When Olympic competitors take to the ice, the diving board or the gymnastics floor, they’re not judged simply on what they do but on how hard the routine they’re attempting is: The more twists, turns, flips, axels or Lutzes they execute, the higher they score.
There’s no such “degree of difficulty” standard when it comes to measuring how tough a task an incoming president faces. But it’s obvious that new chief executives have been met with radically different prospects, ranging from prosperity to catastrophic economic conditions; from eras of good feeling to bitter political division; from peace to war. If we calculate the degree of difficulty for Joe Biden’s incoming administration, how tough is his task? In my view, it is among the very hardest challenges any new president has ever encountered.
Nobody is likely to match what Abe Lincoln faced. By the time of his inauguration, seven Southern states had seceded; Fort Sumter fell in just over a month, and the Civil War began, lasting until five days before Lincoln went to Ford’s Theatre to see “Our American Cousin.”
But other candidates – even the clearly burdened – had advantages that Biden does not.
Take another strong contender contender for the title of Most Challenged New President. Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into office in 1933 at the height of the Depression. A quarter of the nation was out of work, banks were collapsing by the hour, farms were fallow, and bread lines stretched through cities. But the very severity of the conditions he faced gave Roosevelt almost limitless power to act. (Indeed, luminaries like columnist Walter Lippmann suggested he might have to become something of a dictator.) With huge majorities in both houses of Congress and a nation eager to embrace the optimism that fueled his inaugural address, FDR pushed 13 major programs into law within the now-famous “100 days.” The confidence he projected in his fireside chats and the explosion of activity, along with a still-wounded but recovering economy, were enough to win Democrats unprecedented gains in the 1934 midterms and a 46-state landslide in 1936.
Biden faces nothing like a 25% jobless rate. But because the still-ailing economy is largely a product of the pandemic, there is a limit to what he can do to fix the problem. He’ll argue for a massive infusion of money to keep people in their homes with food on the table, and to stave off disastrous damage to the critical work of state and local government. And he’ll push to get vaccines distributed and administered quickly, in hopes of ending the pandemic sooner. But a revived economy – with businesses thriving, with tourism and travel and crowded restaurants, with a surge of relief and optimism – has to wait until it’s safe for people to be with one another again.
The stumbling rollout of vaccines so far means such a renewal is at least months away – months when the deaths and shuttered businesses will be on Biden’s watch, not Donald Trump’s anymore. The tsunami of suffering – the millions unable to work or whose work makes them particularly vulnerable to the virus, the single-parent families who cannot send their children off to school, the devastating psychological wounds of the isolated, the countless local shops, diners, nonprofit health and legal services storefronts for which money won’t arrive in time: All of this will be Biden’s burden.
He’s proposed trillions in rescue aid, but look at the political terrain. Trump (and Stacey Abrams) provided Biden with a Democratic Senate. In sharp contrast to FDR’s massive congressional majorities, though, Democrats have control of a 50-50 split Senate only because Vice President Kamala Harris will cast tie-breaking votes. They also have a smaller edge in the House than in the last Congress. That’s a thin reed on which to build a bold legislative agenda. As for the prospect of bipartisan cooperation, we’ve heard Republican calls for “unity” and “healing” in the wake of the Capitol riot, and GOP leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy are now saying that Biden did indeed win in November. But if past is prologue, McCarthy and his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, are more likely to be counting the days to November 2022, when history suggests Democratic control of both houses will be in jeopardy.
Biden can take some comfort, in a way, from the fact that the political climate of a president’s first days does not predict what will happen: Jimmy Carter came to office with no war, no economic calamity and solid Democratic majorities in Congress. But a revolution in Iran, an oil shock, surging inflation and long lines at gas stations led to a landslide defeat in 1980. George H.W. Bush inherited a peaceful wind-down of the Cold War and a generally satisfied electorate. But a nasty recession and discontent within his party helped make him a one-term president.
Nor is the terrain all bleak for Biden. Trump’s behavior, and the horror of what happened at the Capitol, may, in a perverse way, be a gift to the new president, making his old-fashioned pleas for comity a welcome promise of calm. The aftershocks of Trump’s last days may suggest to Republican leaders in Congress that a measure of cooperation with Biden is in their political interest. And once the vaccines make their way into the populace, the likely return to economic activity may produce a boom, and a sense of relief and renewal, that will drive Biden’s popularity skyward.
Unfortunately, hope, as Francis Bacon said, makes a good breakfast but a lean supper. Biden’s first days as president are shadowed by jammed hospitals and morgues, closed businesses, and a capital that bears the scars – visible and otherwise – of a years-long assault on the roots of a healthy democracy.
In the past, new presidents have found in the Oval Office a letter from their predecessors, with words of good will and support. Joe Biden knows only too well what Donald Trump bequeathed him.
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Greenfield is a veteran TV analyst, a contributing editor to Politico and a special correspondent for “PBS NewsHour Weekend.”