In a noteworthy revelation, the president-elect said he has consulted Republican appointees who are no longer in office to try to get a handle on what is going on. (He also confirmed his team has not received a Defense Department briefing since Dec. 17 or Dec. 18.) This fog in the transition process partly explains his Cabinet picks so far: “You need old hands to know where the old bodies are buried,” he joked.
Biden also said he has found “solace" in discussions with “senior Republican senators” who have spoken with him. He emphasized that there are Republicans who are concerned with the “disjointed circumstances” in which we find ourselves, and who are amenable to finding common ground.
That is the flip side of entering an office after one of the least transparent, competent and honest administrations in history: Biden has a genuine abundance of confidence in his own ability to get things done.
Executive orders are part of Biden’s solutions, but a limited one. “I spent most of my career arguing against the imperial president,” he recalled. “We have three equal branches of government.” There are some things he intends to do on Day One — reenter the Paris climate agreement, undo the weakening of environmental regulations and protecting the “dreamers.” But he said he did not think he has the power, for example, to unilaterally forgive $50,000 in student debt for every borrower.
That leaves the incoming president largely on dependent on successful dealmaking with Republicans who have often displayed a contempt for getting anything done. Nevertheless, Biden remains certain he can mark some achievements. He won’t win over the Proud Boys or the Republicans who apparently don’t want to spend a dime on stimulus. “But I don’t have to,” he insisted. He is confident he can unite Democrats and get enough Republicans on board to surpass expectations.
His “leverage,” Biden argued, is his ability to draw out bipartisan support, as we saw in the latest stimulus bill. This stems partially from Republicans’ understanding that “never have I misled them or publicly embarrassed them.” On a $15 minimum wage and on health care (though not necessarily on the public option, he confesses), he thinks he can get Republican support. (Biden pointed to a lame-duck session deal that the Obama administration was able to negotiate after Donald Trump’s election in 2016 that resulted in $9 billion in spending for the National Institutes of Health.)
Biden clearly believes that his political abilities are continually underestimated. “I think I’m pretty good at this,” he said, referring to his victory in the Democratic primary and the 7-million-vote margin in the general election. He also cited his success in bringing parties together, as he did in enlisting labor groups to support his environmental plan during the campaign and in getting General Motors to announce last month that it was dropping its suit against California’s emission standards. For Biden, there is a popular consensus moving toward the center, where he has always championed the needs of working people.
Most critically, he deeply believes that reality can intrude on ideology. Republican voters face the same crises as Democrats (e.g., how to pay the rent), and they will talk to their representatives. In the abstract, Republicans may not agree on climate change, but they do understand people are “getting sick and dying” from the effects climate change is having on the environment.
“I know how to deal with the punchers,” Biden insisted. But he remains convinced that“when you get into blood matches, nothing gets done.”
Progressives and a good deal of the cynical media world scoff at such thinking, calling the president-elect naive. But he has no choice, at least initially. He must begin with an all-out effort to win over just enough Republicans to get parts of his agenda through. If that fails — especially if the Republicans remain in the majority in the Senate and resort to obstruction — there will be time enough for “blood matches.”
After four years in which disdain for good governance and irrationality dominated our politics, there is something encouraging and reassuring about a president who does not enter office cynical about functional government. Who knows? He might just succeed.
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