As president, Joe Biden will need to learn the art of working with a Congress controlled in part by the other party. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush mastered this skill, as did Bill Clinton later in his presidency. But it is hard to do. The executive branch must make congressional friends, accept some opposition ideas, negotiate big initiatives that appeal to both sides (such as the 1986 tax reform bill and the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act), and maneuver to win swing votes. This approach should be natural for Biden. The president-elect should start by calling every senator to establish a personal line of contact.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already signaled the need to pass a new stimulus bill, which he would sweeten by adding funds for state and local governments. Some Republicans have been uncomfortable with Trump’s positions on science, health care, trade and immigration. Others who face reelection in 2022 would like to run on accomplishments. Senators who have won reelection by demonstrating their independence, such as Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), may be open to Biden’s overtures, putting pressure on McConnell to negotiate. Biden and McConnell know the Senate’s folkways and the nature of shifting coalitions.
The Biden transition team is wisely concentrating on the coronavirus and a broad-based economic revival, but the new administration, once in office, would do well to quickly establish a record of legislative success by reviving bipartisan ideas languishing in Congress. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have promoted the Endless Frontier Act to boost investment in fundamental research and support the United States’ technological edge; Biden included a similar idea in his plan to compete with China. His administration could combine this legislation with the creation of a technology group among democracies.
Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) kept alive U.S. funding for international affairs despite Trump’s calls for cuts. If Graham the dealmaker rediscovers his inner John McCain, he and Leahy could spearhead an initiative, based on President George W. Bush’s emergency global AIDS relief model, to ensure that covid-19 vaccines and treatments reach Africa and Latin America.
On immigration, Biden should be able to assemble a coalition to assist the “dreamers” who arrived in the United States as the children of migrants, and perhaps to aid Central America while securing U.S. borders safely and humanely.
Defense experts in both parties recognize the need to shift military investments away from legacy platforms and toward resilient networks of high tech, autonomous systems that can deny China dominance in the Indo-Pacific. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine co-authored a bipartisan cybersecurity plan.
A number of Republicans in Congress shrank from Trump’s trade protectionism and would like to help Biden shape the international trade rules of the future. Younger Democrats seem to favor open trade, but some of Biden’s congressional allies will resist. A new administration could explore middle-ground initiatives, such as using the framework of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) for trade negotiations with Britain. The USMCA won Democratic and union support by stressing labor rights, an area where Britain ranks at least as well as the United States. Unions in the United States should be able to accept Britain’s labor rights.
Both parties in Washington are searching for new approaches to help working people adjust to job and technological disruptions. A shrewdly political administration should look to broaden its coalition by embracing policy innovation, regardless of the source.
Some Republicans will resist working with Biden. Some Democrats will object that this bipartisan agenda would deflate their expectations. Actually, the voters already did that. But Biden will need to pay special attention to those voting groups, including African Americans, who delivered his victory. Past presidents who wanted to get results have always needed to endure assaults from their flanks. Biden will have to decide whether he wants to lead a cause or leave a record. Like the good politician he is, Biden should line up with the United States’ voters.