Why Joe Biden’s Honeymoon May Be the Shortest on Record
His only real mandate was to be not Donald Trump. He’ll accomplish that on Day One. Then what? Immigration? Not exactly a unifying issue.
When he raised his right hand on Wednesday, Joe Biden’s only real mandate was simply this: to not be Donald Trump. To paraphrase what Rush Limbaugh said about Barack Obama except in reverse, I hope he succeeds. At least, in this endeavor. Not being Trump is a major accomplishment. It’s also a campaign promise he achieved just before noon on Jan. 20. What do we do now?
I don’t want to diminish the significance of Biden being the polar opposite of Trump. There is great value in restoring honor, integrity, and normalcy—especially in the wake of Trump’s presidency. In doing so, we may begin to heal as a country, move past the chaos, and repair our social fabric. Indeed, the work of healing began during his inaugural address, when Biden struck all the right notes. And, a gift of omission: the simple (non-)act of a president not tweeting every thought that pops into his head will go a long way toward restoring sanity. In some ways, Biden might personify the old line about 80 percent of success being “just showing up.”
Still, Biden is likely to fall far short once he begins governing in earnest, when not being Trump won’t be enough. This is partly because Biden will inherit intractable problems, partly because he will have to navigate all sorts of crosscurrents between placating progressive interest groups and living up to his promise of being a “uniter” (not to mention the backdrop of an evenly divided Senate and a narrow House majority), and partly because it’s always harder to govern than it is to campaign. And, again, because Biden’s central promise was to not be Trump, he will take office without having won a clear governing mandate (despite what he or the progressives in the Democratic Party think).
If I’m right, this is not the kind of thing you will notice right away. Remember, Donald Trump’s presidency began with a flurry of activity (the signing of executive orders) and the optimistic assumption that his party would quickly repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, as well as passing tax cuts. After great pains, they were finally able to do the latter but never the former.
Likewise, Biden’s administration will get off to a strong start by leveraging expansive executive power. Biden will quickly sign executive orders on rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, ending the travel ban, halting evictions and student loan payments during the COVID-19 crisis, reuniting children and parents separated at the border, extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, imposing a mask mandate on federal property, and reportedly killing the Keystone XL pipeline. He is also promising to vaccinate 100 million Americans during his first 100 days in office (though some of his advisers seem to be getting cold feet about this pledge).
Biden will then immediately follow up with what is likely to be his first big win: a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. It’s hard to imagine Republicans—particularly today’s more populist, big-spending GOP—marshalling the votes to block this type of rescue plan. The parts of Biden’s agenda that merely involve throwing more money at the problem (without overt redistribution or touching on hot-button cultural issues) are probably the safest. For this reason, Biden could also achieve the elusive goal of a major infrastructure plan.
That is, unless he—like Trump—squanders the chance for bipartisan support by first pursuing controversial legislation. That’s when the honeymoon screeches to a halt. I think that might happen prematurely for Biden because, for reasons that escape me, he plans to immediately introduce a sweeping immigration bill offering a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
What is more, his plan would reportedly not include any “provisions directly linking an expansion of immigration with stepped-up enforcement and security measures.” His plan is so ambitious that, according to Politico, “top Latino and immigrant advocacy groups who’ve seen details of the coming package said they were stunned by the boldness of Biden’s plan.”
This plan is also fraught with danger. Immigration is a hot-button issue that hits close to the heart of both cultural and economic concerns of many working-class white Americans. Trump’s rise was, in many ways, fueled by anxiety and concerns (real and imagined) about this issue.
With this package, Biden would begin his administration by a) pushing an incredibly divisive issue where if reports are correct he b) won’t even attempt to gain bipartisan support by offering ramped-up border security. Am I stating the obvious by saying that this cuts against his brand?
Oh yeah, and there’s also the small problem of not having the votes. This kind of landmark legislation should rightly require 60 votes, and it’s hard to see how Biden gets there. Even if Democrats attempted to pass it with a simple majority using the budget reconciliation process (a dubious idea that would, much like Obamacare, poison the chances of future bipartisan cooperation and alienate even moderate Republicans), I’m still not sure Biden could muster 51 votes. Would West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, for example, vote for this? (Manchin supported immigration reform in 2013, but that bill had strong border security provisions.)
There’s also the danger that Biden’s proposal—even if it never becomes law—would possibly act as a magnet; it would draw more immigrants to the border and create a made-for-TV surge that could be exploited by conservative media outlets and Republicans running in the 2022 midterm elections. A caravan of 7,000 Central American migrants is already headed our way. In a tweet, columnist and former Bush speechwriter David Frum, a harsh Trump critic, predicted as much, warning that “the Biden immigration plans could wreck his whole administration from the start. They will invite a border surge that will force Biden to choose between mass detentions or ever-accelerating unauthorized migration.”
This is a microcosm of the larger tension Biden must face between pleasing his progressive base and staying true to his brand. Of course, it’s also possible to look at this as merely a negotiation tactic. Biden’s opening bid on immigration may not have border security provisions, but a Plan B compromise might. He’s not going to get a public option on health care, but expanded subsidies would be pretty good from a progressive perspective. Getting COVID relief and infrastructure right out of the box would be a very healthy start, which could set the stage for more compromise (though the opposite could be true, and Republicans may feel they’ve stretched as much as possible and return to obstruction). In short, these opening bids that lean hard left could provoke Republicans to such an extent that polarization returns and compromise becomes too fraught.
The immediate danger for Biden is that immigration reform would make it harder to achieve the rest of his major goals, which include expanding the Affordable Care Act, fighting climate change, and reforming the criminal justice system.
The best-case scenario will probably be a Biden administration that changes the tone of Washington but achieves only incremental gains for progressives. The worst-case scenario could come if Biden pursues progressive goals that alienate Republicans and undermine his reputation as a centrist, only to see them fail to pass (or fail in practice).
This is hardly the recipe for a great presidency, but Biden faces stiff headwinds. And, again, merely by not being Trump, Biden is already a winner. And so are we. To the extent Biden has a mandate, it’s the restoration of calm and normalcy, with the restoration of bipartisanship an explicitly stated subcomponent. That is achievable, albeit uphill.
Joe Biden spent 32 years trying to become president, and—even after winning the election in November—months fending off Trump’s attempts to overturn the election. On Wednesday, his dream was finally consummated. But his first day might have been his best day. And this honeymoon could be both highly expensive—and painfully short.