But Joe Biden is actually living that reality.
It’s not simply that Biden was elected president after serving as vice president. It’s that the situation he will face when he enters the White House next month is eerily parallel to the one he faced with Barack Obama when they were elected in 2008.
Once again, a new president is coming onto the scene as the country faces a dire economic crisis. Millions of Americans are losing jobs through no fault of their own. State and municipal revenues are cratering, leading to further layoffs. In place of the foreclosure crisis, the nation is now on the brink of an eviction crisis, as moratoriums are set to expire at the end of the year.
The economy is rapidly shifting, and many Americans could possibly face long-term unemployment, even after the original crisis (in 2008, a financial one, in 2020, a medical catastrophe) has passed. Instead of one long downturn, it’s quite possible the nation is on the brink of a double-dip recession.
And Republicans, once again, are in no mood to cooperate. In fact, they are are actively making a bad situation worse. The leadership — with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) in a repeat role — makes the right noises but doesn’t actually do anything to make legislation happen. Instead of complaining about “losers” who expected to be bailed out by their neighbors when they bought homes they could not afford, the popular meme this go-round is about people who would rather collect unemployment than work for a living.
We all know what happened the last time. Obama, desperate to appear bipartisan, offered up an aid package — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — that was ultimately too small, and not a single Republican senator voted for it. Then, when the economy stagnated for years afterward and the financial gains of the period all went to the top tier of earners, voters blamed Democrats. The result was years of political gridlock and, ultimately, Donald Trump.
It seems almost certain that McConnell is going for a repeat. If it worked one time, why wouldn’t it again? He’s perhaps emboldened by Biden’s proclamations during the campaign that he possesses the skills to make bipartisanship happen. There could also be an awareness that much of that fabled Biden-bringing-people-together actually consisted of pushing Democrats to the right on issues such as Social Security and making it harder for people with student loans to declare bankruptcy, positions the president-elect now disavows.
But the past is not prediction. In many ways, Biden seems to have learned the lessons of the past decade of American life. His platform, some say, is more than a simple restoration of the Obama era — it may be the most progressive presidential offering in decades. He is pushing for a public option for health insurance, aware that the private market needs the competition. He has argued for partial student loan forgiveness. He has picked an economic team that seems to realize that if he doesn’t go big in pushing for further stimulus, we’ll all pay the price. Even before the election, Janet Yellen, Biden’s pick to serve as treasury secretary, said the economy needed “extraordinary” support.
Yet, in other ways, Biden doesn’t seem fully committed to a new path. When fundraising during the Democratic primary, he assured the wealthy in private meetings that “nothing would fundamentally change.” And a number of his Cabinet and administrative picks exude the Wall Street and revolving-door swampiness that so enraged Americans the last time out and gave Trump an opening.
Most important, it’s still not clear how Biden would handle things if Republicans stop up legislation. Will he aggressively resort to executive actions — as Trump did? Will he call out Republicans again and again until it registers, not just with the MSNBC fan base but also with the general and less engaged public? Or will he allow the Republicans to ultimately define him? Unlike in “Groundhog Day,” Biden is only going to get one chance. Our future depends on him getting it right.