Donald Trump isn’t the president anymore, but people still have opinions!
Republicans are complaining that it was divisive for Joe Biden to condemn “political extremism,” “white supremacy,” and “domestic terrorism” in his inaugural address and to propose a large COVID-19 relief bill. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and George W. Bush dirty-tricks gargoyle Karl Rove have purported to be offended by the inaugural remarks, which they say were a smear against all Republicans. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio typified the GOP response to the relief proposal when he characterized Biden as having a “radical leftist agenda”; on Monday, Politico reported that Maine Sen. Susan Collins is manifesting her characteristically judicious concerns about whether the stimulus checks proposed in the bill are too generous. Is this going to be a problem for Biden’s “unity” rhetoric? Remember what the narrative about being a divisive radical did to Barack Obama during his first term?
The professionally confrontational left is also cheesed off, as it tends to be. Cued by Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a number of prominent to semi-prominent Twitter users and the hosts of the Chapo Trap House podcast became incensed that Biden’s proposed relief bill calls for $1,400 stimulus checks rather than the $2,000 they thought had been promised. The socialists who run the socialist-intellectual publication Current Affairs have been complaining that achieving unity with Republicans is a substantively immoral goal. There is a whole thing, which is truly best described as “a whole thing,” revolving around a leftist YouTube talk show with 850,000 subscribers whose host is furious that Democrats in the House haven’t held a vote on “Medicare for All.” Is Biden selling out Democratic voters in a Charlie Brown–inflected pursuit of Centrism Points when Republicans aren’t ever going to think of him as anything but Obummer’s Chief Deputy for Communist Obummery? Remember how hesitancy and negotiating against oneself backfired against the sinister Dr. Obutthead—er, Barack Obama—during his first term? Oh, boy, geez! Think about all the things that could go wrong!
Good news: Most of those things are not likely to go wrong again! The right-wing spin machine doesn’t have the traction it once did with the media and the voting public, nor, for that matter, does the center-right concern machine. The left doesn’t have the same grounds for being upset that it did during the Obama administration, nor does it have the same legitimate grievance about being denied a hand in setting party strategy that it did during the Long Primary of 2016. If you are not a member of the far right or the online left, and are not literally Susan Collins, you can ignore the complaints from those entities without sacrificing any understanding of what your government is likely to be doing in the coming months and how those actions could affect the future arrangement of political power.
First for the Republicans. Barack Obama’s health care plan took more than a year to pass because of long, careful negotiations with industry groups and Republican senators. Part of this was because he thought there was political and ethical value in appealing to Republicans; part was because health care reform involves entrenched interests in a complicated system, in which changes are likely to disrupt at least some people’s existing coverage. Obama also agreed to an $800 billion stimulus bill when the chief White House economist thought privately that $1.8 trillion was the amount that was actually needed, and did so not just to demonstrate bipartisanship but because he believed a high-leverage set of voters would be upset if it appeared that the Democratic Party was spending too much money on the wrong kind of people. Indeed, that is what happened: The “Tea Party” movement launched itself around the issue—and again I must caveat that this was merely the purported issue at hand—of government spending, while similar concerns were expressed more politely by pundits. In the New York Times, the first column that influential centrist columnist David Brooks wrote during Obama’s term urged him to endorse Susan Collins’ efforts to cut money from the stimulus bill. Wrote Brooks: “Exploding federal deficits are a galvanizing issue for those in the center.” In 2010, Democrats lost seven seats in the Senate and 63 in the House.
Biden is dealing with an even more fanatically uncooperative Republican Party that Obama did, but the rest of the world has continued to turn in ways that are useful for him. There is now urgent support for relief at all levels of society, while at the same time deficits have receded as a voter priority relative to inequality and affordability issues. Direct stimulus spending, which may as well not have existed as a concept in 2009, is now widely acknowledged as both useful policy and, thanks to Democrats’ victories in the Georgia Senate runoffs, butt-kickin’ politics. The Republican Party’s cynical exploitation of procedural norms, and its circulation of disinformation, just got five people killed in the Capitol; most swing voters and CNN anchors no longer treat its talking points as good-faith contributions to the discourse. David Brooks’ first column of the Biden presidency asserted that if “Republicans go into full obstruction mode, Democrats should absolutely kill the filibuster,” which would allow for passing major relief legislation on a party-line vote, without Susan Collins.
None of this would matter if the Biden administration didn’t recognize what has changed. But by all appearances, it does. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki pointedly noted that a relief bill could be passed through the “budget reconciliation” loophole, which requires only 50 Senate votes, and that holding a reconciliation vote would not preclude Republicans from supporting it. She also observed that such a bill would need to be finished by March to prevent unemployment insurance benefits from running out. The administration is listening to Republicans—three high-level White House staffers spoke to Collins and other potentially cooperative middle-ground senators on Sunday—but it is giving them a deadline and holding on to its leverage. Biden, in his own Monday remarks, emphasized that he believes he can affirm the (conveniently abstract) ideals of unity and consensus-seeking without necessarily convincing some number of Republican senators to vote “yes” on everything he supports.
The White House can take this confident position because it knows that, unlike a complicated reimagining of the health care system that requires some people to pay more in premiums and taxes, or a bailout that most directly benefits large, private companies, the things it wants to do are easy to understand and popular. Support for prioritizing another relief package above other policy issues is enormous, as is support for individual components of the bill Biden has proposed, like stimulus checks and raising the minimum wage to $15.
That brings us to the left, which is responsible for Biden’s popular ideas but is largely failing to realize that, because it is so unused to a position of actually being listened to. It should have been a signal that despite Bernie Sanders being Biden’s biggest rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Day One story about Sanders was the funny position in which he was wearing big mittens during Biden’s inauguration rather than disagreements they are having over legislation. That’s because Democrats won the Senate on the backs of a stimulus-check push, and Sanders is going to be the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee; he doesn’t have substantive disagreements with the Biden administration at the moment. (Rashida Tlaib and AOC endorsed $1,400 bonus-check legislation themselves before the amount became a point of contention, to give you a sense of how narrow the substantive difference is between the center and its most vocal critics among actual elected Democrats who can cast votes.) The habit of opposition dies hard. The recriminations over the 2016 primary lasted as long as they did because they were genuinely unfinished business, but “Bernie would have won” doesn’t have the same urgency now that someone else has, in fact, won.
The debate over whether Democrats should prioritize inclusive optimism or rabble-rousing economic populism is over for now inside the party because Biden and new Georgia Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won tough elections by doing both at once. Biden’s relief proposal actually checks in at $1.9 trillion, a cool one hundred billion dollars more than the number that was considered so farfetched Obama’s economics team never even proposed it to their president, and Biden spent Monday projecting confidence that he will be able to pass it with the support of all 50 Democratic senators, from Sanders to Elizabeth Warren to West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. The peace won’t last forever; the party coalition’s interests won’t align this well when the time comes to take on policing reform, the public option, or whatever the next national crisis may be. (It’s going to be “climate change releases an ancient evil from the Canadian frost mountains.”) The threats to humane and sensible progress are howling just outside, like they always are, but the windows are sealed and locked and the furnace, for the first time in years, is humming comfortably. Breathe out.