Politics isn’t a complicated art form, but you wouldn’t know that by watching some practitioners.
Here’s a test. Which politician would you expect to have more political leeway to attempt generational legislation: the president with historic majorities in the House in Senate, or the president with one of the smallest House majorities in a first term and an evenly divided Senate?
The rational person would pretty quickly point to the first president as the one with a mandate to try to clear generational legislation through Congress. And that sensible person, which I hope includes the reader, would be correct.
The first president in this example is Barack Obama. The second one is Joe Biden. Obama entered his first term with massive majorities in both the House and Senate, the kinds of congressional majorities that politicians dream of having. The 44th president had a legitimate case that he had an electoral mandate to be a transformative candidate.
It’s informative, then, that Obama’s attempts to be that transformative president with massive House majorities and a decimated Republican Party lasted precisely two years. The extremism he pursued through the bailouts and Affordable Care Act, among other things, unleashed a populist backlash that arguably extended through 2016 and the election of Donald Trump.
Joe Biden seems to have learned none of those lessons. Axios reports: “President Biden recently held an undisclosed East Room session with historians that included discussion of how big is too big — and how fast is too fast — to jam through once-in-a-lifetime historic changes to America.”
Donald Trump had a planet-sized ego. But not even he had the gall to spend one of his first months talking with historians to figure out how to appropriately hit the sweet spot on “lifetime historic changes to America.” This point is even more astonishing when you consider that neither Biden nor Democrats have the political mandate to do that.
Yes, it’s true Democrats have a majority in the House and can use Kamala Harris to break ties in the Senate to achieve a majority. But that ignores the pretty easy reality that could exist where Trump and Republicans could have had that same majority.
Analysis by The Washington Post found that Republicans were 90,000 votes away from controlling the White House, Senate, and House in the 2020 election. Furthermore:
While Democrat Joe Biden won the popular vote by more than four points and the electoral college 306 to 232, the result was much closer to flipping than that would suggest. Biden won the three decisive states — Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin — by 0.6 percentage points or less, which was similar to Trump’s 2016 victory. If you flip fewer than 43,000 votes across those three states, the electoral college is tied 269 to 269. In that case, Trump would probably have won, given that the race would be decided by one vote for each House delegation, of which Republicans control more.
These aren’t the numbers giving anyone a political mandate for anything besides a closely divided government. In fact, the numbers are so close that most sober political observers and prognosticators would give Republicans the edge in retaking the House in 2022. Had Trump won reelection, Democrats would be positioned to expand their majority in 2022.
There’s a natural ebb and flow or gravity to American politics. Once a party ascends to power, Americans tend to pivot toward the other party as a check. We’re not big fans of unchecked power by any party, which is to our credit. Politicians deny and fight that natural give and take at their peril.
And the reality is this: Biden won a narrow victory where he eked out a win when the incumbent had faced a generational pandemic and race riots over the summer. These are circumstances under which a talented politician would be able to surge into victory lane with massive majorities. Obama did this, with Republicans getting blamed for an economic recession.
Biden managed a narrow victory. But he doesn’t have the political leverage or mandate to be the generational change agent he wants to write into the history books. This reality won’t stop him from trying, of course. If you’re already trying to stick yourself in the history books, there’s not much humility to be found.
But it doesn’t matter, ultimately, whether or not Biden accepts or denies these political realities. The fundamentals at play will still be the leading forces in future elections, as well as the polls that give or take away wind from Biden’s sails. He’s already failing in dealing with the border crisis. Events could sink him further.
An intelligent politician would work with the other party to spread out success and blame. But if you’re already measuring the drapes of history, you might not fit this bill. Time is ticking away on Biden’s small majorities.