Today the Trump administration ends. The first time a President has failed to win re-election since 1992. The first time the Republicans have spent just four years in the White House since 1892. And America’s first President to have been impeached twice. No one, as Donald himself might say, has ever seen anything like it.
The incoming President and his team, meanwhile, have been remarkably lucky in the cards they now hold. While Biden won the popular vote by 7 million and 4.4 percentage points, he only scored an Electoral College victory thanks to 42,844 votes across three states (Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin), a fraction of the total cast. His party will take the majority in a now tied Senate not just because of the Georgia result, but by having won New Hampshire in 2016 by just 1,017 votes.
These are not the sweeping victories of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama when they entered office. The truth is that it’s currently harder than ever, due to the oversized political power of rural states, for any Democrat to win the Electoral College and Senate, whatever their margin nationwide. This political reality will define the Biden era.
The incoming President described himself in the primary as a ‘transition candidate’, there to defeat Trump and pass the baton to a younger generation of Democrats. To achieve this will require setting the party up for success in both the 2022 midterms – where control of the House Senate and numerous Governorships are on the line – and in 2024, when it seems highly possible Biden will step aside for Kamala Harris. For a presidential politics often based on a cult of personality, whether that of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it will be interesting to see a man take the helm who is focused more on his party’s success.
Presidential parties almost always lose seats in midterm elections – notable exceptions including 1998, where voters punished the Republicans for impeaching Bill Clinton and 2002, when the Republicans made gains in the wake of 9/11. Biden will do everything in his power to make 2022 one of those rare cases. His strategy is four-fold: keep turnout among liberal urban Democrats high, stop voters in affluent suburbia drifting back to the GOP, try to reconnect with small-town former Democrats in the Rust Belt and hope Republican turnout can be kept down.
It may not be as impossible to thread the needle as it sounds. The ongoing presence of Trumpism will doubtless provide ‘the resistance’ with a reason to remain heavily engaged in elections. Biden has also prepared a series of executive actions on a whole host of issues, from rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement to ending the travel ban from several Muslim nations, which serve as red meat to the liberal base. His change in style and tone, especially on fighting the pandemic, as well as the appointment of career wonks to replace the never-ending soap opera of Trump officials, will likely go down extremely well with suburban moderates.
His legislative agenda, however, will be focused squarely on the third category: culturally conservative blue-collar voters, who traditionally voted Democrat but were wooed by Trump and are overrepresented in key states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, both of which have competitive Senate races in 2022. We can expect Biden to push forward aggressively with plans for a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, reducing the age to qualify for Medicare from 65 to 60 and strengthening labour unions’ collective bargaining rights.
Conservative Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, hugely powerful in an evenly divided Senate, has called for up to $4 trillion in new infrastructure spending as a vehicle of jobs and growth. Nothing currently unites Democrats – and unites them with the voters they need to win – like economic populism. While many of these policies will require a 60-40 procedural vote in the Senate, that may even work to the Democrats’ advantage politically, and will allow them to call out Republicans each time they block a highly popular piece of legislation, as they were able to do with Covid relief ahead of the Georgia runoffs.
This may also provide Biden with enough political cover to push for changes that directly help his party: a beefed-up Civil Rights Act and statehood for Washington DC and Puerto Rico, likely to put four more Democrats in the Senate.
Biden will likely also be aided in this by an ongoing GOP civil war, in which Mitch McConnell and the party establishment try to wrest control from the Trumps. Should the former win this battle, the Trump base may well sit out a few elections – lose and the stampede of suburban moderates away from the Republican Party will continue. Indeed, even if the Donald himself ends up being convicted by the Senate and disbarred from future office, Ivanka, Don Jr. and Lara are all thought to be eyeing up Senate seats in 2022. This season of the Trump Show may have ended, but it finished on a cliffhanger.
It has been suggested that Biden’s character and political circumstances mean his presidency will be modest and unsurprising. The opposite is likely true: the electoral predicaments in which the new President and his party find themselves will likely leave them no choice but to go big. ‘Sleepy Joe’ may yet surprise us all.
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