The Right Person for the Job

President Joe Biden signing an executive order

President Joe Biden has his work cut out for him. 

Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency with seven states out of the union and civil war imminent. But, even Lincoln did not face the array of problems confronting Biden: A pandemic worsened by his predecessor’s incompetence and malevolence; an economy in crisis because of COVID-19; the repercussions of four centuries of systemic racism; growing right-wing extremism; and a country in which a large minority of the population, fed lies by many of its leaders, does not believe Biden was elected fairly. And, if all that were not enough, the new president leads a party divided into progressives who want bold actions to right wrongs and moderates who desire only an updated version of old-time Democratic politics. Biden must juggle all these problems while governing with the slimmest of congressional majorities.

A young Abraham Lincoln

Biden was not my first choice — nor second, nor third — as the Democratic nominee, but I have come to believe he is the right leader for our times. Some men — they have all been men so far, after all — grow into the presidency. Lincoln is a case in point. He became president after a rather undistinguished political career, and he was treated with scorn by many of the Republican Party’s more distinguished and prominent leaders. But, Lincoln soon demonstrated the compassion, intelligence, and moral steeliness that made him the man who led the nation through the Civil War and set the moral tone that led to the abolition of slavery.

Joe Biden is different. He has grown into a better version of himself. Gone is the young man in a hurry, the politician who tried to please everyone and who spoke too much about just about everything. Biden actually assumed the presidency weeks before he took the oath, setting the tone for combatting the virus while denouncing the insurrection of January 6 as an “unprecedented assault… [that] borders on sedition.” His predecessor, Donald Trump, spent the interregnum after his electoral defeat holed up in the Oval Office, ignoring the pandemic while raging about non-existent electoral fraud, giving Biden the chance to act presidential before becoming president. 

Biden and the Democrats have an opportunity to accomplish much by going bold, by passing as soon as possible a nearly two-trillion-dollar COVID relief package, then tackling systemic racism, economic inequality, climate change, the high cost of a college education, and healthcare. It will not be easy, given the party’s slender majorities in Congress and the already evident Republican obstructionism. But, achieving even part of this ambitious agenda will help restore the nation’s faith in the efficacy of government. As Senator Bernie Sanders told Ezra Klein of The New York Times: “This is a fight not just for the future of the Democratic Party or good policy. It is literally a fight to restore faith in small-d democratic government.” A Democratic failure to deliver on the party’s promises would open the door for a candidate representing the faux populism of Donald Trump, only this time perhaps headed by an individual who is something Trump is not: Smart and not averse to work.

The new president has an immediate opportunity to convince the public of the efficacy of government for solving problems. If Biden can succeed on his promise of delivering 100-million coronavirus vaccine doses in his administration’s first 100 days, he and his team will demonstrate a level of competence not shown by the Trump administration. It is a doable goal since, in recent days, roughly a million doses a day have been administered. Indeed, Biden may be able to exceed his initial promise and deliver more vaccines more quickly.

Ever since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s hectic first 100 days, incoming administrations have been judged by how much they can accomplish in that short period. Roosevelt, of course, had the urgency of the Great Depression and the backing of a weary and battered public that had soured on the inability of his predecessor to alleviate its suffering. Roosevelt also had huge majorities in the House and Senate, something that Biden does not possess. Still, an effective attack on the pandemic will boost Biden and convince many Americans that — like Roosevelt nearly a century earlier — he is governing on their behalf.

Biden has stressed unity and bipartisanship. The new president came to political prominence in a time in which Democrats and Republicans compromised to pass legislation that gave neither party all it wanted but often advanced the public good. He is steeped in the culture of bipartisan cooperation. But, that was then: In recent decades, obstruction has been the byword for a divided and gridlocked Congress. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Already, Republicans appear to be recycling the obstructionism of the Obama years. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has thrown roadblocks into organizing the Senate, demanding Democrats promise not to eliminate the filibuster. Biden and his legislative allies cannot agree to that demand because the filibuster is part of the carrot and stick the party can dangle before Republicans. The carrot: Cooperate on the stimulus package and Democrats will share credit for its passage with Republicans. The stick: Obstruct the package, and Democrats will end the filibuster. 

Unity is certainly a worthwhile goal, but the urgency of the moment is more critical, especially since almost all Republicans are lining up in opposition to the economic stimulus package, Biden’s critical first piece of legislation. As Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said, “It’s important that Democrats deliver for America. If the best path to that [sic] is to do it in a way that can bring Republicans along, I’m all in favor of that. But if Republicans want to cut back to the point that we’re not delivering what needs to be done, then we need to be prepared to fight them. Our job is to deliver for the American people.” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland agreed, but he also stressed the need for quick action, saying Democrats cannot afford a “long drawn-out process” such as occurred when President Barack Obama worked to secure congressional approval for his economic stimulus package in 2009.

Looming over the quick passage of needed legislation and possible bipartisan cooperation is the coming Senate trial of former President Donald Trump, slated to begin in two weeks. It is possible that Trump’s trial might work to Biden’s favor. The constant drumbeat of revelations — both in Trump’s complicity in goading the insurrectionists and in his never-ending attempts up to January 20 to overturn the results of the election — might convince enough moderate and traditional Republicans to vote to convict. Democratic-Republican cooperation in the trial could spill over into the legislative arena, ushering in a new era of inter-party cooperation.

The odds are against that, but, after all, in early 2020, who thought Joe Biden would be president a year later? And, if anyone can unify Americans and their political leaders behind a common goal, it is Joe Biden, a decent man for the times.

Posted January 26, 2021

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