon Johnson’s successor as Senate majority leader.

One afternoon, Biden went into a rant about Jesse Helms, the reactionary GOP North Carolina senator, saying, “He has no social redeeming value.” Mansfield, an unabashed liberal, patiently pointed out that Helms and his wife had adopted without hesitation a boy with severe disabilities. And then Mansfield said words that have guided Biden for nearly a half-century in politics: “It’s always appropriate to question another man or woman’s judgment, but never their motives.”

That’s the part usually quoted, and it makes Mansfield—and, by implication, Biden—sound like a sap. In a legislative world dominated by McConnell’s scorched-earth approach to politics, you don’t prosper by turning the other cheek. But in Nashua, Biden added the rest of the quote, “Once you question motives, you can never get to agreement.”

This is the opening chapter of Biden’s personal version of The Art of the Deal. The next president’s faith in his own negotiating skills will be tested like never before, since McConnell seems poised again to be majority leader, barring an eleventh-hour pair of victories at the hands of a newly energized Democratic electorate in Georgia.

And the Senate has changed since Biden’s day. Only 14 Republicans who will be in the incoming Senate, including McConnell, ever served with Biden. But two of those GOP senators from Biden’s era—Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins—may be swayable on a case-by-case basis.

Complicating everything has been McConnell’s despicable postelection behavior in indulging Trump’s fantasies about an undetectable Democratic vote-fraud conspiracy that somehow neglected to rig the Senate. It is reminiscent of McConnell’s cynical refusal to join Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan in agreeing to a bipartisan letter to directly warn Russia not to intervene in the 2016 presidential election.

In the face of this flagrant defiance of democratic principles, it is tempting to vow vengeance. But Biden and the Democrats will only hold leverage over McConnell if the party learns how to win Senate elections in red states. That is why so much is riding on the runoff elections in Georgia. If the Democrats can pick up even a single seat (Raphael Warnock versus the hapless and unethical Kelly Loeffler offers the best shot), then McConnell would be dealing with a one-vote majority. That would be slim enough to make McConnell nervous every time a GOP senator has the sniffles.

The 2022 Senate map is theoretically promising for the Democrats, with 21 currently held GOP seats on the ballot (including potentially winnable states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania). In contrast, none of the 13 Democratic senators facing reelection hails from a state that Trump carried in 2020. Far more worrisome—since the president’s party almost always loses seats in the midterm elections—is retaining the Democratic House after the setbacks on November 3.

But, for the moment, it is worth pausing to revel that soon competent Democratic officials—rather than Jared and Ivanka, and ideological apparatchiks like Attorney General William Barr and policy adviser Stephen Miller—will be walking the corridors of power. And by 2022 (knock on wood), no one in the White House complex, from Joe Biden on down, will need to wear a mask.

In his 2017 memoir, Promise Me, Dad, about the death of his 46-year-old son, Beau, Biden wrote, “Nobody ever told me a life in politics and public service would be easy; like life, I never expected politics to be free of disappointment or heartache.”

Those words, and the battery of forbidding challenges greeting the first days of Biden’s tenure as the forty-sixth president, bring to mind the all-purpose cover headline that newsmagazines had long used to characterize incoming administrations in Washington: “Now for the Hard Part.”