If Joe Biden wins the election in November, he will face the same thing every Democratic president has faced since Bill Clinton: a country broken by Republican policies (or the lack thereof). While it’s true that Biden isn’t likely to have to deal with two endless wars in the Middle East, we don’t yet know the lengths to which Trump will go to rescue his narcissistic ego from the prospect of being a “loser.” But we do know that he has decimated the entire federal bureaucracy and will leave the country in the worst economic shape since the Great Depression.
In light of that, our friend Ed Kilgore writes that Biden will need to avoid the mistakes of the Obama presidency.
But there’s a major problem with Biden winning the presidency and partying like it’s 2009: Obama’s record in dealing with that crisis was mixed at best, even though he had political assets that Biden will not enjoy (e.g., big majorities in both congressional chambers) and faced conditions that were bad but nothing like today’s…Does Joe Biden have the rhetorical chops to overwhelm Republican opposition in a way that Obama could not?
That last question is what caught my eye. The “rhetorical chops” Kilgore refers to are often captured by the term “bully pulpit.” The assumption is that if a president can use superior rhetoric to convince enough voters to support his agenda, Republican opposition will give way. The comparison is often made to FDR.
The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu cites Biden’s expressed determination to reshape America like FDR did and sensibly notes that he “would have to unite an extraordinary proportion of the American public — not only in support of his agenda but in support of him, personally, as a political leader, just as Roosevelt did.”
But there are a couple of political dynamics that have changed since those days. First of all, Mitch McConnell has demonstrated that he doesn’t care what the majority of American voters think. He has not only promised to return to his mode of total obstruction if a Democrat is elected president, but Republicans have also developed a strategy to maintain their power—even as they slide into a minority.
The perfect example of how Republicans dismiss what voters want came in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting when it became clear that over 90 percent of the public supported common-sense gun safety measures—including a majority of Republicans. But McConnell and his cohorts simply obstructed that legislation as well. They have no reason to care what voters think because they are never held accountable.
The other dynamic that has changed since Roosevelt was president is that Republicans are more than happy to lie with abandon, knowing that right-wing media—led by Fox News—will buttress those lies. That nullifies the use of the bully pulpit to unite Americans behind a president’s agenda.
We saw how that worked when, during negotiations over Obamacare, a provision that would have allowed Medicare to bill for end-of-life planning was turned into “death panels.” Given that their base has been convinced that they can only believe what right-wing media tells them and everything else is “fake news,” they buy into the lies.
That is not only the challenge Obama faced, it is also the one that will confront Democrats if Biden is elected. It is true that, as Kilgore suggests, it could be mitigated with the abolition of the filibuster in the Senate if Democrats win a majority in that body. At this point, the biggest obstacle to that happening isn’t that Biden opposes it. A majority of Senate Democrats do as well.
It is also possible that the effectiveness of total obstruction could be minimized if McConnell loses his bid for re-election in Kentucky. On the one hand, his successor is likely to maintain a strategy that has worked so well for their party in the past. But McConnell has been extremely successful at keeping his troops in line—primarily through the use of his coffers of campaign cash. It is possible that the next Republican leader could experience some defectors.
All of this is why it is so important for Democrats and mainstream media to focus on challenging the way that Mitch McConnell and right-wing media have been so successful in subverting the entire governing process. The first step in correcting the problem is to accurately name it.