The United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. is the home of Congress and the seat of the legislative branch of the U.S. federal government. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Don’t look for any great departures in Biden’s domestic policy

The Republican opposition has no reason to enable any element of Biden’s agenda and every reason to oppose it

Artillery Row

Newly inaugurated Joe Biden has promised healing and unity. In the days since his heavily defended arrival in office, acerbic partisan attacks have receded in favour of Washington’s new favourite buzzword: bipartisanship. That clumsy five-syllable word and the fairly dull concept it captures seem to be on every earnest Washingtonian’s lips. The new president’s staff assure us he wants it. The geriatric Democratic Congressional leadership is starting to echo it. Biden’s 47-year history in official Washington suggests they are telling the truth about it. The uniformly pro-administration journalists on the first Biden-era round of America’s popular Sunday morning news shows were practically looking under their chairs for it.

Decisively proving that electoral fraud did not take place presents a crushing if not impossible burden

Despite Donald Trump’s defeat and failure to reverse it, Biden’s fortunes mightily depend on Republican good will. Biden may have reached the presidency, but the overall election results militate against any radical agenda. The Democrats’ voting majority in the House of Representatives fell from 35 seats to just ten. The Senate is divided 50-50, with vice president Kamala Harris constitutionally empowered to break ties. This means that just one lone Democratic senator, such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has denounced the current Trump impeachment effort as “ill advised,” has the power to block any bill proposed by the new president, assuming that no Senate Republicans break ranks.

Even if the Democrats can impose their threadbare majority, the Senate’s filibuster rule requires a 60-vote supermajority to end debate and allow the normal legislative vote under consideration to take place. Getting there in the current environment will require ten dissident Republican Senators. Outside Washington, the Republicans increased the number of state legislatures under their control: a result of national significance since state legislatures determine voting districts for future Congressional elections, the next of which will be held less than two years from now.

In most swing states, the presidential popular votes were so close that it has been plausibly suggested that turnout for the miniscule Libertarian Party may have swung the constitutionally decisive Electoral College majority away from Trump. Of the 74.2 million Americans who did vote for the former president, some 82 per cent believe the election was “rigged,” “stolen,” or in some other way illegitimate. So do 26 per cent of registered Independents and even ten per cent of Democrats. Media partisans, whom 70 per cent of Americans already distrusted, deny these opinions so often, so repeatedly, and with such vehemence that it strikes many of their critics as a case of “methinks they doth protest too much,” thus perpetuating the national cycle of irreconcilable differences.

However improbable one might find the suggestion of mass electoral fraud, decisively proving the negative that such fraud did not take place presents a crushing if not impossible burden. Anger and doubt, after all, ran high enough that on 6 January – more than two months after the election – an enraged mob stormed and sacked the US Capitol building. Thereafter, a 27,000-man deployment of National Guard and militarised law enforcement personnel closed off official Washington to protect the inauguration. The Democrats’ unmollified rage against Trump, whom they hold responsible for the Capitol storming and everything else of which they disapprove, has led to a rash and ultimately pointless second impeachment, which is scheduled to proceed to a Senate trial starting on 9 February, just as Biden’s legislative programme will come to Congressional attention.

Trump is by far the preferred candidate for a rematch election against Biden in 2024

Meanwhile, Trump remains overwhelmingly popular within the Republican Party, most of whose leaders continue to swear fealty to him. Tucked away at Mar-a-Lago in sunny Palm Beach, his approval rating among Republicans still soars at 79 per cent, while his general approval rating upon leaving office, at 43 per cent, roughly reaches the average for his presidency. Assuming Trump runs again in 2024, he is by far the preferred candidate for a rematch election against Biden, who will turn 82 that year, arguably without any improvement in his mental faculties or energy levels. If Trump does not run again, the party has a host of young, accomplished, and well-spoken leaders in their thirties and forties who fully share his ideas but are free of his baggage and pathologies.

Biden knows he has to tread lightly if he wants to accomplish anything. This is already apparent in the early signs of his legislative agenda. The first order of business is a new stimulus bill. Amounting to USD 1.9 trillion in its proposed form, it is only slightly costlier than Trump’s proposals of two months ago. Its centrepiece, an additional USD 1,400 per person economic stimulus payment to most taxpayers, merely replicates Trump’s goal of giving out USD 2,000, of which USD 600 was already delivered.

Other initiatives are modest, indeed. A proposed minimum wage increase to USD 15 per hour, long a progressive dream and already coming into effect in numerous US states and municipalities, is limited to federal government employees and contractors, while a prospective legislative bill to that effect will only introduce it gradually over a five-year period. A planned tax increase would return the top marginal federal income tax rate, which now applies to the fewer than one per cent of individual Americans who earn USD 523,600 per year or more, to 39.6 per cent from 37 per cent. Biden’s plan would eliminate only half of Trump’s corporate tax cut, meaning that, at 28 per cent, the US corporate tax rate would still be 20 per cent lower than it was under Obama. Biden’s tax plan also calls for the restoration of a federal income tax deduction for state and local taxes, which Trump’s 2017 bill eliminated. This effectively means that many high-earning Americans, especially those in high-tax states like New York and California, would see a de facto cut in their tax burdens.

So much for democratic socialism; but bear in mind that even these limited measures can only become reality if the new president can convince tax-allergic Congressional Republicans to go along. Alas, the comprising instinct is hardly robust in today’s capital. The Republican opposition has no reason to enable any element of Biden’s agenda, however modest, and every reason to oppose it.

Betraying Trump’s legacy would be an act of political suicide for any Republican

Trump and his economic accomplishments remain popular, and betraying that legacy would be an act of political suicide for any Republican. To most Republicans, their party’s effete “Never Trumper” faction, which agitated against his re-election and may be more inclined to work with Biden, now look like useful idiots who just helped turn the country over to the left because Trump’s outsider manners tweaked their bow ties and nearly got them thrown of their blue state food co-ops. Tellingly, all ten Republican representatives who voted in favour of the second impeachment are now outcasts who have been or probably will be censured by their state party organisations and are likely to be “primaried” out of office in 2022. Judging by the newly elected Republican “freshmen” congressmen, those who replace them are likely to be young, lean, and extreme. At the same time, the Democrats’ progressive wing, which Biden and his Congressional allies have almost totally excluded from power, is deeply resentful and ideologically convinced that its ideas are not and cannot be wrong. As its recent rhetoric has shown, it prefers blacklisting its opponents to engaging them, and relies on the bullying tactics of cancel culture to impose its agenda on the overwhelming majority of Americans who reject it.

Biden’s stimulus bill, which includes controversial provisions for foreign aid and assistance to blue states in serious financial difficulty, has already been widely pronounced dead on arrival and is unlikely to pass without major revision. The prospective tax increases command limited public sympathy in pandemic-troubled economic times, and allegations of Republican obstructionism will merely draw attention to the fact that the Republicans oppose, and therefore obstruct, higher taxes that hardly anyone wants to pay. Seeing Biden fail even in his modest agenda will make him look terribly ineffective as the 2022 midterm and 2024 general elections approach and will verify Trump’s major 2020 campaign criticism that the new president is too old and addled to provide dynamic executive leadership to a country that badly needs it. In the likely event that Biden goes into 2024 without any significant accomplishments, we may well not have seen the last of Donald Trump.

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