Unfortunately, Biden is naturally inclined to respond in just the way Republicans are counting on. He’s a compromiser, a dealmaker — a man who wants to believe that there are bipartisan solutions to be found.
That’s not to say that Biden is naive about what he faces, just that he will always be vulnerable to some of the same mistakes that President Barack Obama made early in his tenure, mistakes that come from thinking Republicans just might be operating in good faith and with the proper persuasion they can be dealt with.
But a realization of the full implications of our current polarization may just prove liberating for the new administration.
There are at least some encouraging signs that Biden understands the situation; here’s a report from Politico on how his transition is thinking about personnel:
Concerned about Republicans slow-walking confirmation hearings for Cabinet appointees and hollowed-out federal agencies, Biden and his aides are eager to place mid- to lower-level officials across the federal government, particularly in national security roles, to ensure his administration can begin to enact his agenda immediately, according to three people familiar with the situation.
Slow-walking will absolutely be the Republican strategy, on both appointments and legislation. They won’t come out and say they’re going to stonewall every appointee and refuse to allow any legislation to pass; instead they’ll say that they just want to make sure Biden doesn’t stock his administration with radical leftists and propose far-out socialist laws. Send us the nominees and the bills, and we’ll consider them. It’ll just take some time.
Weeks will then stretch into months, and the Biden agenda will languish. They’ve done it before — Obama himself describes how they endlessly dragged out negotiations on the Affordable Care Act by claiming they might support it — and they’ll do it again. That’s the Republican plan.
The first step to getting around it is to understand that the public won’t blame gridlock on the ones who are causing it. They’ll just see a bunch of bickering in Washington with nothing getting done, and Biden will be the one who takes the blame.
Once you realize that the public is neither aware of nor particularly concerned about process questions, you can stop worrying about whether Republicans will squawk at this appointment or that executive order — because they’ll squawk no matter what you do. If it’s a good idea and you think the results will be good, then just do it. As quickly and comprehensively as possible.
As David Roberts of Vox observes: In 2009, Obama and his aides made the mistake of thinking that their major initiatives had to be rolled out one at a time in sequence, because he had a finite store of “political capital” that had to be spent carefully. But political capital is not something that exists apart from any particular issue; it isn’t a special sauce that has to be poured on a policy in order to make it palatable.
And with the parties as polarized and unified as they are, political capital has become all but meaningless. There may have been a time when a popular president possessed so much capital that a senator from the opposition party would feel compelled to support him on part of that president’s agenda, but that time is long gone. There is no account Biden can draw on to turn Republican “no” votes into “yes.”
So setting up a series of high-profile policy battles may be the opposite of what Biden should do. The unfortunate fact is that he may not have the opportunity to do much in the way of big legislation on health care or climate change or anything else, and if he has only executive power to work with, it makes it all the more urgent to move quickly.
Which means getting staff in place immediately and then unleashing them. The Revolving Door Project argues that Biden should give as much authority as possible to the agencies to let them dismantle their particular corners of the Trump legacy on their own, because the task “simply will not happen if approached sequentially or micromanaged” by a White House staff with limited bandwidth.
That means moving on every policy area all at once. There’s nothing to be gained by putting off any part of Biden’s agenda. Whatever he can do given the limits of his power, he should do as soon as possible, in a flood of policymaking.
Even if Democrats win both Georgia races and control the Senate, Biden should acknowledge that he likely has two years until the 2022 midterm elections to pass whatever legislation he can. Not only will Democrats probably lose one or both houses in the inevitable backlash (as happens to most presidents in their first midterm), the only possible chance at forestalling that result is to get results, as many as possible, that he can show the voters.
Republicans will complain that Biden is being partisan, uncompromising, taking a “my way or the highway” approach. It will be a strategy to convince everyone of the lie that Biden and Democrats might be able to find some way of winning them over, when in fact they’ll be implementing a strategy of total opposition.
If Biden follows them on that fruitless quest, he’ll be running in circles while crucial time passes and nothing gets done. The only option for him is to decide not to care about Republican whining and do what he got elected to do with all haste. The alternative is failure.