The first two months of the Biden presidency have looked to many observers like a massive reality check on the new president’s vision, if not an outright repudiation of his view that unity can prevail in a divided nation.
“I’ve not been able to unite the Congress, but I’ve been uniting the country,” the president told reporters at the White House Thursday. “We have to come together. We have to.”
Some of Biden’s confidence stems from a steadfast belief that COVID-19 is what he called the “fundamental problem” of his presidency. On that, he sees a healing nation that feels generally positive about his handling of the pandemic, with vaccinations expanding rapidly and a $1.9 trillion relief bill just starting to course through the economy.
Still, that first, massive legislative victory remains instructive: The package passed the House and Senate without a single Republican vote. From here, the congressional agenda is cluttered with competing priorities that will struggle to land inside bipartisan solutions.
Trillions more on infrastructure, immigration reform made more urgent by a humanitarian crisis at the border, gun control after two mass shootings in the space of a week, proposed tax increases, a voting-rights overhaul, climate-change policies, social-justice initiatives — all are mired in familiar and deeply partisan battles.
Biden described his task from here as largely one of timing, describing what he called “long-term problems” that will have to each wait their turn.
“What we’re going to be able to do, God willing, is now begin one at a time to focus,” the president said. “The successful presidents, better than me, have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing. Order it. Decide in priorities — what needs to be done.”
But the political challenge from here is far broader than choosing what to bite off and when. As Biden recognizes, there are structural impediments to further achievements — some stemming from arcane legislative rules, others from the fact that Democrats control Congress by the slimmest of margins and that they don’t all agree on how best to retain their majorities.
Biden expanded his critique of the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes for most Senate business to proceed. The former longtime senator said the filibuster is “being abused in a gigantic way” — but cited as evidence statistics from last year, when it was largely Democrats using the tactic to slow a Republican agenda.
With the current Senate party breakdown an even 50-50, Washington business of late has provided constant examples of the power of one. Forget Republicans: Any one Democrat can effectively block legislative action by him- or herself, and this week a close ally of the White House threatened to block all confirmation votes until the Biden administration achieves further diversity among the AAPI community.
As for Republicans, the “epiphany” the president has predicted has not materialized. The GOP has its own deep divisions, many of them centered on how to handle former President Donald Trump, but has found near-complete unity in opposing the Biden agenda.
That agenda is only getting bolder, by the president’s own telling. Biden made clear he is thinking of his presidency in terms and tone that have not been humbled by realities in Washington or beyond.
“I want to change the paradigm,” he said three times in one answer.
Biden at first sought to squelch any talk that he may not run for reelection in 2024, when he will be 81 years old: “The answer is yes, my plan is to run for re-election. That’s my expectation.”
Moments later he turned more philosophical, in a telling exchange about the uncertainties of the time ahead: “I’m a great respecter of fate. I’ve never been able to plan four-and-a-half — three-and-a-half years ahead for certain.”