Now that all the beautiful speeches about unifying a country in disunion are over and done, we should note that the clock on the Biden honeymoon period is already ticking. In fact, that sound you hear might be the alarm going off.
Some day school children may recite the words of poet Amanda Gorman — my grandson’s kindergarten teacher played the speech, and also those by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, for her virtual students, but in our fractured time only after warning parents in case they didn’t want their kids to participate — but let’s imagine that of the many who were touched by Gorman, Mitch McConnell might be an outlier.
No point in sighing. There’s no crying in politics, although there is a great deal of whining. Biden has a solid approval rating as he takes office, but lower than most pre-Trump presidents. And unifying the country, even with a majority of Republicans still believing the election was rigged, may be a far easier task for Biden than unifying the Congress, where Democrats are clinging to power in the Senate on the strength of a 50-50 tie. When Barack Obama was elected, Dems held the Senate by a 60-40 margin, and we know how that turned out two years later.
Which explains, in part, the need for Biden’s executive order spree, most of which is good and necessary, certainly from a progressive policy standpoint, but maybe not so good for that magical, or is it mythical, word — bipartisanship.
Should that matter? What I mean is, is the best we can hope for from Congress an agreement to disagree civilly? Or is it possible that there would be some willingness to compromise? Biden’s proposal for a $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief package has not exactly been embraced by the leading so-called moderate Republican senators. As everyone predicted, as soon as Democrats took control, fiscal hawkism would rise from its four-year slumber. So, how do the Democrats get to 60 votes to pass the bill over the expected filibuster?
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Or is this the time — I’d say yes, by the way — to end the filibuster? In a 50-50 Senate, the 50 Democrats represent 41 million more people than the 50 Republicans. The filibuster makes this anti-democratic body just that much less democratic. I’m hard pressed to see how Biden can get much of what he is proposing through Congress with the filibuster in place. It’s important enough that McConnell is trying to force a promise not to end the filibuster before he’ll agree on what the rules governing a 50-50 Senate should look like. I don’t know, maybe just the threat of ending the filibuster will work for Biden in getting his program passed.
This is what to remember about Congress: It is not exactly ancient history that more than half of the Republican caucus voted against accepting the Electoral College vote, which is funny, in a non ha-ha way, because without the Electoral College, neither Trump nor George W. Bush would have been president.
This is just to note what Biden is up against and why the success of his ambitious program is about more than good policy. As many have noted, Biden faces more crises at once than any incoming president since FDR.
Ezra Klein lays it all out for Democrats in his New York Times column. He also uses the ticking clock, but his alarm is set for 2022. He writes that for Democrats to avoid the midterm shellacking that Barack Obama and Democrats took in 2010, they must achieve. They must get the vaccinations in arms — and while Biden’s 100 million shots in 100 days may be a nice goal, it must only be the start — and money to reopen schools and save businesses and protect the unemployed and get the country back on track soon.
Klein cites a book, “Presidents, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy,” in which William Howell and Terry Moe write that “populists don’t just feed on socioeconomic discontent. They feed on ineffective government — and their great appeal is that they claim to replace it with a government that is effective through their own autocratic power.”
This is the I-alone-can-fix-it appeal. Trump’s defeat was probably less about lies and corruption and demagoguery and racism and basic unfitness for office than it was about his great failure on the pandemic and the resulting shattering of the economy.
Obama may have had a good first two years, but his biggest achievement was Obamacare, which was a political loser in 2010 and for years after. Only recently did it become popular enough to be used as a cudgel for Democrats against Republicans. Even Obama’s stimulus package, in the face of an existential economic crisis, was unpopular.
Biden’s first test is getting people the COVID vaccines. This is one that is easily understood and easily measured in terms of success or failure. Trump badly botched the distribution of vaccines — warp speed on vaccines apparently ended with FDA approval — and the Biden administration says it needs to start all over. As everyone has heard, Biden is promising 100 million vaccines in the first 100 days. This is a test that he can’t afford to fail, and one, more to the point, that American can’t afford for him to fail. And the math says that the numbers have to improve rapidly from there to make vaccines readily available.
If you watched the newly liberated Dr. Tony Fauci say the goal is doable, you might have also noted that we need to be increasingly bold. Biden says — as Trump said, but apparently didn’t mean — that we need to take a wartime posture on this. It is a crisis that must be met. In fact, it seems likely that we can more than meet Biden’s goal of a million vaccines a day — we’re somewhere around a million a day now — and then we have to do better still.
This is all Biden faces. He has to persuade people to wear masks and to somehow get past mask-wearing as a political statement. He has done the executive order on wearing masks on federal property and when traveling on planes, trains and you know the rest. But that’s not enough. Wearing masks is a critical factor as the vaccine producers ramp up the supply and the new, dangerous variant comes more into play. And then, of course, there are the anti-vaxxers. It’s not clear what percentage of Americans need to be vaccinated to approach herd immunity. It might be 70 percent. It might be 90 percent. But people need to be convinced. (As an old person with an autoimmune disease, I’ve gotten my first shot. Fortunately no side effects, if you don’t count the smile on my face.)
But for the economy to bounce back, Biden needs to get his bill passed, even if the Senate has to use reconciliation for what Biden calls his “recovery” bill — reconciliation being a complicated workaround in which 51 votes can get certain bills passed. The bill includes money for vaccine distribution and for school testing and for small-business relief and unemployment relief and $1,400 more in everyone’s pocket.
There’s no recovery, though, if 4,000 people are dying every day. As Biden warns, things will get worse before they get better, and we’ll likely be at 500,000 deaths sometime next month. This is not about politics. It’s about a worldwide calamity. When introducing his bill Thursday, Biden said he was optimistic, which is fine. But after his many dozens of years in Washington, Biden knows that realistic works, too. It doesn’t really matter so much how it works — optimism, realism, filibuster, reconciliation, bipartisanship, party line — only that it does.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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