Joe Biden is taking charge of a broken country
News organizations have called it: Joe Biden will be the 46th president of the United States. Despite polling predictions of a possible landslide failing to come true, it may not be particularly close either. He's crushing Trump in the popular vote, with the highest percentage turnout since 1900. He may yet win more than 300 Electoral College votes, if he maintains his leads in Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona. Trump has made wild attempts to discredit the results and his campaign has filed a barrage of groundless lawsuits, but at this point there's no reason to believe any of it will work.
Nearly everything else, however, looks grim for Democrats. The party held on to a majority in the House of Representatives, but lost several seats (again contrary to expectations). They lost most of the Senate races they hoped to win, in South Carolina, Maine, Iowa, Montana, and elsewhere. It looks like control of the Senate will come down to two runoff elections in Georgia in January. The Democrats also lost many state legislative seats, or failed in bids to flip chambers. As a result, just like in 2010, Republicans are well-placed to gerrymander themselves massive advantages in future elections. Even Biden's win, because of the way vote counts were delayed, feels like less of a popular mandate than it would have if we knew the final result on election night.
Meanwhile, the rest of the country is in dire straits. The coronavirus pandemic is spreading like wildfire, and the economy is in major trouble, but Republicans may end up in control of the Senate, and the federal courts are stacked with right-wing ideologues. The simplest governance will be a brutal struggle for President Biden. It remains to be seen whether he has the energy and vision to meet the challenge.
The latest economic data is reasonably positive, but the prospects for this winter are dim. Despite the most recent quarterly GDP and jobs numbers looking strong, it seems that job growth is gradually stalling out well short of full employment, and a great many people have burned through their CARES Act money. Moreover, with the pandemic raging, it will be structurally impossible to get back to complete recovery, because a large chunk of people will be unwilling to go back to bars, restaurants, hotels, and so forth for fear of getting sick. Even the possibility of full recovery depends on a vaccine, which is still an unknown distance off. The country is in desperate need of additional help, but unless Democrats manage to sweep both elections in Georgia — which are sure to be nail-biters — it will be virtually impossible to pass anything.
Now, the presidency is still a powerful office. The American Prospect recently dedicated an entire issue to what Biden could accomplish completely on his own. Existing legal authorities would allow him to take sweeping action on climate, environmental protection, student debt (almost all of which is owned by the federal government and could be unilaterally canceled), immigration, bank and corporate regulation, postal banking, and so forth. Refugees could be let in, and Trump's concentration camps closed.
Biden could also do a lot of good rebuilding the shattered administrative state, which has been alternately stuffed with Trump's corrupt cronies or simply stomped into ruins. To start, an executive branch that takes the pandemic seriously and empowers experts will save potentially tens of thousands of lives. There should also be sweeping investigations into Trump's gargantuan corruption, which has been barely explored despite dozens of alarming media reports, including prosecutions where warranted. It will be vital to provide at least some accountability for the last four years of utter lawlessness.
But Biden may have to fight the Senate, as well as the Republican hacks that Trump has stuffed into the judiciary, every step of the way. If McConnell does maintain control of the Senate, any prospects of major reforms or signature legislative achievements are completely out the window. Indeed, it's quite possible that Biden won't even get any hearings on any of his cabinet nominees or federal court nominees, let alone confirmations. He may have to copy Trump and simply have "acting" secretaries in charge of everything, perhaps rotating on occasion to satisfy federal law. (If Democrats win in Georgia and Vice President Harris actually is the Senate tiebreaker, the first priority should be passing statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico, which would partially balance the enormous Republican slant in the chamber.)
Just like under Obama, Biden should expect that Republicans will deliberately sandbag the economy so Democrats will get blamed for the slow recovery. He should expect constant legal attack from federal judges on grounds of conservative legal Calvinball, and be prepared to drown the courts under a blizzard of new orders and new justifications for ones that get overturned. The courts work slowly, and it should be possible to keep them on the back foot.
The truth though, is that the prospects for the Biden presidency, and for the country, look dark. Without the Senate it will likely be impossible to fix the economy before 2022, in which case Democrats will probably get wiped out in the midterms.
However, there is no other sensible option aside from the bold use of every scrap of power in Biden's possession. Bipartisan compromise can be safely ruled out. Sitting back and letting the country fall to pieces would also not be a great way to preserve party fortunes, much less his place in history. But all-out political trench war, starting now, just might allow Democrats to cling to the Senate, get enough passed to fix the economy, and defy previous trends to keep control of Congress in 2022. It's up to them, and us all.