After winning an historic election, Joe Biden is moving toward a fast start.
He’ll need it.
When the president-elect jogged onto the stage Saturday night to deliver a victory speech at the Chase Center near his Delaware home, even his footwork seemed to underscore the urgency ahead. He issued a plea for unity, ignoring the complications of President Trump’s defiant vow to try to overturn the results. On Monday, Biden is slated to announce a task force of experts and scientists charged with devising an action plan to contain the coronavirus that has killed close to a quarter-million Americans and shows no signs of abating.
In 72 days, that catastrophe, along with all the others, will be the responsibility of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.
It has been close to a century, when Franklin Roosevelt took office during the Great Depression, since such formidable challenges have faced a new president: controlling COVID-19, a mission that will involve controversial mandates and hard choices. And healing the nation’s bitter political divide at a time the outgoing president, leaders of the opposition party and millions of its voters don’t seem ready to embrace that idea.
The economy is in crisis, too, with millions out of work in the wake of the pandemic’s upheaval. The financial fundamentals can’t be fixed until the virus is under control, Biden has said, but many Americans are desperate for immediate help now, perhaps through a COVID-19 relief bill that has been stalled in Congress since last spring.
“This democracy is teetering,” Rep. James Clyburn, the House Democratic whip and a crucial Biden supporter, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” The South Carolina congressman said the Republican Party had a responsibility to “step up and help us preserve the integrity of this democracy,” whether or not Trump himself decided to concede the presidential election.
“We are in a very dire set of consequences here,” Clyburn said, “and we had better get hold of ourselves and this country.”
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Celebrations in the street, silence from the Hill
Spontaneous celebrations erupted Saturday afternoon in the streets of New York; Washington; Atlanta; Louisville, Kentucky; Kansas City, Missouri; San Francisco; and elsewhere after every major news organization called the election for Biden. His victory was clinched, serendipitously enough, when he accumulated an insurmountable lead in Pennsylvania, the state where he was born and where he had held his first campaign rally 18 months ago.
A fierce campaign stoked unprecedented turnout. Biden received 75 million votes, more than any president in history. He won the Electoral College after rebuilding the “blue wall” of traditionally Democratic states that Trump had carried in 2016 – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – and flipping Arizona to the Democratic side.
That said, Trump received nearly 71 million votes. Despite scathing criticism of his handling of the pandemic, he won more votes and a higher percentage than he did four years ago. “I WON THIS ELECTION. BY A LOT!” Trump tweeted without proof, after the election was called. He promised to pursue court challenges in Michigan, Pennsylvania and elsewhere based on allegations of voter fraud that have not been substantiated.
For Biden, Trump’s protests from the White House were less worrying than the silence from Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. Their decision on whether to confront or cooperate will matter more to the success of the new president than his predecessor’s tweets. But neither Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell nor House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy had publicly acknowledged Biden’s victory by midday Sunday.
Both may have felt emboldened by the election returns even though the GOP lost the White House. Republicans unexpectedly gained seats in the House, narrowing the Democratic majority and increasing the opposition’s leverage. In another surprise, Republicans now believe they can retain control of the Senate, which will be determined by the results of two runoff Senate elections in Georgia in January.
“It’s a bit of a mixed message,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, one of a handful of Republican officials who offered congratulations to Biden, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I think people are saying that conservative principles still account for a majority of public opinion in our country.” That could make Republicans less inclined to cut deals with the new administration.
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Kevin Kruse, a Princeton historian who has studied the nation’s political fault lines, questioned whether they were going to be erased anytime soon. “Biden has in his mind an old tradition of working across the aisle,” he said in an interview with USA TODAY, “but I think it’s hopelessly naïve.” President Barrack Obama had the same impulse only to be confounded by Republicans’ unwillingness to do anything to help his agenda.
Still, during the Obama administration, then-vice president Biden and McConnell negotiated a last-ditch budget deal in 2011 that averted a possible default. The two men have known one another for nearly four decades. McConnell was first elected to the Senate from Kentucky in 1984, the year that Biden won his third term from Delaware.
With 36 years in the Senate, Biden has a longer history as a member of Congress than any president in history, dwarfing even the tenure of onetime House Republican leader Gerald Ford and Senate Democratic leader Lyndon Johnson, at 24 years each. The president-elect hopes the web of relationships he has built over the past half-century, back to the days when bipartisanship didn’t seem like such a foreign concept, will help him now.
It is a time of contradictions. Biden has received more votes than any president, ever, but takes command of a country more divided than it has been since the Civil War. He has more experience in Congress than any of his predecessors, but he will be dealing with a gridlocked Congress that has lost its taste for compromise. He is the oldest president ever elected, and a centrist, but must come to terms with the young progressive insurgents who are provided much of the energy in his party.
For Democrats, a fight within the family
Then there are the Democrats.
“Beyond the obvious – pandemic, recession, climate crisis, a government in ruins – he’ll need to manage the cross-currents in a big and restive party,” said Matt Bennett, a veteran of the Clinton White House who co-founded Third Way, a moderate think tank. “I don’t think we’ll see anything like civil war; the lid stays on when your party has the White House,” he said in an interview, “But (Abigail) Spanberger was speaking for a lot of us when she said that the party brand isn’t working in too many places.”
In a conference call of House Democrats on Thursday, the Virginia lawmaker angrily complained that her most liberal colleagues had nearly cost her reelection in her Republican-leaning district by adopting slogans like “defund the police.” “We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” she said.
Another freshman member of Congress who had just won a second term, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, fired back in a round of TV interviews Sunday. She defended the appeal of progressive policies and called Spanberger’s charges inflammatory at a time of Democratic division. “It’s irresponsible … to pour gasoline on these already very delicate tensions in the party,” she warned.
That is about to be Joe Biden’s problem, too.