Joe Biden has now won a clean victory over Donald Trump. But he’ll take office next January with weak momentum, major barriers to governing and a large faction of his Democratic party isolated and angry.
Democrats hoped for a “blue wave” in 2020 that would put Biden in the White House, shift control of the Senate to Democrats and enlarge the Democratic majority in the House. Democrats would have had full control of legislation, Senate approval of judges and Cabinet officials, and the regulatory machinery of the executive branch.
Instead of a blue wave, however, Republicans will probably maintain a thin margin of control in the Senate. That will come down to two Senate runoffs in Georgia, where incumbent Republicans Senators David Purdue and Kelly Loefler outpolled their Democratic challengers but didn’t meet the 50% threshold needed for an outright win. If Republicans win just one of those, they’ll control the Senate. If Democrats win both, the Senate will tied and the new Vice President Kamala Harris will cast a tiebreaking vote, giving Dems the slightest possible edge.
Republicans are favored to win at least one of those seats. And any majority will make it extremely hard for Democrats to pass new programs such as Biden’s plans for health care, affordable housing, green energy, expanded education or criminal justice reform. This will be especially bitter for the most left-leaning “progressive” Democrats who support Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They campaigned enthusiastically for the more moderate Biden in the general election hoping he’d move to the left once elected. But there’s now no reason for Biden to move left, because he’d be pushing programs that alienate some of the centrists who voted for him yet have no chance of becoming law.
The most notable casualty of split government may be a fourth coronavirus stimulus plan. Had Democrats gained control of both houses, they probably would have passed a bill at least as large as the $2.3 trillion package the House passed in May. But Senate Republicans only want about $500 billion in new stimulus, and nobody can bulldoze them as long as they maintain a majority. The current Congress could pass a modest stimulus bill by January, with little hope for a follow-up next year unless Democrats win those two Georgia seats.
Handicapped by the Senate
Biden, like any president, will still have the considerable power of the executive branch at his disposal, and perhaps follow Trump’s example of governing by executive order. But the Republican Senate could handicap him there, as well. Trump took office with a Senate controlled by the same party and happy to confirm most of his appointees. Biden would take office with Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell eager to gum up his presidency, as he did for Barack Obama from 2015 to 2017.
Progressives hoped some and maybe even all of Biden’s Cabinet appointees would come from the progressive ranks, including Warren for Treasury Secretary, Sanders for Labor Secretary and a fervent environmentalist such as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee as EPA Administrator. But there’s almost no chance a Republican Senate would confirm those appointees. “Republicans will act as check on the Biden administration from blocking any liberal regulators,” Jon Lieber, managing director at Eurasia Group, said in a call with journalists on Nov. 4. “We’ll get much more moderate agency heads.”
A few Republicans could join 47 or 48 Democratic senators to confirm moderate Biden appointees, who might then undertake a more activist agenda at Biden’s tasking. But federal agencies are huge, sclerotic organizations that need aggressive leadership to change priorities and accomplish much beyond the status quo. If an agency head doesn't agree with her marching orders, it won't happen.
Not all of this is bad for Biden. He won the Democratic nomination by campaigning as a moderate, not a progressive. By Election Day, his policies had moved to the left thanks to input from Sanders and other progressives—part of a deal in which progressives would thoroughly support his presidential bid as long as President Biden backed some of their ideas. Biden can now tell his progressive supporters, look, I tried, but those bad Republicans in the Senate have my hands tied. As Biden himself points out, he beat all the progressives in the primary elections because even Democratic voters didn’t want all the revolution they’re calling for.
With the 2020 race over, except for the Georgia Senate runoffs, the 2022 midterms now loom as momentous. The newly elected president’s party typically loses a few seats in the following midterm, because new presidents tend to pursue bold new agendas that make voters nervous. Clawing back a few seats in Congress is a form of voter assertion. But with a divided Congress, Biden won’t be able to do much anyway, unless he out-trumps Trump on executive orders. By 2022, voters might be sick of Republican obstructionism, or, they might be glad a tight leash in the Senate keeps the progressive agenda anchored. Both sides are already rolling up their sleeves for the next election.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: email@example.com. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.