S1: Please raise your right hand and repeat after me. When did you believe this was actually happening? I, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. do solemnly swear. Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. do solemnly swear. Was it when Joe Biden took the oath of office 10 minutes early, the office was it when the marine band struck up Hail to the Chief?
S2: It feels a little bit like a time warp where you woke up from a bad dream, Slate’s Jim Newell was at the inauguration and it’s even taken him a second to process it.
S3: So I’m only, like, allowing myself to breathe for the first time now.
S1: Oh, I know. I feel like I’m going to let myself breathe next week. Like it’s not real. It’s not real.
S3: Yeah, maybe I’m being I’m being naive, breathing now, you know, three hours after the inauguration.
S1: Jim was seated right up front next to the guy with the big drum, marveling at the normalcy of it all in spite of the half mile perimeter.
S2: He had to navigate to get there. And in spite of having to walk through one metal detector after another and scanning a QR code to show he was covid free, some of the members I spoke to there, they all said they they felt safe, although apparently some members were wearing body armor under their their clothes. Really? Yeah. This strange sense of normalcy layered over bizarre circumstances. It carried over to Joe Biden’s speech to he talked about the coronavirus and climate change and the need for everyone to work together.
S3: I think that kind of message after an election, it can be kind of hackneyed. The way he delivered that speech felt kind of like an urgent need, you know, in the two weeks after there was an attack on the capital base on. Crazy lies from the president. It felt like he was addressing the specific crisis of the moment that had just led to violence. So, yeah, it was kind of a traditional ceremony.
S2: But some of these cliches, you know, the power of the moment behind them, he had this moment where he said, you know, with unity, we can do great things and watching at home. That was a moment where the camera cut away to Ted Cruz. And I just couldn’t help but wonder. It sounded great, but how realistic is this talk of unity?
S3: Right now, so what I’ve seen and some some Republican reactions is very nice speech. I like the message, but now it’s time to see if he can translate those words into action. And they’re very much saying the onus is on Biden to unify the country. And it seems, you know, the congressional reporter, I would say they’re setting him up for a fall. I do think that it would be comforting just to have the disagreement be on that level again, though, where it’s about, you know, the partisan vote breakdowns on a bill for spending on vaccines or unemployment insurance or a minimum wage increase. And the divisions aren’t about like, you know, whether you agree with Trump that Stormy Daniels is horse face looking or something like that. You know, like I’m glad that we’re getting back to a sort of realm where hopefully some of these sharp disagreements will be about normal things.
S1: Today on the show is normal enough at the inauguration, Joe Biden argued unity is the path forward, but it’s still an open question whether he’s going to be able to get anything done. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.
S2: This week, you wrote a piece where you talked about Joe Biden and said he was ever underestimated and I want to talk about that because he is beginning his presidency and he has a lot of things he wants to achieve. And I think you’re right that the whole election feels like an example of Biden being underestimated. He sort of entered quietly, was running behind. Then all of a sudden, here he is. He’s the guy. And you could almost see it at the inauguration to where I feel like people kind of came in holding their breath. And then he gave a speech where I think a lot of people came out of it feeling like, oh, that exceeded expectations.
S3: It just is so strange to have an election winner where after the election there seems to be so little focus on them and the focus is so much more on who lost and how the loser is taking it. And just I think the way we think of the election is less Biden won than Trump lost. And I guess that speaks to Trump’s ability to focus all attention on him by being a maniac. So but I think the way a lot of. Democrats interpreted this election relative to, say, Obama’s election 08, Obama’s election was this thrilling event, we’re going to change the world. Biden’s election was more of a relief, like we got rid of Trump. We’re going to go back to normal. Don’t necessarily expect anything. But, you know, it’s over, thank God.
S2: But in a way, it sounds like you’re saying Biden benefits from those low expectations.
S3: Right. And that’s what I’m saying is I think he’s just not been I think people haven’t really looked at the potential upsides here, I think. You know, one guy’s certainly as much experience as anyone, but if you look at what he has to deal with, you know, the biggest, two biggest priorities are getting rid of the virus and keeping the economy afloat while you are working on that. And I think he just has a good opportunity to achieve both of those. I mean, the vaccines are ready and there’s more coming. And he’ll be the first president to actually try to have a national plan to get these vaccine distributed. In the meantime, you know, I think he’ll I don’t know what the final version of the stimulus or the relief package will look like, but I think they’ll get something pretty big through one way or another. And I think that will help. And, you know, maybe it’s naive of me. You will probably all be pulling our hair out, as, you know, day by day process of this. But if you think heading into the midterms, never too early to start thinking about those, you know, we could see the virus on its way out. Most people vaccinated, an economy poised for for a liftoff. Like, I think it’s just a really good opportunity for for him.
S2: You said something really smart, I thought, which was you compared the way Biden’s coming in with the way Obama came in, which is both of them kind of saddled with these crises. But Obama’s crisis was much more complicated to explain to people didn’t touch them the way the coronavirus is touching every American. And the fixes will touch more people this time around, too. And to me, it was a really interesting point. It just makes this clear that if Biden does well, it’s an opportunity for him. It’s an opportunity for the Democratic Party in a way that is just different than the last time around.
S3: Biden has a very tangible thing he has to do. He has to put shots in arms and we can all see how well that’s going every day. And he can devote as many resources as he needs to to make sure that happens. And, you know, everyone will know that that happened. If we are able to get rid of the virus completely within his term, then, you know, everyone knows who gets credit for that. Like I said, my piece, I don’t want to trivialize how easy it is to get everyone vaccinated. Obviously, we’ve seen we’ve seen that we cannot do it right. We’ve seen that we cannot do it. But part of that, I really do think, is that there’s been zero federal leadership like Trump really saying it’s up to the states, not my problem. We’ve had no national vaccination plan. And so we’ve seen you know, I think if he really does get the Defense Production Act involved and he has the Army helping to distribute the vaccines, like it seems like that could help things go a long way. And we are getting on better, too. You know, we’re up to like I think we’re doing about a million doses a day now, which is still not quite good enough. But, you know, it’s improving.
S2: I guess the thing that is Joe Biden’s greatest strength to me is also the thing that is his greatest weakness. And he said, you know, what distinguished him as a candidate was that he had this high capacity for trust and a broad reservoir of goodwill. But it’s like, how does he use that moving forward, given that the other party that he’s working with has just shown? Every at every opportunity has wanted to cut the Democrats off at the knees.
S3: Well, I think that by having those characteristics, Biden makes himself. More likable than the Republicans. You know, I think if if it were another nominee who maybe was less well known, Republicans would be more openly signaling, even on Inauguration Day, that their goal is to take this person down. I think they’d be more explicit about that not made. That is their goal with Biden. You know, they don’t want him to be a successful president. I feel pretty comfortable saying, but I think Biden, by being so well known and so trusted and generally liked, I think makes that that task a little more difficult for them.
S2: So you see, for instance, like Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden went to church together before inauguration. You see that is a good sign because McConnell saying, I respect you enough to do this. I don’t. I don’t.
S3: I guess so. Yeah. I mean, I don’t I don’t think that them going to church together means that McConnell is going to be like, you know, I like you. Let’s do more bills together or something like that. When I say people trust Biden more, I’m not talking about members of Congress. I’m talking with the public like the public is more willing to put their faith into him and, you know, not just believe that he’s trying to tear the country apart.
S4: When we come back, what the newly minted Biden administration is focused on passing and how they might do it.
S2: The first test of Jim’s theory that Joe Biden is being underestimated will come pretty quickly. The Biden administration is already mapping out two major pieces of legislation. The first is a stimulus bill, including around a fourteen hundred dollar checks and a minimum wage increase to 15 bucks an hour. Jim says the content of this bill, it’s important, but what might be more important is the process. It’s going to be used to get it passed because getting another stimulus through the Senate, using the regular order, meaning a two thirds majority to avoid a filibuster, it’s probably going to be difficult, maybe impossible.
S3: I don’t know if there are 10 Republican votes for a one point nine dollars billion package like that, especially now that I’m with a Democrat in office. They’re going to rediscover their big concerns about the debt and everything. I mean, one example, after inauguration today when I was walking out, I saw Mitt Romney and, you know, I just asked him a couple of questions about the speech. And he is a wonderful speech. You know, this is exactly the message we need to hear. He seemed pretty excited about how things had gone. And then I asked him for his thoughts on on the stimulus package and he said, well, we can agree to disagree. And I don’t think now’s the time to be spending any more money.
S2: So, you know, if Mitt Romney isn’t coming aboard and I mean, that makes sense.
S3: You know, just because he’s he was critical of Trump doesn’t mean he’s not a fiscal conservative. So I but I think that could be the attitude. And so maybe, you know, there might only be a few Republican senators in play. So if that doesn’t work out. Then you have to talk about doing a reconciliation bill, which is kind of a fast track process where measures that are explicitly taxing or spending measures can be passed with 50 votes only in the Senate.
S2: Reconciliation is an opportunity for the controlling party to pass major legislation with a simple majority avoiding a filibuster. But reconciliation can only be done under certain circumstances and only once each fiscal year.
S3: And I think that’s Democrats will have a couple weeks of politeness maybe. But then they’ll then they’ll move to that process. And it is yeah, it stops short of getting rid of a filibuster, because if you get rid of the filibuster, then you can pass any type of legislation you want with 50 votes. But I don’t think Democrats have the votes to do that right now.
S2: Would they need more than a majority to get rid of a filibuster?
S3: No. Under the quote unquote, nuclear option, which is their way of sort of eliminating a Senate rule by setting a new precedent, you can just do it by a simple majority.
S2: But you think they don’t even have a simple majority because so many Democrats are still like, oh, I feel scary.
S3: No, I mean, they have. Joe Manchin, West Virginia senator, said a couple of months ago, reiterated that under no circumstances will he ever get rid of the filibuster. And, you know, then that doesn’t even count some of the other centrist Democrats. You know, you’re going to you’re going to have two Democrats from Arizona and two from Georgia now and then. There may be just some other traditionalists there who aren’t ready to do that.
S2: There’s a second bill that’s going to put this new administration to the test. It’s the U.S. Citizenship Act of twenty twenty one, which includes an eight year pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. Jim says he can see why the Biden administration would prioritize this similar reform almost passed back in 2013.
S3: Yeah, I think I haven’t read all the details of it, but I think it’s still the same kind of political bargain that they were looking at in 2013 and before that. Twenty six. Twenty seven where Democrats want a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here. I’m not sure that number is right now 11 million, 12 million. And Republicans in exchange want. Enhanced border security, everyone kind of wants to come up with the right number of guest worker visas so that everything so that labor can all be managed legally through the system, that’s always been the bargain. They’re looking at it almost work in 2013. You had a bipartisan group in the Senate put together a bill, you had a lot of outside actors working on it. You know, you had the Chamber of Commerce, four businesses and an AFL-CIO representing Labor’s point, trying to, you know, hash out the details. And they got a compromise done. It passed the Senate with sixty seven. Sixty eight votes. I think pretty much all. I think it was all Democrats and then 16 or 17 Republicans. It would have passed the House if the House had brought it up because there were all Democrats who would have had enough moderate House Republicans who would have voted for it. But Boehner never brought it up because. They were threatening to overthrow him from the speaker’s position if he did so, he did not have the will of his conference on that. So when I look ahead to this year, it looks on paper like it could be the right coalition because Biden could put forward a roughly similar idea. You could still get a bipartisan group in the Senate and you have Democrats controlling the House so you can actually pass it. But if you look at the context of that 2013 bill, this was right after the GOP had released that autopsy, that RNC autopsy of why they lost the 2012 election, which said that they had to appeal to more diverse constituencies. Yeah. And they had to soften their tone on immigration. And so that was kind of the operative and donor class thinking on this. But then Trump won in 2016 with by going very hard on immigration. So I just don’t think that Republicans in the Senate are going to have the will to go along with a Democratic immigration bill enough to move it. Well, so it be an interesting temperature check. Yeah, it’s a very it’ll be an interesting temperature check and it’ll be. It’ll be curious to see. You know, if it just goes down on party lines, you know, I know the 2013 one, that was something where Rubio was one of the big architects of it and it really hurt his chances running for president in 2016 in the primary. So I wonder if, you know, if they’re willing to to take the plunge again or if they they feel like things have just changed enough now that it’s not worth the effort.
S2: I mean, I just wonder, there’s so many former Obama former Clinton folks in Biden’s staff, and these are folks who were operating maybe in a different political reality than we’re in now. And I I wonder what you’re looking for to see if they’re doing what actually needs to be done or if they’ve learned the lessons of the years past.
S3: Yeah, I mean, all the signs have been really. Promising that they’ve learned those lessons you’ve heard Joe Biden himself say. The first bill we’re going to do is going to be expensive and we’re going to pay for it with deficit financing. I mean, you know, they’re not worried about these optics of not having every single dollar paid for in new legislation they create. And that is a big lesson. Learning from the Obama years. I think a lot of them regret that the stimulus they passed in 2009 was maybe a half or a third of what it needed to be to help get the economy going again. And I think if you look at Biden’s one point two trillion, one point nine trillion dollar plan, which is phase one of his plan, I think a lot of them think this is a wake up call for that. So once Republicans, you know, at 12 01 on Wednesday decide that it’s time to care about the national debt again, I don’t think Democrats are going to buy that as much. And I think they’re going to be so concerned with that argument that a lot of the Republicans, some of them are consistent, but most of them are making bad faith that it’s a Democrat in office, you know, time to not spend any more money.
S1: Does it help that Biden’s at the end of his career, like there’s so much talk about maybe he won’t run for a second term? Is that freeing?
S3: Maybe. I mean, it depends on if he is going to run for a second term, you know?
S5: And I suspect it’s a pretty good chance that he has decided he’s not going to run for a second term, but he doesn’t want to announce that because then suddenly you lose some of your power. Then you have a lot of jockeying in Congress about who’s going to replace you. And you kind of your authority is diminished right off the bat. So he’s, you know, not going to say that. And that’ll be interesting to see how that’s teased out over the next however many years.
S2: Jim Newell, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you.
S1: Jim Newell is Slate’s senior politics writer, and that’s the show, What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Davis, Landolina Schwartz and Mary Wilson with an assist from Frannie Kelley. We are led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I am Mary Harris. Tomorrow, you’ll find Lizzie O’Leary in this speed with our Friday show. What next? TBD. And I’ll be back here next week.