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McGough '23: Biden may have only one shot — so radical change has to wait

In the early months of 2009, three priorities dominated former President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda for fixing a broken America. The first, a “stunningly ambitious” stimulus package, glided through the Capitol amid the Great Recession. Known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, it was an easy sell amid a nation-gripping economic collapse. 

The monstrous size of the package, however, left conservative Democrats wary of further government expansion. With his political capital wearing thin, Obama was forced to choose between his last two legislative priorities: combating climate change and remodeling the healthcare system. Though there was a chance his charisma would carry both, Obama had to put one before the other or risk losing each of them in a heavy-handed political push. The new president’s decision was going to be consequential: Whichever priority came second was unlikely to win the support of conservative Democrats.

In a pinch, Obama pursued his plan to remake American healthcare, and the rest is history. Twelve years later, America still has the 44th president’s signature healthcare package (bruised as it is) and still has not taken bold legislative action on climate change. In fact, during former President Trump’s tenure, our nation has perilously slipped backward on climate as Obama’s executive actions have been unceremoniously repealed.

President Joe Biden, like his former boss, is inheriting a broken nation. The recently inaugurated leader is prioritizing his agenda and mapping out his legislative strategy. Like Obama, Biden has the lonely privilege of picking which of his many legislative priorities to first pursue with limited political capital. Biden, with a narrow functioning congressional majority, may only have one shot in Congress, and he has to make it count. He must carefully form his legislative to-do list, knowing that each item on it will get incrementally harder to achieve. Therefore, Biden must put all else on hold and give top billing to an ambitious package of institutional reforms.

Thankfully though, Biden, as Obama did, gets a legislative freebie that he will cash in for a package seeking to end the COVID-19 pandemic. As the president has dictated, managing the pandemic and its economic fallout is the “first priority, the second priority and the third priority” of his administration. With a new, highly infectious strain powering death and case counts to their highest since the start of the pandemic, justifying a focus on anything else in the first 100 days would be impossible.

Mirroring the debate over the 2009 stimulus package, it is unlikely that even the most volatile Democrats will reject Biden’s calls for action and competent pandemic management. Centrist Democrat (and Chuck Schumer’s most troubling caucus member) Joe Manchin of West Virginia has even gone so far as to suggest that he will withhold his vote on any other legislation until the pandemic is under control. With his most difficult congressional allies already in line, Biden will get his preferred COVID-management package without having to leverage much political capital.

Biden’s second priority, which he will pay for out of pocket, remains an open question. The president’s agenda, which reads like a near-total makeover of the American government, includes a public buy-in for Medicare, sweeping police reforms and a minimum wage hike among other long-sought changes: A box of chocolates from which Democrats will be enticed to pick several policy goals.

But Biden, like Obama before him, must pick one to go after first, and unfortunately for progressives hoping to push monumental change, history has forced Biden’s hand: To protect the integrity of our democracy, he should leave aggressive policy changes on the table in favor of institutional reforms to the federal government. As the battle for the soul of the nation rages on, Biden needs to assert that the beating heart of the United States is neither our extensive Federal Code nor our hit-or-miss social programs, but the democratic institutions that Trumpism has so maligned for four years.

The threat to these institutions will not vanish with Trump’s dethroning ― there will be another Trump. The Republican Party, having shed their sheep’s clothing, has fully embraced vicious Trumpian politics and is bound to nominate another of his breed. Trump came within only 45,000 votes of the presidency, and a more inoffensive politician can certainly close that gap in 2024. To secure our democracy, institutional reforms must come this year ― and they must come first.

The shameful Trump era has revealed cracks in our government that are in desperate need of filling. Traditionally, these gaps have been filled with norms — the cardboard cutouts of laws that stand thanks only to the integrity of those who refuse to cut them down. Trump had no such integrity: He violated the independence of integral federal agencies, refused to hold daily (or even semi-regular) press briefings and failed to acknowledge his defeat, breaking a tradition that goes back to the election of 1800. Not even the sanctity of the Post Office was safe from Trump’s uncontrollable wrath.

Biden needs to work with Congress to enshrine what were once norms into laws: an arms-length relationship between the Oval Office and the Justice Department, the daily hosting of White House press briefings and reduced executive authority during the lame-duck period. These are just some examples of how to reinforce the soft spots in our democracy that Trump attempted to exploit. Still, there are countless other avenues to destabilize the American state that Trump did not pursue; a federal working group should be appointed to find and recommend how to plug these holes.

Extensive changes to representation, voting and election law should also be on the table. Extending statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico (should they accept) would add nearly four million full participants to broaden and strengthen our democracy, and passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would secure democracy for all by reenabling federal observers to monitor state election practices for the first time since 2013. Establishing Election Day as a federal holiday, an even simpler change, would mean a massive increase in access to the ballot box. These changes would have a major impact and should be high on Biden’s legislative agenda after Trump’s four-year attack on electoral institutions.

Under the right circumstances, it might also be appropriate to push for ambitious constitutional reforms, such as limiting gerrymandering and the president’s pardon power, as well as nullifying the Supreme Court’s shameful decision in Citizens United. If the language of these reforms is carefully considered, reform-minded Republicans promising to help “heal the nation” may jump aboard as well.

Once these issues are tackled, provided Biden still has political capital, he can then pursue his idealistic agenda of social program expansion and policy changes. After Biden’s “transitional” presidency, and with our democracy secured, we can revisit these goals. If, however, we turn to another figure with a Trumpian disdain for democracy in 2024 and allow them to wreak havoc on our institutions again, we may never get the chance.


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