Not being Trump is not enough to successfully govern through the next four years, Biden must turn the base that elected him into a base for him. He will have this political challenge in mind as policies are initiated to tackle the vast array of problems the nation faces. Because he is, by all counts, a one-term president, political success will ultimately be measured by whether Democrats can build their majorities in Congress in 2022, whether his executive orders are presumed to stand past 2024, and the extent to which traditional global allies and rivals have comfort that his policies are not subject to arbitrary reversal in four years’ time. To get Congress to bend to his will, to help create comfort with the continuity of his policies, domestic and foreign, all parties must buy into his popular acclaim – the currency of any president’s power.
Policy success does not alone deliver popularity; tenor, tone, and controlling the message are necessary too, and to this end, Biden’s inaugural is an important first step. Most inaugural addresses are forgettable or best forgotten, only a few resonate through time or even move the nation (Garfield declared that Southern suppression of black votes was an evil, but it took almost another 100 years before government forcefully addressed it). In the past 60 years these speeches have increasingly pandered with emotional appeals and human-interest stories, addresses judged by the number of applauses, rather than by the rhetoric of evidence and argument. Biden likely needs an old-fashioned address to be effective, and we find out today whether it is in him to deliver one and thereby take a big step towards building a base for himself. All is not lost if he does not, even a good speech, to be fair, has limited lasting effect, but better still to succeed by giving reason for support other than for who he is not.
Race underlies much of American politics, and it has from the start, but Biden seems to understand that race alone is too facile a reason for what ails the nation today. The charts (above) illustrate that economic “scarring” (the current in-vogue description of post-Covid recovery concerns) has been ongoing for some time. There is the fall-off of economic well-being from the 1966-93 trendline, and the widening disparity between metropolitan and rural incomes. Downward mobility and rising “depths of despair” have been the result. Trump tapped into this broad disquiet to build his popularity –and added to his vote among minorities in 2020. It is key for Biden to communicate that he too recognizes this scarring problem and orders his economic priorities accordingly – Democrat’s populism.
This is the reason why the nation’s global and domestic economic priorities will naturally change in tone from Trump, but not in direction. We heard this yesterday in the confirmation hearings for Blinken (State) and Yellen (Treasury) – there was no signal of turning soft-on-China, quite the opposite. In the same vein, Yellen said the dollar should be market determined -- a politic way of saying an orderly devaluation is fine, and that other nations should not cheapen their currencies in retaliation. Her resolve will be tested, but she will have the Fed onside. She played down short-run concerns about the deficit, believing there is plenty room for more debt given the risk of doing too little. Further, she is thinking about issuing long-term bonds – why not fix interest expense at negative real rates and wait 50 years to roll current nominal values. If successful, the coming infrastructure program would be similarly financed.
Covid-relief, ACA, immigration, cryptocurrency, regulations, ESG, green infrastructure– how much will the Senate cooperate? More than during Obama’s terms. McConnell does not want to give Democrats so much that they overrun his party in two years, but recent events have shaken moderate Republicans and Biden knows how the Senate works (unlike Obama). This morning, McConnell and Biden are going to church together. There is also a battle to play out among Republicans, and the mainstream will likely look to isolate Trump’s acolytes. The even split in the Senate means committee chairs are Democrats but there is an equal number from each party on the committee – meaning a loss of one Republican seat. Could Ted Cruz be the odd man out on Judiciary? In the old days, committee assignments enforced party discipline.
Impeachment? McConnell’s recent comments imply more is known about Trump’s involvement, but more must be made public if 17 Republicans are voting for impeachment and to keep Trump from ever holding office again, Point is, Biden needs action on Covid relief soon, and he does not want impetus to passage lost in impeachment hearings that turns partisanship more contentious, especially with no new evidence. Moreover, when Biden introduced Garland as Attorney-General, he repeatedly referenced Justice’s independence, meaning he will not prevent investigations into any members of Trump’s administration or family.
Governing by executive order. Obama did it because of Republican intransigence. Trump reversed Obama’s orders and then governed similarly. Executive orders used to hold fast, like laws, such as Truman’s to desegregate the armed forces. Biden is set to reverse what Trump ordered on immigration, environmental regulation, and the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump also ended his administration with a flurry of orders that amounted to grandstanding, and most if not all of these will get reversed too. This is not a way to run a country, but no one is going challenge its abuse because each party wants its turn to be unfettered – like pardons