Joe Biden will become the US president during an extraordinary moment in history, one that could very well prove to be the calm before the storm, a brief prelude to dissolution and illiberalism. Trump’s bid to become a full-on authoritarian failed, but Democrats could easily lose the House in a 2022 backlash. Biden could face total congressional opposition, even impeachment — as the recent baseless “stolen election” narrative has shown, if Republicans don’t have any evidence, they’ll just make something up.
Or maybe Democrats will keep the House and take the Senate in 2022, and legislation will become possible! Who knows? (The Georgia Senate runoffs are another big question mark.) If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past five years, it’s that I definitely don’t know what is going to happen next, and it doesn’t seem like anyone else does either.
What we do know is that Republicans will wage full-on war on Biden from the second he takes office. They will generate fake conspiracies and controversies through right-wing media and social media. Conservative voters will be told again and again that Biden and Kamala Harris are uniquely dangerous traitors engaged in all sorts of elaborate evil plots. The entire conservative movement, from top to bottom, will view limiting Biden to one term as its primary strategic objective. And the movement will engage in misinformation, norm violation, procedural fuckery, and outright lawbreaking, if necessary, to achieve that objective.
The right will be what it is, what it has been becoming for decades now; expecting anything else would be madness. The question is how the Biden administration should behave, knowing all this.
It would be foolish for anyone to claim to have all the answers, or any of the answers really, but in my mind the most pointed lesson about how to behave in a hopelessly partisan environment comes from Donald Trump himself.
Before getting to that (suspense!), it’s instructive to take a look back at some of the experiences of the administration for which Biden was vice president.
Obama’s efforts to collect and spend “political capital” were mostly for naught
When Barack Obama took office in 2009 in a deepening recession, he expected to receive some Republican help bailing out the economy. It’s easy today to look back on that expectation as naive, but at the time it wasn’t unreasonable. The economy was on the brink of disaster, the need was clear, and the depth of conservative backlash was not yet as evident as it would become later.
What happened instead was a wall of opposition from Republicans, built on bad-faith objections about deficit spending and government waste. With so little room to maneuver, Democrats were forced to negotiate with the tiny handful of moderate Republicans and the large handful of conservative Democrats in the Senate, holding the stimulus bill down to their arbitrary spending caps. In the end, the stimulus bill passed with zero Republican votes in the House and just three in the Senate. The result was an inadequate economic boost and a sluggish recovery that hobbled the rest of Obama’s presidency.
Since it was widely agreed that “political capital” was limited and Democrats could only take on one fight at a time, the question then became what to tackle next. The answer proved to be health care reform, perceived as a policy better developed and more widely supported in the Democratic caucus.
In July 2009, Democrats in the House introduced a health care plan based on a system that had been road-tested by Mitt Romney in his recent tenure as governor in Massachusetts. Many Democrats thought the process would take a few months, and then Congress could move on to climate change. Instead, again and again, Republicans lured Democrats into extended negotiations, only to withdraw support at the last minute over some new bad-faith objection (see: “death panels”). That left Democrats negotiating with their most conservative members, who did much the same thing (Joe Lieberman, may his name live in infamy).
In the end, talks dragged on until March 2010, when Obama finally signed the Affordable Care Act. It got no Republican votes, in the Senate or the House.
Then it was finally time for climate change, and the strategy there was yet more clever sequencing. Obama told Republicans that if they didn’t cooperate on climate change legislation, he would regulate greenhouse gases via the Environmental Protection Agency, which would offer less flexibility and less ability to compensate hard-hit communities. The idea was that the threat of EPA regulations — made inevitable by the Supreme Court’s 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA judgment that carbon dioxide is a pollutant subject to the Clean Air Act — would frighten Republicans to the legislative table, where they could better defend their interests.
Instead, Republicans vowed implacable opposition to all of it. They would fight furiously against legislation when it was on the table and then fight regulations just as furiously when they came up.
To a cool Vulcan mind like Obama’s, it seemed entirely irrational, against Republicans’ own best interests. At that point, he had not fully internalized the extent to which the conservative movement has become unleashed id, driven more by right-wing media than by Republican politicians, fueled by resentment and organized purely to defeat the libs.
In June 2009, when the climate bill passed the House, it got eight Republican votes. By mid-2010, it was dead in the water, with no hope of any Republican votes in the Senate. Democrats no longer had their filibuster-proof 60 seats, and there was nothing like the same support in the caucus that health care reform generated, so it never came to a Senate vote. It ended with a whimper, not a bang.
As promised, Obama’s EPA began slowly rolling out regulations, one at a time. It wasn’t until late in his first term that auto mileage standards were finalized and into his second term before EPA got to power plants. Republicans were able to keep Obama’s Clean Power Plan tied up in court through the end of his second term. Then Trump took power and began a simultaneous all-fronts assault on Obama’s regulations, unrolling them so fast it was difficult to even keep track.
Two-party partisan politics really is a zero-sum game
The theme of these stories is that Democrats relied on clever sequencing over and over again, imagining some amount of political capital (“credibility”) that they could husband and spend strategically to get assistance across the aisle, at every juncture underestimating the ferocity and unanimity of Republican opposition. They kept behaving as though they would find good-faith negotiating partners, as though they were still in the postwar American era of relatively low (or at least manageable) polarization.
What too few of them realized was that they were already in a new era of near-total polarization, with the population sorted into like-minded enclaves, a bifurcated media ecosystem nurturing stacked (and diametrically opposed) “mega-identities,” and voters motivated primarily by “negative partisanship,” which is to say, hatred of the other side.
A fully polarized two-party system really is a zero-sum game. Any victories or gains by one side come at the other side’s expense, even if the victory secures shared goals. The rational course for the party out of power is to fight with full intensity against everything, always, and that’s what Republicans did under Obama. With scarcely any exceptions, from 2010 through 2020, they pushed in every case for maximal partisan advantage, no matter the stakes or possible cost.
The GOP has failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, despite a few close calls, but otherwise, its unprincipled pursuit of raw power has paid off handsomely. The party captured state legislatures in 2010 and was able to gerrymander itself minority rule in several states. It practically shut down Congress as a legislative body for six years of Obama’s term. It blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court and for its efforts got Neil Gorsuch. It ignored Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wishes and for its efforts got a 6-3 conservative Court majority that could last for generations.
Republicans blocked so many Democratic judicial nominations that Senate leader Harry Reid had to get rid of the judicial filibuster to keep the courts staffed. Then, when the GOP took control of the presidency and Senate, it used the absence of the filibuster to pack the federal courts full of hyper-ideological, young, often woefully unqualified judges.
Rather than paying any price for total partisan warfare, Republicans were rewarded in 2016 with the presidency and both houses of Congress. After carrying the country to the brink of authoritarian crisis, it has now lost the House and the presidency. But Joe Biden has been left to tackle a virtually uncontrolled pandemic and millions of people out of work and on the verge of homelessness or food insecurity.
The GOP will likely retain control of the Senate, which means there will be no adequate economic recovery package and none of Biden’s ambitious campaign plans will come to fruition. It has kept control of key state legislatures, so it will be able to gerrymander itself an advantage for another decade.
The elections of 2022 will be another partisan brawl, and the odds are stacked against Democrats; the president’s party has lost seats in every first-term midterm in the past 100 years, save three. If Republicans gain full control of Congress, impeachment becomes a real possibility, even if conviction is very unlikely.
It’s a grim situation, and Biden is starting out behind the eight-ball. How should he proceed?
Biden should run a blitz
Here we return to the lesson that Trump has to teach Biden about life in hyperpolarized politics.
To wit: blitz. Do everything at once.
No matter what the Biden administration does, it will be accused of socialism and corruption by the right. And the past several years have richly demonstrated that conservative parts of the country, particularly rural areas and low-density suburbs, are almost completely captured by right-wing media, from Fox on the TV to AM conservative radio to Sinclair-owned local news to the profusion of shady Facebook sources and groups, where misinformation is rapid and rampant.
Democrats badly need to address this media asymmetry. Despite what conservatives have convinced themselves, mainstream media outlets like CNN are not analogous to Fox, and Democrats have no comparable radio, local TV, or social media operations to carry their messages and narratives straight to voters where they live.
But that is long-term work, and 2022 is right around the corner.
The only thing Biden will have real control over is his administration and what it does. And his North Star, his organizing principle, should be doing as much good on as many fronts as fast as possible. Blitz.
By constantly blundering forward, Trump has helped chart which US institutions and norms provide real resistance and which don’t. The courts have tangibly restrained Trump; they have been the primary bulwark against him. But the chattering of the media and the political classes? Moral outrage? Precedent and tradition? Civil protest?
All of these have proven gossamer. Trump charged right through them like they were cotton candy. By constantly acting, being on the offensive, generating new stories and controversies, he simply overwhelmed the ability of the system to fasten on any one thing.
Biden should learn the lesson. All that matters is what gets done, put on paper and into law. The rest is vapor.
The administration should staff up as rapidly as possible with ambitious young progressives and tell every single civil servant that the next two years are going to be a full sprint. Start immediately rewriting and reimplementing the environmental, public health, and worker safety regulations Trump has weakened. Reverse his immigration policies. Drop his lawsuits.
Reassess the social cost of carbon. Replace Trump’s weak Affordable Clean Energy rule with more stringent carbon rules for the power sector. Ditch EPA’s “secret science” rule and restock scientific advisory boards with actual scientists. Put a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling leases on public land. Pledge the purchasing power of the federal government — around $500 billion a year — toward clean energy technology.
Through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), direct federal financing toward carbon reduction and clean energy across agencies. Use the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to reject regulations from any agency that do not include both a climate and equity “screen” to ensure that they reduce emissions and help the most vulnerable. Use the powers conferred by the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill to integrate climate risks into the financial system.
I’ve written more about what Biden can do on climate change without Congress. Vox’s Dylan Matthews took a wider policy view with 10 big things Biden can do with executive powers, from forgiving student loan debt to reigning in factory farming. More ideas can be found here, here, here, and here, among other places. There’s no shortage of ways for Biden to deploy the powers of the presidency, and he should maximize every one of them.
The new rule of partisan politics is to act, not react
All of these moves will elicit howls of outrage and court challenges from the right. Many will also infuriate the left, since they will inevitably fall short of Biden’s grand campaign promises.
Biden can’t control any of that. Doing less, negotiating more, relying on clever sequencing, chasing after receding promises of cooperation — none of that will solve anything, any more than it did for Obama. He can reach across the aisle, make it clear his door is open, but he shouldn’t wait around for anyone to walk in.
Biden’s best chance is to try to overwhelm the system the way Trump did, by doing so much that it’s impossible to make any one thing into a lasting story. He should launch so many simultaneous reforms that there’s no time for right-wing media to make up lies about all of them or for the Supreme Court to hear them all. He should ignore bad-faith attacks and stay relentlessly on message about what’s gotten done and what’s getting done next. He should, at every juncture, get caught trying to make government work better for ordinary people.
To succeed, all this must happen alongside Democratic Party efforts to improve messaging and media, get persistent party infrastructure on the ground in communities the party has neglected, and innovate on voter outreach and persuasion. (Aaron Strauss has some good ideas on that front.)
But Biden has something the rest of the party at the federal level does not have: the power to improve Americans’ lives in a visible way. More than anything else, cynicism about government’s ability to do that is corroding US politics. The best thing Biden can do, morally and politically, is act, as much and as fast as possible, and then talk about it, and do more of it, and talk about it more. (And he should be clear about exactly who stands in the way of bigger, better changes, and why his name is Mitch McConnell.)
The rest of it, he should ignore: the Washington chatter about the latest Republican accusations or catty infighting among Democratic factions, the cable news story or Twitter drama of the day, the latest offensive thing Trump or some Trump surrogate said, all of it. Bulldoze through it.
The president has limited ability to control political discourse and drama, but he has an enormous capacity to change policy and direct resources. Biden should use that power while he has it, without hesitation or apology.