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Joe Biden’s impossible mission

The new president wants to unite a divided America. That’s even harder than it sounds.

Photo collage of Joe Biden, the presidential seal, and DC buildings. Amanda Northrop/Vox

President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration theme is “America United,” at a time when the country is deeply and bitterly divided.

Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president on the steps of the US Capitol today — two weeks to the day the building was stormed by violent insurrectionists who believed Trump’s lies that the election was stolen. Eight GOP senators and 139 members of Congress still objected to affirming two states’ Electoral College results after the attack.

“The fact they voted the way they did after the horror fundamentally forces you to recalibrate the relationship,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told me outside the House chamber. “You’re no longer just my political adversary or colleague of the other side, you actually aligned yourself with the people who want to kill me. So I now see you differently, I kind of see you as a threat to my personal well-being, and my family and my staff.”

If anyone can rise to the challenge of bringing together the country and Congress alike, Democrats believe it’s Biden.

“President-elect Biden is the person for the moment,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) told me. “He is somebody whose life is defined by grief and tragedy, that understands and knows loss in a way that very few people do. I am greatly encouraged that he’s going to be the one taking the lead here next week.”

A young Sen. Biden commutes via train from DC to Delaware. He was elected to the Senate in 1972, at the age of 29.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
Sen. Biden takes the oath of office with his father-in-law Robert Hunter and son Beau Biden, from Beau’s hospital room, on January 6, 1973. The photo was taken after the 1973 car crash killed Biden’s first wife Neilia and their infant daughter, Naomi.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

The crisis of an ideologically split America sits atop many others; the Covid-19 pandemic is hitting deadly new heights as states rush to vaccinate people, and over 18 million people are still unemployed. Biden will have to work with Republican lawmakers who voted to overturn his election, and govern a divided public including those who don’t believe he won the election fair and square. Most immediately, his administration’s legislative agenda could be hung up by Trump’s second impeachment trial in the Senate — which is set to begin after Biden takes office.

Even as he comes to Washington hoping to turn a new page and reach out to all Americans regardless of their political party, Biden is governing a country indelibly shaped by four years of Trump’s baseless conspiracy theories. He is taking over the presidency when many Republicans are openly questioning the legitimacy of his election — taking their cues from Trump. A recent NBC News poll found that 74 percent of Republican voters don’t believe Biden won the 2020 election legitimately.

“The President-elect is very aware that no presidential inauguration address has mattered as much to bring us together since Abraham Lincoln, and the security of the Capitol has never been as much at risk since Lincoln,” close Biden ally Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told me.

Tensions are simmering in Congress

Biden has pitched himself as someone who can work with Republican lawmakers to forge bipartisan consensus. Many Democrats who remember the Obama era already didn’t trust Republicans to negotiate in good faith. Now, the attack on the Capitol has deepened their mistrust.

“Those of us who regard ourselves as the folks who are really aggressively trying to work with the other side, we’re having a lot of conversations about can we do that and look ourselves in the mirror?” Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), a former chair of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, told me.

Democrats hold extremely slim majorities in both the House and the Senate. As long as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can keep her caucus unified in the House, she can pass bills on party-line votes. The Senate will be trickier; Democrats hold the barest majority with 50 votes and incoming Vice President Kamala Harris acting as a tie-breaker.

Democrats can technically pass some of their big-ticket items through a simple majority vote via a process called budget reconciliation. Still, Biden has said he wants to work in good faith with Republicans to see if he can get bipartisan bills through the Senate with the filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.

Biden is tasked with governing a country indelibly shaped by four years of Donald Trump.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The president-elect has already laid out his first major policy initiative last week: a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan to speed up vaccinations, testing, and tracing, and get more immediate economic relief to American families — including $1,400 checks and a $400 weekly unemployment insurance supplement.

Early Republican reactions to Biden’s first Covid-19 plan haven’t been promising. Even Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who called for Trump to resign over inciting the insurrection, already said they think Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan is a nonstarter.

“Blasting out another $2 trillion in borrowed or printed money — when the ink on December’s $1 trillion aid bill is barely dry and much of the money is not yet spent — would be a colossal waste and economically harmful,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

Biden will also introduce a separate recovery bill next month, focused on rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and getting back to work. Repairing America’s infrastructure has long been one of the few bipartisan issues on the Hill. But Himes isn’t alone in questioning how he can work with Trump-loyal Republicans in the future.

“Those who were at the center of fueling and fomenting an insurrection — how do you let bygones be bygones? We’re really struggling with that,” Himes said.

For the most part, Republicans are still allied with Trump

Going into office, Biden has promised Republicans that things can be different from the constant chaos of the Trump era, if they work with him.

“My leverage is, every senior Republican knows I’ve never once, ever, misled them,” Biden recently told members of the press. “I’ll never publicly embarrass them.”

Biden is no stranger to Republican obstruction; as Barack Obama’s vice president and frequent envoy to Capitol Hill, he watched as Republicans stymied Obama’s legislative agenda and obstructed his judicial nominations and cabinet picks to the point of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blowing up the filibuster for nominations.

“Even when we had 59 votes in the Senate, it was hard on issues where there was broad agreement on the Democratic side and no participation from the Republicans to still get things across the line,” said Phil Schiliro, who served as President Barack Obama’s legislative director.

Many Republicans continue to make their allegiance to Trump evident; just 10 House Republicans voted to impeach Trump last week.

“This does seem to be the major strategy of the Republican party since the November election, to tarnish or delegitimize Biden’s presidency, to suggest he’s in office because of something fraudulent,” University of Denver Political Science professor Seth Masket told me. “Since [Jan. 6] there’s more negativity associated with that; some extremist rhetoric that was tolerated just isn’t now.”

When I asked Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), one of the House Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 Electoral College results if he thought Biden won the election fair and square, he had a one-word response: “Yes.”

“That’s something I certainly intend to be here for, and recognize the peaceful transfer of power,” Cole said of Biden’s inauguration. Cole is representative of a lot of Republican lawmakers trying to placate a Trumpian base that rejects the basic fact that Biden won the election, while also recognizing the changing of the guard in Washington.

There’s also a small number of Senate Republicans who say they are willing to work with Biden — including Sens. Susan Collins (ME), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Mitt Romney (UT), and Bill Cassidy (LA). But those four moderates won’t get Biden to the 60 votes he needs to pass bills through the Senate.

Biden doesn’t have a lot of time, and impeachment could take up a lot of it

The first 100 days of any administration are the most critical, but Biden’s administration is pegging its first days on trying to get the Covid-19 crisis under control.

“Covid-19 is first,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a close Biden ally in the House, told me recently. “We can’t do anything until we get our arms wrapped around this pandemic.”

Biden has already laid out an ambitious agenda, legislative priorities and executive orders alike. His first proposed coronavirus relief package — the American Rescue Plan — weighs in at more than double that of Obama’s $800 billion stimulus bill, enacted to pull the country out of the 2008 Great Recession. Biden’s also trying to speed up America’s Covid-19 vaccination, with the goal of 100 million doses given out in his first 100 days. And that’s just the start.

Biden is also set to introduce his proposal for a sweeping immigration bill that would establish an eight-year pathway to citizenship today, another top legislative priority of his administration. Next month, he’ll be introducing a recovery package that will likely include an infrastructure bill to spur job creation around the country.

But on top of Biden’s cabinet appointments and bill proposals, the US Senate will also be focused on the second impeachment trial of outgoing President Donald Trump.

Trump’s impeachment could delay Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda.
Patrick Semansky-Pool/AFP via Getty Images

“It keeps Trump front and center,” Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol told Vox. “I think the last thing that should happen is another long round of these speeches. I think that’s terrible and I think Biden does too.”

Biden’s team is trying to steer clear of impeachment, saying it’s is entirely up to Congress to figure out, and stressing that their main priority is getting Covid-19 relief swiftly through the House and Senate and to Americans who need it.

“The precedent is clear; the Senate can do its constitutional duty while continuing to conduct the business of the people,” incoming White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told me at a recent press briefing. Psaki added that the Biden transition team has been busy engaging Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress on their Covid-19 plan.

Biden is starting out with multiple advantages: He’s entering office with a 64 percent approval rating — close to double Trump’s current rating — and has vast legislative experience and knowledge from his many years in the Senate.

But Biden also has just two years to get Congress to do all this before the 2022 midterms — which could once again shift the balance of power in Washington. Democrats could lose the House or the Senate — or both. Turning the page from the Trump era quickly will be impossible if his legislative agenda is delayed due to Trump’s impeachment.

“Biden has a huge opening with 60 percent of Americans,” Skocpol said. “It’s an opening he and the Democrats have to take advantage of under less-than-ideal circumstances pretty promptly.”

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