For four interminable years, Donald Trump made that optimism look naive. Now, after an inspiring inauguration, hope is back — born not of “a foolish fantasy” of Kumbaya unity, but of what Biden in his fine inaugural address called “enough of us” coming together to restore faith in government’s ability to tackle big problems.
Doing so requires an end to what he dubbed, “this uncivil war.” We’re still processing the Jan. 6 insurrection, but it may have broken the fever that — stoked from the very top — allowed smash-mouth politics to dominate our lives. After Trump was de-platformed, online misinformation fell by 73 percent. The pro-Trump protests in Washington and state capitals were complete duds. Corporate PACs cut off money for politicians who voted for the Big Lie that Biden stole the election.
In the House, 139 Republicans who joined the uprising, with no filibuster or friend in the White House, have no power today; they are noise, not news. In the Senate, 42 of 50 Republicans avoided sedition and can be negotiating partners.
That provides an opening for Biden, who embodies the empathy and resilience this moment requires. He’s also skilled in the legislative arts, which means that razor-thin Democratic margins in the House and Senate aren’t quite as problematic as they might be otherwise. Habitually unruly Democrats have become impressively disciplined of late. Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) will stake out their positions, but any member — moderate or progressive — who tries to sink Biden’s program will get hammered by the broad base of the Democratic Party.
So some version of Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” will likely pass in the next few weeks — some chunks on a bipartisan basis; others through budget reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes. The public wants it, as GOP lawmakers are learning. They noticed that voters overwhelmingly approved a $15-an-hour minimum wage last November in Florida, and that Trump and even authoritarian populists such as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) back a full $2,000 in direct payments. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a booster of Biden’s rescue package.
Biden faces longer odds on his huge, “Build Back Better” infrastructure and green jobs package, but he could shorten them by directing several large job-creation projects to red states.
Meanwhile, Biden has promised 100 million vaccinations in 100 days. If the public sees the federal government riding to the rescue — National Guard troops and idealistic young health-care workers joining forces at community health sites to give Americans their old lives back — success could build on success and we could see a period of historic achievement.
It may be that Lyndon B. Johnson’s first year after his election in 1964 is a better model than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legendary First Hundred Days. In 1965, LBJ won big victories on health (the creation of Medicare and Medicaid), democracy (the Voting Rights Act), education, and an immigration bill that changed the face of America. Biden is looking for victories in precisely the same areas.
Even with much larger majorities in Congress, LBJ faced plenty of opposition. Will today’s progressives celebrate partial victories or bemoan inevitable compromise? We will likely see both. They’ll grumble that Biden gave away too much — then take their three-quarters of a loaf home to grateful constituents.
Biden’s biggest domestic decision involves the rules of his old club — whether to support abolishing the Senate filibuster, the main instrument of gridlock. The filibuster has already been reduced in three areas: Confirming executive branch appointments, federal judges and Supreme Court justices now requires 51, not 60, votes.
With 51, Senate Democrats could suspend the filibuster in a fourth category — bills related to protecting the right to vote. Call it “the democracy option.” This would allow passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a sweeping measure that would expand access to voting and would ban voter suppression at the state level. It would address structural racism and help assure that democracy will prevail in the future. Passage after the Jan. 6 insurrection would echo Congress’s adoption of the original Voting Rights Act after Lewis and other civil rights activists were beaten in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
With a head of steam and a little luck, Joe Biden — a man shaped by the mid-1960s — could bring back memories of LBJ in his prime.