Once inaugurated, President Biden will face either a Republican Senate or one that is barely Democratic — and most likely the former. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a master of obstruction, once again leads the opposition. Trump has spent four years expelling people of principle from the GOP ranks, leaving an increasingly shameless husk that spent 2020 obsessed with nonsense Hunter Biden scandals and embracing voter disenfranchisement as an explicit campaign strategy.
It is true that McConnell signaled Wednesday that he would push for a long-needed a coronavirus relief package soon. But he helped write the GOP’s successful anti-Obama script: Stymie even moderate Democratic legislation to make the new president appear hapless; blame the president for problems that stemmed from Republicans’ watch; deny Democrats routine courtesies that Republican presidents always get, such as confirming judges or raising the debt limit without demanding massive concessions; and exploit burdensome voting regulations and partisan redistricting to maximize the influence of the minority of the country they represent.
There will be an added Trump-era tinge to the opposition, too. Expect more unhinged Ukraine “investigations” from the likes of Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has already proven himself ready to abuse subpoena power to dignify fake scandals. Axios reports that McConnell contemplates curbing Biden’s ability to staff the government, even though the Senate typically defers to presidents’ picks. The implacability of the opposition will depend on the handful of halfway reasonable people left in the Senate GOP caucus, such as Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mitt Romney (Utah).
Biden will face almost as many difficulties from a restive left. This year’s election results are yet more evidence that the Democrats require a broad coalition that includes urban progressives, minorities, moderate suburbanites and just enough of everyone else to diminish GOP margins in rural America. If Democrats had not allowed themselves to be so easily defined by the loudest voices on the party’s left wing, they would have fared better, particularly in down-ballot races. “We lost members who shouldn’t have lost,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who holds a narrow lead in her suburban Virginia district, heatedly told a Thursday Democratic House caucus call, according to The Post. “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. … We lost good members because of that.”
This is not the lesson many on the left will take. The Bernie-would-have-won people will insist that Democrats could turn out more voters if they were stridently ideological. This view would have lost them the presidential election as well as a handful of House seats this year, as many of those who split their tickets, voting for Biden at the top and Republicans lower down, would not have done so.
But the Democratic left has invested years in the notion that incremental progress is unacceptable — that only Medicare-for-all or the Green New Deal could do any good. Meanwhile, myths about how President Barack Obama sold out progressives — on a bigger stimulus, on health care, on closing Guantánamo — stubbornly persist, even though he faced Senate opposition. The “professional left” — a term coined in 2010 by Obama adviser Robert Gibbs — wants more than it did before, and it may care even less about the Senate math.
These obstacles would be tough for any president at any time to overcome. But Biden faces an added pressure: Failure is not an option. The nation is awash with huge problems requiring immediate action, such as a criminal justice system in a crisis of legitimacy, extreme economic inequality, an ever-more assertive China, failing schools, declining rates of health insurance, the retreat of democracy across the world, a nation ever less attractive to foreign talent and, most of all, climate change. The consequences of more delay would be human misery on a vast scale. And Trump will have left Biden a mountain of new federal debt that makes any big policy push harder.
To make any headway, Biden will have to build congressional coalitions that span the gap between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Collins, Murkowski and Romney. Biden will have to satisfy Democrats with half-a-loaf politics, even as he persuades enough Republicans that it is in their interest to give him anything at all. And, when he fails, he will have to use his executive powers in a way that does not lay the groundwork for the next Donald Trump to abuse those authorities. As he does so, Biden will also face a hostile Supreme Court. Expect the newly entrenched conservative majority to embrace checks on executive power as a Democratic president tries to boost health-care coverage and reimpose environmental standards.
For Biden’s presidency to succeed — and the world needs it to succeed — he must attack major issues and manage voter expectations, making small wins seem big. For their part, voters must recognize that everything is not fixed just because they removed Trump. It will take many more elections — including the midterms that many voters typically skip — to address the problems Trump failed to solve or made worse. Staying home next time, or the time after that, or the time after that because you don’t have Trump to vote against will only drag the country backward again.