Synopsis–Besides, as a senator from Delaware for 36 successive years from 1973 to 2009, he knows full well the personalities and machinations of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Even so, he will preside over a nation and a legislature more polarised than ever before.
When Joe Biden takes office on January 20, 2021, as the 46th president of the US, he will have to confront some of his greatest tests in life — thanks to an utterly divided US Congress and a nation unrecognisable from that of old. It is not as if Biden hasn’t faced adversities. He lost his first wife and a year-old daughter in a car crash in 1972, and his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015.
Besides, as a senator from Delaware for 36 successive years from 1973 to 2009, he knows full well the personalities and machinations of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Even so, he will preside over a nation and a legislature more polarised than ever before.
To understand Biden’s challenges, hark back to the 88th US Congress (1963-65). Both the Senate and the House were controlled by Democrats. Yet, the most ferocious legislative battle was carried out by the southern members of the Democratic Party over the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, which was introduced by Lydon Johnson, himself a southern Democrat president. It involved the longest filibuster ever in the Senate with 57 days of debate, and ended when the Senate voted 71-29 to invoke cloture. Despite this brutal legislative war, the relationship between Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate remained cordial. And, on several occasions, Mike Mansfield, the Democratic leader of the Senate, successfully cut cross-party deals with Everett Dirksen, the Republican minority leader.
The 93rd US Congress (1973-75) saw the Watergate hearings, the impeachment process against Richard Nixon and his subsequent resignation, and witnessed tougher battles between the Republicans and Democrats. Yet, despite the bruising, relationships on the Hill remained civil and broadly bipartisan across the presidencies of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush. Then came Bill Clinton and the schism.
When Clinton entered the White House, the Republicans had wrested majority control of both the House and Senate for the first time since 1954 And Clinton faced a dogged and vicious adversary in Newt Gingrich, a Republican Congressman from Georgia who became the speaker of the House. From then, an unforgiving battle line was drawn between Republican lawmakers and any Democrat president.
Gingrich used Republican power to not approve supplementary grants that forcibly shut down the US government in November 1995, and in Christmas-New Year of 1995-96, and led the House’s charge in impeaching Clinton. The word was out: with a Republican majority in the House and Senate, no Democratic president would ever find peace.
Barack Obama describes this brilliantly in his new book, A Promised Land. As president-elect in his first term, with both houses of the 111th Congress back in Democratic control, he and his vice-president-elect Joe Biden met the Senate majority Democrat leader Harry Reid, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, House speaker Democrat Nancy Pelosi and House Republican leader John Boehner.
This is Obama on McConnell: ‘Short, owlish, with a smooth Kentucky accent… what McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness and shamelessness — all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power’. Biden inherits a divided Congress. The Republicans have majority in the Senate where McConnell runs the show. The Democrats control the House but, at the end of the day, the Bills finally get passed in the Senate.
With the likes of McConnell and Rand Paul (Kentucky), Marco Rubio and Rick Scott (Florida), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), Ted Cruz (Texas), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), John Thune (South Dakota) and others, the Republicans will do everything to jettison any major Bill that Biden introduces, despite his excellent relationship with most senators.
Unfortunately, there is worse. In his four destructive years as the 45th president, Donald Trump actively nurtured and emboldened a seriously divided nation. That millions still believe without a trace of evidence that Trump actually won the 2020 election, that the results were a monstrous fraud, and that postal ballots encouraged vote rigging, show how polarised the US has become.
Trump isn’t going to fade away. He will keep the claxon baying about electoral fraud, garner more money through various political action committees (PACs), and keep telling people that, like Douglas McArthur, he shall return in 2024. Throughout the next four years, as his loyal lawmakers try to stymie Biden in the Hill, Trump will travel the country to create a larger voter base for himself in 2024. He may not succeed. But he will surely escalate the divisiveness — for that is his raison d’être.
Biden will have to deal with such powerful toxicity. I pray that he has the strength and courage to overcome this. Because the US cannot continue with this cancerous discord. For itself.
(The writer is chairman, Corporate and Economic Research Group (CERG) Advisory.)