Unlike his predecessors, Joe Biden has proved astute in using political power to get his policies passed, write Lincoln Mitchell.
New York (Brussels Morning) Politics is about getting power and using power. The two previous Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, were masters of the former. They were excellent campaigners who understood how to build and maintain political coalitions, work with the media and win elections. Joe Biden has never quite demonstrated the same level of political skills. Unlike Obama who had a rapid rise from the Illinois state legislature to the presidency in only about five years, or Clinton who got elected president in his first attempt when he was only in his 40s, Biden got elected in 2020 to a job he had been seeking since at least 1987, and his victory was in large part motivated by disdain for Donald Trump rather than enthusiastic support for Biden himself .
That said, when it comes to using political power Biden is superior to his two most recent Democratic predecessors. No Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson has had as far reaching proposals and been as successful in his first months in office, as Biden has in the first ten weeks of his presidency. Biden’s bold legislative agenda that has included the massive 1.9 trillion dollars Covid relief bill that was signed into law earlier this month, as well as the proposed infrastructure bill that would be a slightly larger expenditure, reflects Biden’s awareness that new presidents, even relatively popular ones like Biden, must act quickly and swing for the fences.
One of the reasons Biden’s ability to use political power is so impressive is that every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 enjoyed a larger Democratic majority in Congress when they first came into office. This is a little misleading as the Democratic Party is much more unified now than it was for much of the 20th century, but the Republican Party is at least equally unified in opposition to Biden. If Biden is able to win passage of the infrastructure bill, his early legislative successes will be due to his ability to mobilise almost unanimous support from congressional Democrats, who have a very small majority in the House of Representatives and whose majority in the senate relies on the tie-breaking vote of Vice-President Kamala Harris.
During the campaign Biden raised concerns among many progressives because he seemed to believe that it would be possible to work with Republicans and to rebuild bipartisanship. It was as if somehow Biden believed he could turn back the clock on both the deep partisanship in Congress and deeper obstructionism of the Republican Party that has characterised the last few decades. Barack Obama, who also campaigned on restoring bipartisanship, took this approach during his first months in office and wasted precious time hoping he could get Republican support, which never materialised, for his essentially moderate proposals. It is easy to see why Democratic activists did not want to see those mistakes repeated.
While President Biden’s rhetoric and, less tangibly, disposition, suggest a commitment to reducing partisanship, his legislative strategy tells a different story. Biden has proposed far reaching and progressive legislation, has little time for Republican proposals that are substantially different from what he wants and has indicated a willingness to support ending the filibuster. As President, Biden has no direct influence over the filibuster, but many Democrats in the senate care about his opinion on this question.
For the People
Another major test, not for Biden’s ambitions, but for his ability to use his political power will require changing or abolishing the filibuster to help pass in the Senate the For the People Act, which would expand and protect voting rights while strengthening American democracy in other ways as well. This bill will be the biggest test of Biden’s ability to use political power. Unlike the Covid relief or infrastructure bills, it represents an existential threat to the GOP. While the Republican Party may not like major spending bills that help lower income and non-white Americans, a bill that strengthens democracy and makes it more difficult to gerrymander and suppress votes is a much greater threat to the GOP, as it would badly damage the Republican Party’s electoral chances, possibly for many years.
Presidential power is complex with both formal and informal aspects. A successful president must be able not only to get the votes he needs to pass his legislation, but also must assemble a team that is loyal to him and his program and competent enough to implement the president’s program. Wielding this power, particularly with regards to congress, requires deft usage of carrots and sticks. Joe Biden can both offer a lot to a reluctant Democratic Senator like Joe Manchin of West Virginia but can also create problems for an uncooperative senator; however, balancing the two is essential. Modern history is littered with presidents who did not use their power quickly enough only to see much of it dissipate as their popularity waned after their first months in office. Thus far, Biden is not making such mistakes and America is better for it.