Biden's long political evolution leads to his biggest test
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has navigated a half-century in American politics by relentlessly positioning himself at the core of the Democratic Party.
Wherever that power centre shifted, there Biden has been, whether as the young senator who opposed court-order busing in school integration cases or the soon-to-be 46th president pitching an agenda on par with Franklin D. Roosevelts New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnsons Great Society.
The common thread through that evolution is Biden always pitching himself as an institutionalist — a mainstream liberal but also a pragmatist who still insists that governing well depends on compromise and consensus.
Now Bidens central political identity faces the ultimate trial.
On Wednesday, the 78-year-old president-elect will inherit stewardship of a nation wrenched by pandemic, seismic cultural fissures and an opposition partys base that considers him illegitimate, even to the point of President Donald Trumps supporters violently attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as Congress convened to certify Bidens victory.
Bidens answer follows two tracks: defending the fabric of society and institutions of government that Trumps tenure has stressed and calling for sweeping legislative action. His agenda includes an initial USD 1.9 trillion pandemic response, along with proposed overhauls for health care, taxation, infrastructure, education, criminal justice, the energy grid and climate policy.
A message of unity. A message of getting things done, Ron Klain, his incoming White House chief of staff, explained Sunday on CNNs State of the Union. The first approach, rooted in Bidens campaign pledge to restore the soul of the nation, netted a record 81 million votes in the election. In his Nov. 7 victory speech, Biden called that coalition the broadest and most diverse in history and framed it as evidence Americans are ready to lower the temperature and heal. Bidens second, policy-based approach, however, still must confront a hyperpartisan age and a closely divided Congress. The outcome will determine the reach of Bidens presidency and further test the lifetime politicians ability to evolve and meet events.
We cant have a claim to want to heal the nation if what people mean is just having the right tone and being able to pat one another on the back, said the Rev. William Barber, a leading social justice advocate who has personally pushed Biden to prioritize the marginalized and poor of all races.
Real healing of the nation, Barber said, must be dealing with the sickness in the body of the nation caused by policy, by racism, by polity. Activists such as Barber represent just one of many flanks surrounding Biden.
Republicans are clear they wont passively ratify Bidens responses to the pandemic or deep-seated problems that came before it: institutional racism, widening wealth gaps, the climate crisis. The Democratic Party isnt marching in lockstep, either, as progressives, liberals and moderates dicker over details.
I wouldnt expect big, sweeping change, said Michael Steel, once a top aide to former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Democrats will control a 50-50 Senate with Vice President-elect Kamala Harriss tiebreaking vote as presiding officer. But the chambers 60-vote filibuster threshold for major legislation remains. Bidens longtime friend, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, is the House speaker, but presides over a diminished Democratic majority and slim margin for error.
Harris framed the stakes Sunday, telling CBS Sunday Morning that the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 was an exposure of the vulnerability of our democracy. John Anzalone, Bidens campaign pollster, noted in a recent interview that Biden won with a message spanning ideology. Some voters may not believe in his politics. But they believe in him, Anzalone said. They believe in his compassion and they believe in, quite frankly, his leadership skills. Anzalone loosely compared Bidens appeal to Ronald Reagans. Reagan was a hero of movement conservatives yet drew support from a wide swath of Reagan Democrats to win the presidency in 1980 amid economic and international instability. By extension, Reagan could count on support or at least good faith from many Democrats on Capitol Hill, most notably then-Speaker Tip ONeill, D-Mass.
The analogy sort of fails when you ask who are the Tip ONeills for Republicans at this point? Anzalone acknowledged. But, he said, Biden is not averse to big fights. Biden projects confidence regardless, in part, those close to him say, because of his long tenure in Washington buttressed now with the presidential megaphone.
Part of the presidents job is making the case to the American people and persuading them what the right way forward is, said Stef Feldman, policy director for Bidens campaign.
Through that lens, it becomes less surprising to see the politician who joined Republicans in the mid-1990s to clamour for a balanced budget now declares emergency spending measured by the trillions more urgent than ever, even including deficit spending. It was a similar course for Biden as he aged from a young senator in a chamber still stocked with old-guard segregationists into the trusted lieutenant for the nations first Black president. The Senate Judiciary Chairman who in 1991 led an all-male panel in Supreme Court confirmation hearings involving sexual harassment claims turned the widely panned experience into invitations for the committee to seat its first Democratic female members.
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