Biden has surprised me.
I’ve been aware of Joe Biden since the 1980s, and while I’ve always liked him pretty well, I thought him something of a mediocrity. (Biden was never the presidential candidate I preferred – not in 1988, not in 2008, and not in the campaign of 2019-20.)
Yet – surprisingly! – it seems possible at this moment that the Biden presidency will prove one of America’s greatest. It depends.
That surprising possibility emerges from the combination of two factors:
• Times of crisis – such as we are in now – open big opportunities for great leadership. (Like Washington getting a new nation off the ground, Lincoln navigating through a cataclysmic Civil War, FDR with the Great Depression and World War II.) Crises make the nation’s possible paths forward diverge most dramatically between best – and worst-case scenarios.
• So far, Biden and his team have shown themselves enormously skilled, public-spirited, and ambitious to move the nation forward to meet those challenges.
As for Biden himself, at the very least he has shown so far that he possesses the good judgment to put together a crackerjack team of competent and public-spirited people and to follow wise advice.
That Biden’s administration shows dedication to the good of the nation is no surprise. But how disciplined Biden’s course has been, and how strategically adept has been their navigation of a most complicated political landscape – I wouldn’t have expected.
In 60 years of observing the political scene, I cannot recall seeing a more promising team on the job as the one now led by Joe Biden.
If I’m right in that judgment, it’s an enormous stroke of luck for the United States that – at a moment when the possibilities to build a Better America are unusually great – we have such an unusually capable group in place to make the most of that opportunity.
The just-passed “American Rescue Plan” illustrates what that fortunate scenario might look like. Biden and his team have enacted a huge piece of legislation that was favored by a bi-partisan 75% of the American people. Already, in the first inning, they have hit a grand-slam home run.
That was the first of what will likely be a series of substantial proposals from this administration that – if enacted – would:
• Almost certainly change things in our nation for the better, and
• Give a clear majority of the American people what they want.
Patriotic liberals and conservatives might disagree on some measures. But even if only those Biden proposals that have the support of, say, more than 60% of the people were enacted, that would likely suffice for the Biden presidency to be one of the most beneficially transformational in our history.
That’s the opportunity.
But the way the political battle is shaping up shows clearly that there’s also a good chance this historic opportunity will be squandered.
The fact that every single Republican in both houses of Congress voted against the American Rescue Plan – despite the support of three-quarters of the American people, including a substantial majority of Republican voters – is a clear indication that the congressional Republicans have decided to oppose whatever Biden and his team propose.
That vote shows that – no matter how big a bipartisan consensus among the American people favoring a Biden proposal – the Republicans in Congress will prioritize making Biden fail rather than helping America succeed. If they can.
And under the present rules in the Senate, they mostly can.
The only reason that the American Rescue Plan got passed is that the particular nature of that bill allows it to be passed in the Senate with a majority of votes. But the present Senate rules regarding the filibuster enable a minority of Senators to block most legislation despite its being supported by a Senate majority.
So, many other proposals will be coming in the wake of this big American Rescue package – to protect the rights of citizens to vote, to deal with climate change, to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, to have universal background checks on weapon purchases, etc.
Most of those bills will likely have widespread popular support. But most of them can be blocked by the Republicans – can and therefore will be blocked, unless those Senate rules are changed.
As things move toward a battle over the filibuster, the Democrats will work to dramatize how those rules are preventing the American people from getting what they want. Then the battle will be joined, and we will see:
• Whether the Democrats maintain the 100% unity they’ll need to make the changes required to allow the (razor thin) majority to advance the nation? Or
• Whether those rules remain intact, enabling a Republicans minority to prevent much of anything from being accomplished.
Regarding America’s future path, so vast is the divergence between the best-case scenario (passing a series of constructive measures to meet our challenges) and the worst-case scenario (national paralysis in the face of crisis) that the stakes could hardly be higher.