Joe Biden may well win the presidency. But barring a miracle, it looks as if Democrats will not win the Senate. Their hopes of doing so effectively died on Wednesday afternoon, when Republican Susan Collins secured her fifth term in Maine. While Democrats could still technically take the chamber, it would most likely require forcing both races in Georgia to a runoff, then winning in each. That doesn’t seem too plausible.1
And so we are once again staring down the possibility of divided government, with a Democratic president facing off against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It is a devastating turn both for the prospects of a successful Biden presidency, which will be crippled day one, and the country’s wider well-being.
To understand why, just think back to the political dysfunction and economically painful austerity of Barack Obama’s last six years as president. With the economy still reeling from the Great Recession, Tea Party Republicans in the House manufactured a series of fiscal crises, including a showdown over the debt ceiling to force budget cuts, and a government shutdown in which they demanded the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (mercifully, that one didn’t work). Once the GOP won the Senate in 2014, Mitch McConnell proceeded to block the majority of the president’s judicial nominees, including, most importantly, his Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland. While Washington battled tooth and nail over every federal dollar, jobs grew at a crawl and the Midwest experienced a mini manufacturing recession that may well have set the stage for Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.
Now imagine a repeat of all that, but with more death. The unemployment rate is currently 7.9 percent, almost the same as when Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term. Except today we are in the thick of an economy-crippling plague with a new case rate that’s once again going parabolic. The jobs recovery is already slowing, the first round of government aid is more or less tapped out, states are already cutting their budgets, and the coming winter could soon bring more widespread death and small-business failures, especially in colder states. The one bright spot in this otherwise dim set of circumstances is that McConnell signaled on Monday that he is interested in passing another coronavirus relief package this year. But it is unclear how much he is actually willing to spend on it.
This is the dark backdrop against which Biden will begin his presidency. Unlike second-term Obama, he won’t have a Cabinet in place, or an opportunity to pass any of the marquee legislation he campaigned on. Instead, he will likely start his term facing down McConnell and an obstructionist Republican Party with the power to stiff-arm his appointments and most of his agenda. Biden has of course said many times that he would work with the GOP to bring bipartisanship back to Washington. It is unclear, however, whether Republicans have any desire to cooperate. Will McConnell approve a single Biden judicial nomination? Maybe a token few. Cabinet secretaries? I doubt he’d reject all of them, but you can bet he’ll hold up key appointments. As for legislation, there may be narrow areas where Democrats and Republicans can cooperate; we might finally get some action on surprise medical bills or prescription drug prices. McConnell sounds somewhat determined to finally tackle COVID (“ultimately you got to kill the [virus] before we get back to normal because there’s no other way to get back to normal,“ he said Monday.) But Biden might as well forget the main progressive planks of his platform. Those white papers can go straight to the shredder.
A Biden White House might not be entirely hamstrung by Senate opposition. If Republicans refuse to confirm important Cabinet picks and executive branch nominees, he could try to take a page from Trump’s book and name a slate of acting deputy secretaries of whatever under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. Maybe he could attempt the unprecedented step of adjourning Congress, as Trump threatened to, in order to make recess appointments. And assuming he can manage to get some officials into key decision-making roles, there are all sorts of ambitious things his administration could try to do through the power of executive orders and regulations, from forgiving student debt to tackling climate change.
But governing through executive power won’t be easy. The administrative rule-making process is painstaking, and any major moves will be vulnerable to lawsuits. The Supreme Court will be an enormous roadblock; its conservative members have been itching to limit the power of regulators to make major policy decisions, which presidents have taken for granted dating all the way back to the New Deal. And now they have a 6–3 majority with which to do it.
While Biden grinds away through the regulatory process, Republicans will have a chance to use government funding deadlines as an opportunity to demand new spending cuts. Back in 2018, McConnell memorably said that making major Medicare and Social Security cuts would likely be “impossible to achieve” as long as Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, because the party doesn’t want to be blamed for eviscerating popular programs. But with a Democratic president in office to absorb much of the blame? Its seems safe to assume conservatives will rediscover the fiscal hawkishness they abandoned during the Trump years. Will they succeed at slashing entitlement spending? Who knows? (They weren’t super successful at it during Obama’s term.) But even if they fail to take the scalpel to Medicare, should Republicans manage to force America back into another period of austerity, it could turn America’s recovery from the coronavirus recession into another slow crawl.
Democrats still have a few glimmers of hope. Most importantly, they have opportunities to pick up Senate seats in 2022 and maybe retake the chamber. But midterm elections are never reliable backup plans for a president, and based on this week’s results, the map doesn’t exactly look like a cinch (close swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina are some of the best targets). It will be an even harder lift if the economy is still depressed in the aftermath of COVID.
Were this an Aaron Sorkin script, there might be an uplifting twist to the story. Biden would appeal to the Republican Party’s two most liberal members in the Senate, Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, and ask them to caucus with the Democrats as independents, with one of them serving as majority leader, in order to create a sort of unity government, where they would have veto power over legislation and Cabinet picks but could ensure Washington’s basic ability to function. After all, Collins represents a blue state and likes to tout her alleged moderate streak, while Murkowski has broken with McConnell in some key instances, such as when she voted against confirming Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In the real world, none of this seems particularly likely to happen, in part because Collins owes McConnell for all the cash he channeled her way this cycle. We are not, as Twitter loves to remind us, living in an episode of The West Wing.
Ejecting Donald Trump from the White House has, in and of itself, been a historically important task. And if Biden does win, and can turn around America’s response to the coronavirus, that alone will be an important accomplishment. But beyond that, his hopes of having an impactful presidency—much less the FDR-sized one his supporters fantasized about as they watched the polls this fall—appear to be dead on arrival.
1 In theory, Cal Cunningham could pull off a come-from-behind victory if enough mail ballots arrive in North Carolina over the next two days. But that’s also, obviously, a long shot.