Has any American president faced more challenges than those that will confront Joe Biden when he is sworn in on Jan. 20?
Being president has never been easy, but some men have faced more problems than others. George Washington had to create the presidency from scratch. Franklin Roosevelt became president during a profound depression and against a backdrop of a worldwide rising tide of fascism that would result in World War II.
And when Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861, he faced the challenge of preserving a country on the brink of an inevitable civil war.
Still, it’s arguable that the challenges that Biden will face are greater, more dangerous and more intractable than any president has faced before.
For one thing, everything the Biden administration does will be backgrounded by the challenge of climate change, a problem that the United States has not taken seriously.
But who has time to think about climate change in the middle of Pandemic 2020? Last Friday, as we awaited the results of the election, the U.S. set a new record for infections in a single day, 132,700. Cases are surging in nearly every state, and the economy continues to suffer.
Then there are the perennial problems: racial unrest, wealth inequality, infrastructure, relations with our allies around the world, which are in dire need of rehabilitation.
So much to do. Where to start?
We start by tending to the health of the body politic. More than 71 million Americans voted to reelect President Donald Trump for reasons that are many and varied; these citizens cannot be ignored or dismissed in a Biden administration.
Some Trump voters continue to be attracted to his blustering style. Others may have bought into the sketchy allegations about the “Biden crime family.” Many Trump voters probably were not fond of either choice, but they accepted the assertion that a vote for Biden was a vote for socialism. In fact, Rush Limbaugh was emphatic: if Biden wins, we will become a communist nation.
But on its face, this allegation is ridiculous, isn’t it? The ship of state is not a personal watercraft; it’s a heavily laden oil tanker with tremendous inertia, and it takes forever to reverse course.
Nevertheless, some voters’ susceptibility to this allegation of incipient socialism points to an essential national goal for the next four years: the resurrection of a traditionally conservative Republican party.
American political history is the story of the tension between the center-left and the center-right. The essential difference between Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was whether the role of the federal government should reside to the left or right of center. The fringe generally doesn’t fare well in American politics. Antifa is no more likely to succeed than are the Proud Boys. The center may drift to the left or right, but clearly a healthy politics needs balance between the forces pulling in both directions.
During the campaign, Biden was sometimes asked whether people were actually voting to support him or merely voting against Trump. Of course, voting against Trump was not, in itself, a bad motivation. Trump has not been good for an American republic that depends on comity, tolerance and the observance of rules and norms.
But I’m betting that many voters would have preferred a choice between a center-left Democrat like Joe Biden and a traditional center-right Republican on the order of Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, John Kasich or the late John McCain.
It sounds counterintuitive, but President Biden should nurture a national goal of resurrecting the Republican Party and of providing for voters, in 2024, a rational choice between the center-left and center-right.
Why, you ask, is this Biden’s job? Because it’s essential to the healing that he has promised, and he is well suited for it. Ex-President Trump is unlikely to be helpful, and many Republicans have been irredeemably tainted by him. But the sooner we get back to normal politics, the quicker we can put the perverse aberration of the last four years behind us. Then let the traditional tug of war continue.