WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden campaigned on a transformational liberal policy platform, calling for “revolutionary institutional changes” and $7 trillion of new spending to remake the American economy as he styled himself a modern-day FDR.
Yet Biden’s decisive electoral college victory — he won the national popular vote by more than 5 million and flipped five states — came with no coattails down ballot that would help him push through his ambitious plans. Instead, the country appears to have rejected both President Donald Trump and the idea of Democratic control, with the liberal policy overhaul it would have brought — forcing a rapid recalibration by Biden of what remains possible.
Biden’s allies say the platform on which he campaigned should not be counted out, not least because he retains the ability to govern through executive action, as did Trump and President Barack Obama. And depending on what happens in the coming months, they expect at minimum attempts to craft legislation early next year on coronavirus response and infrastructure.
Two runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5 will determine control of the U.S. Senate. Victories by the Republican candidates would mean many of Biden’s top priorities — a Medicare expansion, comprehensive immigration reform, the repeal of the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy and bold moves to a carbon-neutral economy — would face the formidable barrier of a Senate led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“No Green New Deal will pass through McConnell. There’s no Medicare-for-all passing through McConnell. There’s no free college tuition passing through a McConnell-led Senate,” said Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor and close Biden ally. “There’s not going to be any Roosevelt-style New Deal.”
The House Democratic majority, at the same time, has shrunk to a perilous margin, making Republicans bullish about a takeover in the 2022 midterm elections and further lengthening the odds of legislative victories for the new president.
The result is a test both for Biden, who has long embraced moderation and dealmaking, and for the ideologically divided Democratic Party he leads, which has gone nearly a decade without unified control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
He will have to decide whether to face down the vocal liberal wing of his party, which he courted during the campaign but whose embrace of the term “socialism” and slogans such as “defund the police” helped Republicans on Election Day, or somehow unify the party against Republicans exhilarated by their gains. Further complicating matters will be Trump, who has raised the prospect of running again in 2024 and, at minimum, could rally against Biden the millions who voted for him.
Advisers to the presidential transition have been planning on multiple tracks, with different scenarios depending on the runoffs in Georgia, where Republicans have won every statewide race since 2004 except for this year’s presidential contest, where Biden holds a lead of 0.3 percent.
In addition to a stack of Day 1 executive orders, including taking the United States back into the Paris climate accords, Biden has committed to moving forward with a comprehensive immigration bill on his first day in office. Democrats hope to shift the political winds over the next two years by leading an effort to contain the coronavirus, distributing a vaccine and setting the stage for an economic boom before the midterm elections.
“It is going to be a persistent and relentless effort to pull people together and get things done,” Biden policy adviser Jake Sullivan said. “He will have a lot to show for his early months in office.”
Republicans, meanwhile are likely to attempt to dampen any early Biden success, since they now feel confident that control of both of the House and the Senate are within their grasp. Midterm elections are historically punishing for first-term Democrats — Obama lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats in 2010 and Bill Clinton lost eight Senate seats and 54 House seats in 1994. In both cases, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate before those defeats.
Though some election results are yet to be called, Democrats are on track to a majority in the House of about 16, the slimmest House majority for the party since 1945. The three most likely Senate pickups for Democrats in 2022 will come in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Biden narrowly won, and North Carolina, where he narrowly lost. None appear certain, say Democratic strategists.
“What Republicans did with Clinton and with Obama is for the most part they just did not cooperate, and they let Democrats hang themselves,” said Jim Kessler, a Democratic strategist with the moderate group Third Way, who worked in the House in the early 1990s. “What I don’t know is if Mitch McConnell believes that cutting deals works to expand his majority or not.”
Democrats generally apprise McConnell as cold and calculating in his laser focus on maintaining the Republican majority. In his new memoir, former President Barack Obama describes what he calls McConnell’s “shamelessness” in pursuit of power. Obama relays a story Biden told him about the time he tried to explain the merits of a piece of Democratic legislation McConnell had blocked: McConnell raised his hand to Biden like a traffic cop and said, “You must be under the mistaken impression that I care,” according to the book.
That doesn’t mean no business can be conducted between the two men. McConnell has expressed interest in economic relief for those affected by the coronavirus and the state of Kentucky was thrown into chaos last week after a major bridge crossing into Ohio, long a top target for replacement in any infrastructure deal, was closed indefinitely when a fiery accident led to an hourslong chemical fire.
Biden’s policy proposals during the campaign were sweeping and ambitious. He adopted some proposals from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., including canceling at least $10,000 of student loan debt and increasing Social Security payments by $200 per month. He promised to move to eliminate Trump’s tax cuts “on day one,” proposed adding a public option to the Obamacare insurance exchanges and put forward $2 trillion in spending to address global warming.
Such ideas now appears beyond reach, with strategists for both parties girding against a revival of a tea party-like insurgency that propelled Republicans’ 2010 gains, possibly led by an out-of-office but still influential Trump, that could punish Republicans who dare cross party lines. Even if Democrats win both Georgia seats and have the slimmest of majorities, Biden would have to ensure every Democrat is willing to vote for his plans, and in some cases find 10 Republican supporters to overcome a filibuster, a Senate rule meant to blunt votes without a supermajority backing that he has shown little interest in removing.
Even on immigration, prospects of a comprehensive deal that would provide a pathway to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented are far lower than a first term focused on reversing Trump’s border legacy and possibly attempting a permanent fix for those migrants brought to the country as children who received temporary protection under Obama. One immigration activist suggested lessons could be learned from Trump and his chief immigration adviser.
“If there is one thing we learned from Donald Trump and Stephen Miller it is you can refashion an immigration system by executive action,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, which favors a comprehensive deal. “There will be a lot of pressure on Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris to make that happen.”
Liberals in the House and Senate, meanwhile, are likely to continue to push for votes on bills that Biden ran on but could split the party, including plans to expand government health care and fund variations on the Green New Deal, with federal funding of carbon neutral industries.
“We need a stronger economic message,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., the vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We didn’t speak enough about our jobs programs.”
But some of those votes could create peril for the party’s moderates, whose reelection in two years is the only path to holding Democratic control of the House. They won office by promising to act independently of the Democratic Party, and are likely to go their own way on some votes.
“You are going to have to allow them to continue to be independent and tell that story and allow them to be members of Congress for the country and not for the Democratic Party,” said Dan Sena, who was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2018 when moderate victories created the House majority.
Republicans, meanwhile, are already telegraphing a repeat of the election platform that worked down ballot this year, including a disproportionate focus on high profile liberal stars, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
“It’s very clear that AOC could care less about what Joe Biden thinks or wants,” Republican Congressional campaign consultant Corry Bliss said. “And after Democrats spend two years trying to defund the police and pass a the Green New Deal, the midterms are going to remind us of the glory of 2010.”
Such messages proved fatal to many Democratic candidates this cycle. Among the many down-ballot Democrats who fell short this year was Julie Slomski, a candidate for the Pennsylvania state senate in Erie, who was blitzed with late advertising that claimed she supported defunding the police, which she did not. Though Biden narrowly held Erie, Slomski, who tried to tie herself to the top of the ticket, lost by about 20 points.
She also found her target voters lured away by some of Trump’s campaign arguments.
“I don’t know if we had the messaging right on COVID,” said Caitlin Handerhan, Slomski’s campaign manager. “‘Keep the Economy Open’ resonated with people here.”
Faced with such difficult knots, Democrats have for the moment comforted themselves in their belief that Biden’s unique record and public persona might find a way to transcend the deep political divisions, even if he lacks the public enthusiasm that greeted Barack Obama’s election in 2008.
“I can’t think of anyone who would be more experienced in making the best you can out of a difficult situation, with divided government in the midst of a crisis,” said Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., who holds the seat Biden did for 36 years. “He ran on an agenda that makes sense to middle America, which is why he won.”
With that win, Biden has earned a chance to reshape the Democratic Party in his image, though it is unclear how long he has to seize the moment.
“The main thing is going to be we’ve got to rebrand the party,” moderate Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said. “Joe Biden has a great political brand. Because it’s real, it’s who he is. And the problem is if you ask 10 people on the street corner in Youngstown or Flint or Jackson, Miss., ‘What do the Democrats stand for?’ you’d get 10 different answers.”