The week's big question: What will define the Biden presidency?
The Week contributors assess Biden's chances of meeting "our historic moment of crisis and challenge"
What will define the Biden presidency?
Even before newly sworn-in President Joe Biden began his inaugural address on Wednesday, the setting spoke volumes about the challenges he faces in office. Politicians and family wore masks as they watched on from the sparsely populated dais. The National Mall, normally crowded with spectators, was instead covered with colorful flags. And just off camera were the thousands of National Guard troops and miles of fencing installed for additional security in Washington D.C., an ominous reaction to the Trump-supporting mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. Biden's speech made the situation plain: "This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge," he said, "This is a time of testing." How Biden responds to those tests — the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting economic downturn, and the divisiveness of the Trump presidency — will seemingly be the measure of his leadership going forward. This week's big question is: What will define the Biden presidency?
Will he deliver on normalcy?
President Biden promised us normalcy. He campaigned offering a rewind of the past four years, a return to a time when the president didn't tweet insults at 3 a.m. and could be safely forgotten for days on end. His presidency will be defined by whether he can deliver on that promise.
That has two chief components. The first, of course, is ending the COVID-19 pandemic — certainly within 2021, and preferably by mid-summer. The hardest work has been done already: The vaccines are here, and they are very good. Biden's challenge now is rhetorical and logistical. He needs to convince the American people vaccination is the ticket to regaining normal life — not some crappy "new normal" but actual normal, where kids are in school and we hang out in each other's homes and holidays don't suck — and he needs a distribution plan to massively increase the daily vaccination rate. His current goal of 100 million doses in his first 100 days is about a third of what it should be.
The second big part of normalcy is the theme of "unity" Biden reiterated throughout his inaugural speech. (If you've ever wondered how a politician would say, "Please just play nicely for a few minutes so dad can fix this," now you know.) Every president enters office with a large portion of the country against him, but Biden's accession comes under uniquely bizarre and antagonistic circumstances. My suspicion is most Americans, outside the most vehement supporters of former President Donald Trump, are ready for a period of political calm. But whether we can participate in it is another question. As my mother always warned: If you make that ugly expression long enough, your face will freeze that way.
Normal isn't enough
As he begins what will likely be a single term as president, Joe Biden faces one big choice: Will he be a candidate of restoration to Obama's America? Or will he be a man who leaves his own unique legacy?
So far, Biden is doing the important early work of undoing many of the wrongs of the Trump administration. But he has just two years of a guaranteed Democratic majority in Congress. With the Senate as divided as it is, he doesn't have the all-clear to do whatever he'd like, especially as long as the filibuster continues to exist. But he's almost surely looking at the friendliest legislature he's going to get.
Will he push for a significant expansion of the Affordable Care Act, ideally with a public option, or will he stop at reinstating the individual mandate and a Medicaid expansion? Will he finally bring the U.S. in line with other wealthy developed nations and implement a much-needed program of national paid parental leave and universal childcare, or will he rely on inadequate child tax credits and other acts of minor assistance that don't actually solve the problem?
He has already recommitted the United States to the Paris Climate Accords; will he use his power to move the U.S. closer to something like a Green New Deal, or stay on the path of too little, too late? And when it comes to women's rights, will Biden maintain the standard Democratic status quo — repealing the Global Gag Rule, restoring Title X family planning funding — or will he spend some of his political capital pushing Congress to repeal the Hyde Amendment, a law that often leaves poor women unable to afford abortions, and the Helms Amendment, which bars U.S. funding from covering safe and legal abortion procedures overseas?
Will Biden ensure that voting rights, which Republicans have systematically stripped from African Americans under the guise of “preventing election fraud,” are restored and strengthened, or will he allow the long-standing lie that eventually culminated in an attack on the Capitol continue to undermine the ability of all Americans to cast a ballot? Will Biden's America merely return to pre-Trump refugee resettlement numbers, or will the president push to radically expand the number of people to whom our nation opens its arms?
Over and over again, the presidents who have left the greatest legacies are those who moved us forward toward justice, transitioned us into peace, and strengthened the safety net so fewer fell through. No storied leader's tombstone says, "He made America okay again." Biden can decide that now is time we need exceptional progress, and he can choose to lead with exceptional ambition and urgency. Or he can decide that the pre-Trump status quo is good enough — and so is being a footnote in history.
What does Biden's promise of normalcy look like in 2021, and what are likely to be its consequences? A militarized inauguration, mawkish celebrations on late-night television programs, reminders that masking policies are often a question of theatrics, calls for the adoption of a new Patriot Act, Third World-style show trials for outgoing heads of government, carveouts for insurance company lobbyists, and a thin Senate majority torn between the imperatives of the progressive base and fear of retribution in two years from Mitch McConnell.
Like the old normal, the new one is mostly incoherent. It reflects elite priorities and received wisdom. It is also myopic. There is no perspective less represented in mainstream media than that of the loyal supporters of Donald Trump, for whom Biden's inauguration amounts to little more than an occupation.
Holding an impeachment trial and ratcheting up the culture war are not going to "lower the temperature," as Biden put it in his inaugural address. But the moderate path that the president likes to imagine he is pursuing is illusory. For reasons mostly beyond his control, a truce is impossible. The temperature might be lower now than it was in October, but as proponents of climate change know, the overall weather patterns are unmistakable.
Things are just getting heated up.
Will he get help from the Senate?
President Biden, like his predecessor Barack Obama, is taking office while two severe crises sweep the land: the coronavirus pandemic, and the associated economic disaster. His presidency will be defined by whether he can squelch the pandemic, and whether he can return America to full employment, before the 2022 midterms. Those two goals will in turn depend on two things: whether his administration can organize a quick rollout of the vaccine, and whether it can pass enough in the way of rescue packages to keep the economy on ice until people can return to their normal lives.
The first is largely under the Biden administration's control — simply a question if it can unsnarl the mess Donald Trump made of the federal government, and get shots into arms. The second, however, depends more on Senate Democrats than it does on Biden. If Democrats get rid of the filibuster (which allows just 41 Republican senators to block most legislation), then the prospect of passing enough bills to fix the economy in time for the next election gets much brighter. If they do not, it still might be done, but the chances will be much slimmer. Time shall tell.