And what happens then? Could Biden become a different president than we imagined? He well might, if he can rise to the occasion.
When I say “different,” I’m referring to one of the main reasons I was skeptical about Biden’s candidacy: his lack of policy ambition. Other candidates, especially Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, believed that this was a moment for sweeping change — “big, structural change,” as Warren would say — to address inequality, reform the health-care system, tackle climate change and make political reforms that would render our system more resistant to the influence of big money and special interests.
Biden never saw it that way. His has been a campaign of restoration, not revolution. He promises to turn the clock back four years, to get rid of Trump so we can all just calm down.
To many people, that sounded like a recipe for trimmed sails and lost opportunities. Nevertheless, if you look at the policy plans Biden’s campaign has put out, many of them are substantially to the left of where the Obama administration was.
Nevertheless, there was reason to doubt Biden’s commitment to pursuing them with energy and persistence. He has always been more of a dealmaker than an ideologue. He likes to say we’re in a battle for the soul of the nation, but there’s a danger that once he wins the election (if he does), he’ll figure that battle has been won and he can essentially be a caretaker president.
But if he takes office in the midst of a crisis, the calculations could change. There’s a good chance that the stimulus measures we take now will be insufficient — so he’ll be under pressure to pass new stimulus, which could well include some version of the Green New Deal. This public health crisis will almost certainly have been a disaster for our health-care system, which will give passing health-care reform new urgency.
A general atmosphere of crisis could give congressional Democrats the courage to shoot a little higher in their legislative agenda, especially knowing that it’s likely that they would have only two years to legislate, after which the pendulum will swing and Republicans will take back one or both houses in the 2022 midterm elections.
So for instance, in ordinary circumstances you could have easily imagined Biden putting off his quite progressive health-care plan for a couple of years in favor of some tweaks to the Affordable Care Act. But if we just saw thousands of Americans die in no small part because of the gaps in our health system, delay may be unacceptable.
And after all that talk about single-payer, a public option plan like Biden’s could get a majority in both houses, the still-fresh crisis allowing Democratic members who might have succumbed to industry pressure to show a little more courage and vote for it. Then we’d be a giant step closer to universal coverage as millions of Americans are brought into a public system. It’s at least possible.
All this makes it even more important that if Biden is elected, the Democrats who support him keep pressuring him not to squander the opportunity. The good news is that he’s the kind of politician who’s very susceptible to that kind of pressure.
There’s another way in which this crisis may change political reality. In my long quest to get people to stop worrying about “electability” and just vote for the candidate they prefer, I argued that Biden was much less electable than he looks on paper, because he simply is not very good at running for president. But now he may be more appealing to voters than he was before.
Biden isn’t all that inspiring, but people find him to be steady and reassuring, a guy who has been in government for a long time and knows how the system works. With Trump bumbling his way through the coronavirus crisis, Biden’s virtues may be more important and attractive to voters than they were a month or two ago, further increasing the chances that he’ll win in November.
And though we all hope the public health crisis and the economic crisis are over as quickly as possible, if there’s a silver lining here, it may be that they’ll make Biden, should he win, a better and bigger president than he otherwise would have been. Let’s hope so.