Joe Biden’s team is planning a party. His inauguration on Wednesday, held under threat from the coronavirus and pro-Trump extremists, wasn’t much of a celebration. But the Biden administration hopes that January 20, 2022—a year from now—will mark what some aides are describing as a “renewing of the vows,” an anniversary that could be a genuinely happy moment.
By then, Biden hopes, he will have made Americans feel like they’ve put the horrors of 2020 behind them. More than anything, that depends on whether he can dig the country out from the COVID-19 crisis. Vaccine distribution and economic recovery will be key.
Basic competence of government could go a long way: Imagine the political boost Biden could earn when people start going to the movies again, or children start seeing their grandparents. Biden is already planning to push ahead on an additional $1,400 in relief checks (a disappointment to those who wanted another $2,000) and a $15-an-hour minimum wage—both part of a $2 trillion relief package. He’s also planning an infrastructure bill that would create new green jobs, and include other measures to help fight climate change.
Biden is trying not to repeat the mistakes that have led to rocky starts for other presidents, and midterm disasters for their parties. So Biden’s team and allies in Congress are planning the most aggressive legislative agenda and political strategy Democrats have advanced in decades.
The success of Biden’s agenda will of course depend on Congress, which is starting off the year having to finish Trump’s second impeachment. “We have to see the Senate as it is”—narrowly divided, with the Democrats’ majority dependent on moderates such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia—“not as we want it to be,” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut told me. He was in the House at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency; he’s part of a generation of senators who were not in the chamber the last time Democrats had control of both houses of Congress and the White House, and have a different understanding of party politics than their predecessors did. “While I’m sure that Biden is going to want to spend some time trying to explore whether there’s bipartisan buy-in for his priorities, we all have to be willing to take no for an answer.”
Though Murphy and other Senate Democrats are hoping that their Republican colleagues will be ready to work with them, he thinks they need to be prepared for Republicans to quickly revert to the obstructionism of the Obama years.
“There’s a consensus that one of the mistakes of ’09 was playing footsie for a long time with Republicans who never had any intent to actually get to yes,” Murphy added. “And the dynamics in the Republican caucus have gotten worse since then, not better.”
The trick, says Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, will be lowering the expectations of an impatient Democratic base that is eager to press the party’s slim advantage by forcing votes on issues like Medicare for All or by making structural changes that could secure the party’s power. Booker says there aren’t enough votes to pass statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico right now, nor for expanding the Supreme Court. He’s taking his own lesson from the early Obama years.
“I applaud Obama for doing health care and saving the economy, but a lot of Americans felt that that was them losing their autonomy over their health care and a big Wall Street bailout. Then we got demolished in the midterms,” Booker told me. “This is a chance for the Biden administration to do the kind of things that immediately make a difference in people’s lives.”
Democrats are planning to vote early and often in the new Congress, and to essentially dare Republicans to stand in their way on politically popular measures. In recent years, the fight over the momentum-halting filibuster in the Senate has centered on somewhat arcane issues like Cabinet and judicial confirmations. Going forward, look for arguments over the filibuster to instead focus on COVID-19 relief (which will almost certainly end up tied to the infrastructure bill) or a new Voting Rights Act.
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If Republican senators hold those bills up by filibustering, Democrats would accuse them of standing in the way of helping Americans, or standing in the way of voting rights. Ending the filibuster would then be an easier sell.
As important as the filibuster requirement is, ending it is not the only way to get around Republican opposition. Democrats are already looking into expanding the process known as reconciliation, a quirk of Congress that allows certain bills to pass with simple majorities. The new Senate Budget Committee chair, with significant influence over reconciliation, will be Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is very supportive of Biden’s relief proposal.
Biden’s history of making concessions to Republicans to seal deals during his time as vice president has many Democrats concerned. After one negotiation in which then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid thought Biden bent too much to Mitch McConnell, the Nevada Democrat didn’t talk to Biden for months. “I’ve worked with Senator McConnell, and I wish [Biden] luck,” Reid, still skeptical of Biden’s attraction to bipartisan dealmaking, told me in 2019.
Yet despite Biden’s commitment to healing the country, he has little interest in following Obama’s lead in performative bipartisanship, like the year Obama spent chasing Republican votes for the Affordable Care Act—votes that never materialized. Biden’s instinct is to try compromise first, which is why he pushed back on Democrats who wanted to pass a coronavirus relief bill immediately, with or without Republican votes. Biden doesn’t want Democrats to go it alone without first trying to make a deal. If the GOP is seriously interested in uniting the country, he will eagerly engage. But if they use calmer rhetoric as a feint for obstruction, he is prepared to call that out.
And if the Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election continue to push their claims of voter fraud, or if any are found to have had more direct involvement in the attack on the Capitol, that will change Democrats’ negotiating strategy, too. “There are so many moving parts to this that we still do not yet know in terms of people’s involvement,” Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware told me, after reflecting on her own traumatic experience in the riot. “I am a believer in healing, but I know that in order to get there, we have to go through it, not around it.”
Biden will have an aggressive political and congressional-affairs team in the West Wing. The Democratic National Committee will be more integrated with the White House political operation than it ever was under Obama; Biden picked former South Carolina Senate candidate Jaime Harrison to be DNC chair, with a mandate to better connect local activists to what’s happening in Washington.
With the exception of George W. Bush, all modern presidents’ parties have lost congressional seats in their first midterm elections—Bill Clinton, Obama, and Donald Trump all lost control of the House entirely. The decennial redistricting process, in which Republicans have a strong advantage because they control more state legislatures and governors’ mansions, will help the GOP draw more Republican-leaning districts before the next elections. House Republicans don’t see a wave coming their way, but they do believe they can squeak through enough wins to have a GOP speaker sitting behind Biden when he gives his 2023 State of the Union address.
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That will happen only if the Republicans win back the suburban voters who fled the party in the past four years, said Sean Maloney, a New York congressman and the new chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “The Republican Party hasn’t learned anything from the 2020 election, and they continue to be addicted to Donald Trump,” he said. “They’re so hooked on Trump, they forgot about the voters they need to win in competitive districts.”
Yet Democrats were shocked at how effective Republican talking points were in 2020, especially their focus on progressives’ talk of socialism and defunding the police. Abigail Spanberger, one of the Democrats who flipped a Republican seat in 2018 and barely held on in 2020, told me in a podcast interview for The Ticket in November that she thinks Democrats’ decision to push those ideas nearly made her lose in November and will probably make her lose in 2022 if the party doesn’t make a
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