A Hit?… a Miss?… or a Dud?
Joe Biden begins his presidency in a position that’s both strong and weak.
Strong… His party holds the majority in both houses of Congress. He won more popular votes than any other candidate in history, besting his rival by more than 7 million votes and by a 74-vote gap in the Electoral College. And he will be sworn in as president in the wake of the assault on the Capitol by Trump supporters, which has shocked the country to its core and left Biden’s partisan opposition divided, defensive, and rocked on its heels.
Weak… An election that featured the surgical excision of Donald Trump from the presidency did not include a ringing endorsement of Democratic control of Washington, D.C. After November 3, the Democrats found themselves down a dozen seats in the House and maintaining their majority with a mere margin of 5. In the Senate, Democrats failed to knock off seemingly vulnerable Republican incumbents in Iowa, Maine, and South Carolina, and battled their way into a 50-50 tie (which hands them the majority in the upper chamber due to the tie-breaking vote of the incoming vice president, who serves as president of the Senate).
The Democratic party’s primacy in Washington, D.C. hangs by a thread, and it’s possible-to-likely that divided government will return in two years’ time after the 2022 midterm elections (assuming the Republican party doesn’t collapse – a possibility that seemed science-fictional before its leader effectively called on people to storm the Capitol and destroy our democracy).
But while that thread remains unbroken, the 50-50 split Senate is an unalloyed blessing for the new president. It means two salutary things for him…
The first, and by far the most important, is that Democrats will control all the committees on Capitol Hill and will (as was true in large measure for the Trump administration in its first two years) protect the new administration from hostile oversight. Had Republicans prevailed in the two Georgia runoff races and held on to their Senate majority, they would have bedeviled the Bidenites with investigations and inquiries and all manner of tomfoolery designed to hamper and cripple the executive branch’s ability to get things done.
In Trump’s first two years, the only committee to spend any serious time and effort in ways inimical to the president’s interests was the Senate Intelligence – which looked seriously into allegations of Russian collusion. But its work was overshadowed and made pretty much redundant once Robert Mueller began his criminal investigation as a special prosecutor.
This is not to say Biden will have an easy go of it on Capitol Hill. Democrats will be friendly, but they do not have sufficient power to effect the changes he would need through legislation. Republicans will likely oppose everything he wants to do. And unless new majority leader Chuck Schumer can convince his caucus to eliminate the filibuster – the procedural quirk that makes it necessary for most pieces of legislation to secure the support of 60 senators just to get it to a vote on the floor – Republican recalcitrance will stay Democratic ambitions. That is likely to be the case since Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator who is the most conservative Democrat in the chamber, has already said flatly he will not agree to kill the filibuster.
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So any notion that Biden will “get things done” by signing bills is pretty much a fantasy. His only way to get his desiderata through Congress will come with those policies he can somehow attach to legislation involving the federal budget. Those “budget reconciliation” bills are the only ones that escape the current filibuster rules and can be voted into law with a simple majority of the Senate.
Still, the fact that Biden’s party holds the levers of power in the Senate functions as a kind of inoculation against the persistent, low-grade, political fever that unfriendly Hill investigations can impose on the executive branch.
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The second blessing for Biden is that, with the Senate in Democratic hands, he can largely depend on his nominees for those Cabinet and agency posts and commissions that require Senate confirmation to get through the Capitol Hill gauntlet.
To be sure, a few will surely have to withdraw. One or two may get rejected when controversies arise… Those things always happen. But the vast majority of the 1,200 appointees that the Senate must approve will be approved. This will keep the White House from obsessing over the confirmation process and allow it to focus on other matters.
What we do not know – what we cannot know – is what the Biden administration will be up to when they take their positions and begin their work. Biden himself ran a brilliant and largely idea-free campaign promising only that he would not be Donald Trump and that he would restore some form of normality to American politics. He doesn’t really have a mandate that legislation must handle for much besides some form of raising taxes on the very wealthy and shoring up Obamacare.
But if that were all the president could do, it wouldn’t matter very much who he was, would it? The fact is that we’ve had an ideological overhaul in Washington and Biden is at the head of it. But will it mean a rise in Democratic populism to counter the Republican populism of the Trump years – or something more fascinatingly corporate?
Take the installation of the Democratic operative Neera Tanden as the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden may actually have been selected in the first place as a sacrificial lamb – a liberal firebrand in a key job who would likely have been slapped down by the Republican-controlled Senate – whose opposition Biden could have used to help unify his party’s disparate elements and their refusal to confirm a woman of color. Indeed, when Biden announced her choice, it was generally thought the GOP would retain control – and given that Tanden had repeatedly called Sen. Mitch McConnell, who would have been the majority leader, “Moscow Mitch,” her nomination might never have come up for a vote at all.
Now all she needs to worry about is Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, whom she also accused effectively of being a Moscow stooge in the Russian regime’s effort to harm her 2016 candidate, Hillary Clinton. It’s doubtful that Sanders would want to begin the Biden presidency as the sole vote against a Biden nominee. (He and Biden are said to like each other.)
As head of the Center for American Progress, Tanden has been a perfect example of the Clinton style of glad-handing fundraising. The Center’s budget is said to run about $50 million a year, most of it raised from friendly corporate interests eager to establish intimate relationships with what they perceive to be mainstream Democratic power brokers. According to the Washington Post…
Between 2014 and 2019, CAP received at least $33 million in donations from firms in the financial sector, private foundations primarily funded by wealth earned on Wall Street and in other investment firms, and current or former executives at financial firms such as Bain Capital, Blackstone and Evercore, according to a Washington Post analysis of CAP’s donor disclosures and some of the foundations’ public tax filings. In the same time period, CAP received between $4.9 million and $13 million from Silicon Valley companies and foundations, including Facebook and founder Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic organization.
Tanden’s choice suggests the Biden White House will follow in the footsteps of the Clinton and Obama administrations – favoring large corporations that mouth progressive ideals while standing mute or providing quiet support for wild regulatory schemes that they can easily afford but that their smaller competitors cannot.
This is “regulatory capture” at its finest, which is to say its worst… It retards innovation and competition but appears to be activist when it comes to the kinds of intrusions into the private sector that Democrats favor.
The problem of size will also be manifest at the Treasury Department, whose chief will be Janet Yellen, the one-time chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. The Fed is supposed to be shielded from the give-and-take of electoral politics to serve as a stabilizing force in the making of monetary policy. The very idea of a Treasury Secretary who would use her intimate knowledge of the Fed’s workings to help control the reserve system from her office would once have been greeted with horror.
But since the fiscal crisis of 2008, the Fed has become ever more intertwined with the political players in Washington. David Bahnsen, the investment advisor and political analyst, says:
Some semblance of separation between the politics of government and the monetary policy of central bankers has been maintained for a hundred years in our country, even as that semblance and separation has become less and less important since the Great Financial Crisis. Yellen’s appointment will surely mean an almost explicit partnership between Treasury and the Fed, further supporting the Japanification of the U.S. economy, where they have long felt that pretending monetary policy and the act of government were separate matters was a waste of time.
Biden’s other cabinet officials will be a mix of old-style Democratic regulars – like the mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, the incoming labor secretary. He’s a glad-handing, thick-accented type who went into politics from a career spent as a trade-union official with the intent of delivering the goods from the public coffers. So we can expect his department to be oriented in doing whatever it can to deliver federal goodies to America’s union members – who make up about 9% of the American workforce, the lowest number ever recorded. Their interests, especially those who work in the public sector, often are in direct opposition to the interests of the other 91% of workers who are not unionized.
Never has that been truer than now, with the not-so-quiet war being waged on parents in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic by unionized teachers. In Chicago and Washington, D.C., as two examples, union members all but threatened the lives and livelihoods of all politicians who would insist they return to the classroom in the midst of the pandemic (while one Chicago teachers union official posted pictures of herself on Instagram frolicking in Puerto Rico).
It is encouraging that Biden’s pick for education secretary, Connecticut’s Miguel Cardona, has been in the forefront among officials in Democratic states, aggressively pushing for schools to reopen during the pandemic. That is a view for which Biden himself expressed support during his campaign. But the National Education Association is the largest union in the United States… Will he be willing to be confrontational in the manner of Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos?
This is where the ideological shift from Trump to Biden might prove among the most extreme. DeVos tenure as education secretary featured a brave and lonely fight against some of the worst public policy in recent American history – the directives from the Obama administration that schools and colleges should tip the scales of justice in balance toward those who issue career-ending and future-ending accusations of sexual assault.
As Christine Rosen has written,
DeVos undid Obama-era guidance regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault claims made under Title IX [that presumed the] guilt of the accused and ideologically motivated reasoning. And she did so using the appropriate channels of governance the Obama administration had deliberately discarded in favor of bureaucratic fiat: the rule-making process that allowed for public comment and debate.
Rosen also points out that DeVos rescinded regulatory demands that instructed athletes who claimed to be a transgender female (meaning they were born male) be permitted to play in women’s sports.
This is the kind of change elections really do cause – not necessarily just on matters like the income-tax rate but policies put in place as part of a larger cultural battle. In this case, fundamental issues of the relations between men and women and the definition of gender…
Cardona wasn’t chosen because he would put these policies into effect, however. Any Biden appointee would have. He was chosen, as Biden himself has made almost explicitly clear, because he is Hispanic. Indeed, Biden has taken the grandest leap yet into post-modern tokenism with his Cabinet choices, ensuring that this many are African-American and that many are “Latinx,” these are female and those are gay, and this is this and that is that. It’s not that Biden is making choices to represent America or his coalition. Every president does that – though more traditionally, they’ve done it geographically.
What’s new about Biden’s approach is that rather than battle the idea that he has used factors other than finding the very best person for every job, he has leaned into the notion that it’s praiseworthy to choose people in large measure on the basis of skin color or ethnic origin.
This is America as the new Democratic party understands it… The kind of line often promulgated by those who believe in counting by race and gender and sexual orientation is that the world that results “looks like America.” That’s a terrible line, considering that America is actually 76.2% white. If Biden’s cabinet were to look like America, it would have to be a lot more Caucasian than it is.
In any case, we are so far beyond the notion that we should be judged by the content of our characters, rather than the color of our skins, that we should probably start phrasing things in the reverse. Which is just great… By which I mean, it’s just awful.
John Podhoretz is the editor of Commentary magazine.