In his first 72 hours in office, Joe Biden seems to have been sitting at a table in the Oval Office virtually the entire time, incessantly signing all the immediately enforceable decrees that dismantled the most odious aspects of Trumpism, particularly the criminal neglect of dealing with the pandemic.
Certainly, images like those showing him with a stack of documents to sign on his right and Vice President Kamala Harris behind him will continue in the coming days, but there is a lot of work and little time. Biden has entered office with a ticking clock hanging over him.
The moment of truth will come on November 8, 2022, with the House and Senate midterm elections, to which the Democrats will come with a majority that couldn’t be more fragile. Furthermore, in the American political tradition, the midterms typically result in the governing party suffering serious losses.
This gives Democrats less than two years to govern: twenty-one months and a half to prove that the American political system can work and that Donald Trump was a folly that should not be repeated.
The numbers are unforgiving: the Senate is divided exactly in half, 50-50, so unblocking any measures, even routine ones, will require the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. But any significant legislation will encounter a Republican filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome, an almost impossible threshold to cross.
This is the problem the Democratic majority faces: if it fails or falters, it will open the door to the return of Trumpism, or something similar, as early as 2022, to be followed by a Republican candidate who could be worse than Trump in 2024. To avoid this catastrophe, Joe Biden cannot simply defend the current inequitable and inefficient political system. He must rebuild it: will he be the right man for such a gargantuan task?
In the speeches made during these last few weeks, there has been much talk of “unity” in a country that has never been so divided and so unequal, forgetting that populists don’t grow their support just because of socioeconomic discontent. Trumpism fed on the image of a government perceived as highly ineffective, and its appeal was that Trump promised to replace it with effective government by installing autocratic power to “drain the swamp in Washington,” the favorite slogan of the gangster who occupied the White House.
Democrats mocked and fought his authoritarianism, but they never really took seriously the ground from which the desire for a strongman had grown. The American system of government is not only leaving too many problems unresolved and too many people disillusioned, but it is literally abandoning millions of American citizens to despair and misery.
It is no mystery that Congress and the presidency are hostage to corporations and that federalism, along with archaic regulations, is an excellent recipe for paralysis.
On November 3, Americans gave Democrats another chance. However, to avoid failing, they have a duty to help people quickly and in a visible manner. The Trumpist Republican Party must be defeated in 2022, and they cannot be allowed to return to a majority in 2024 because of a Democratic failure.
The $1.9 trillion bailout plan announced by Biden is full of proposals that would actually change people’s lives: from additional cash benefits of $1,400 to alleviate the economic hardships created by the coronavirus to paid leave and an attempt to vaccinate 100 million Americans in the next 100 days, which should hopefully allow them to resume some semblance of normal life.
But none of these bills will find a majority in a Senate where the filibuster is still the rule. And that clarifies the real issue: without mass mobilization and a change in the rules of how government works, the Democrats will fail again, as they did in 2010, when they lost their majority in the House, just two years after Obama’s seemingly triumphant victory.
For decades, the Dems have shown that they are more committed to preserving the status quo of the political system than to keeping their promises to voters. If Biden chooses this path once again—one already taken while he was Vice President between 2008 and 2016—he will lose his hold on Congress and will end up being yet another failure.
The lesson of Obama’s main success, the Affordable Care Act, should be clear: the law succeeded in providing health insurance on a large scale only four years after its passage. A simpler, faster, more generous law would have been better policy, and perhaps helped save Hillary Clinton in 2016.