If every crisis is an opportunity, Joe Biden is about to inherit the biggest opportunity since 1933.
I wrote last month that Biden faces the imperative of making sure the electorate’s rejection of authoritarian leadership is permanent, and that his success will depend on his ability to simultaneously manage the crises he inherited from his predecessor, repair the institutions of democracy that were trashed by his predecessor, and hold his predecessor and enablers accountable for the damage they inflicted on our democratic institutions. Today and in two subsequent posts, I’ll speak about these challenges in turn, looking at the obstacles facing Biden and how he might address them.
On the matter of crisis management, I wrote:
Like FDR during the Great Depression, Biden will take over from one of the most ineffectual presidents in history during a period of acute crisis. Unlike FDR, he will not have outsized congressional majorities to address the moment with bold legislation. Also unlike FDR, who faced the Depression and World War II in succession, Biden will have to confront multiple crises at once: the pandemic; economic dislocation caused by the pandemic; a long overdue reckoning on racial injustice; and a climate change crisis that bakes in more longterm catastrophe with every day it goes unaddressed. The shortest route to defusing the appeal of reactionary politics is to find a way to get government to work for a broadly defined public interest, but Biden will not have many partners in this pursuit and he will confront opponents who want and need to see him fail.
It all starts with the pandemic. Biden’s presidency will be shaped by how swiftly and effectively he can steer the country back to something resembling normal life. He will be judged on his ability to reverse the spread of the virus, oversee an efficient vaccination program, and address the economic devastation the virus has left in its wake. This would be challenging enough if we were united in our understanding of the severity of the pandemic, but of course there is a significant minority of the population that thinks the virus is fake, or not very serious, or a political trap engineered by Democrats to undermine Donald Trump. They provide the votes for a Republican opposition that believes its only path back to total power rests with making sure Biden fails, which means withholding their support for whatever he tries to do.
Without question, Biden’s path will be easier and his success more likely if Democrats manage to repeat their Georgia magic and pluck the two senate seats they need to take nominal control of the upper house on January 5. This is especially the case with regard to the economic measures that a Democratic congress would pass. But it is worth remembering that presidents have tools to work with that don’t depend on the legislative process. Donald Trump’s presidency has been a daily lesson on how expansive executive authority can be. Biden will be inheriting a genuine emergency, and the office gives him means to act even if he has a recalcitrant congress. He has the ability to coordinate vaccine distribution, implement a comprehensive program of testing and contact tracing, and quarantine those who have been exposed. He will also inherit the biggest platform in the world, and he can use it to shape how the country thinks and talks about recovery. We have become so used to the president using that platform to divide that it may be difficult to envision what it would look like to see it used to unite.
There will of course be enormous resistance. It is an article of faith in our broken country that a large chunk of the public will stand in eternal opposition to someone they view as an illegitimate president. They likely will not listen to anything Biden says. But just like Trump amplified our divisions by relentlessly attacking his adversaries, Biden can chip away at those doubts among the many skeptics who actually will listen to him by changing the tone and message. A relentless appeal to our better impulses can be just as contagious as the destructiveness of relentless angry tweet storms.
Success with this message will be measured at the margins, but success in beating back the virus will be potentially groundbreaking, because the tangible improvements in everyday life will accrue to everyone. For the first time in the four decades since Ronald Reagan decried government as the problem, Biden stands poised to demonstrate a clear and meaningful connection between government action and observable improvements in how we live. The potential is there for a paradigm-changing moment that can provide the basis for restoring the lost faith in government that provided a lot of fuel for Trumpism. But the stakes are enormous. In success, Biden can move the country one small but significant step away from a return to the anti-democratic dystopia that in failure would become more attractive.
Not insignificantly, crushing the pandemic would also generate the kind of political capital Biden will need to embark on his other top priorities. Some of it will be needed to deliver on his promise to attack racial injustice and the climate crisis, both as pressing as the pandemic and the economy. Some of it will be needed to address the institutional repair and accountability challenges that I’ll discuss in future posts. None of this can wait until the pandemic is under control, but getting the pandemic under control will give Biden more room to maneuver.
Biden’s greatest resource in this herculean set of tasks is having the good fortune to succeed Donald Trump. History reserves its greatest scorn for those presidents who failed the country in a crisis. It awards its highest praise to those who followed them and rose to the moment. Washington after the failure of the Articles of Confederation. Lincoln after Buchanan and Pierce. FDR after Hoover. Ready or not, Biden is about to take office at a moment when the country is desperately in need of a strong leader to stare down multiple interwoven crises left by his predecessor. How he manages them will determine more than his legacy, because at stake is the ability to convince the public that government can be an able and effective agent for good and defuse a right wing populism that thrives on tearing it down.