ZURICH (Reuters Breakingviews) - American presidents typically spend their first term in the White House trying to fulfil campaign promises in the hopes this will grant them another four years in office. But at 78 years of age when he is inaugurated in January, Joe Biden doesn’t realistically, or actuarially, have eight years to make his mark.
Ditto Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. He just won another six-year term, and if Democrats fail to pick up two senate seats in runoff elections in Georgia, will once again preside over the all-important legislative body. And there’s Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives, who is two years older than McConnell and Biden will be when he becomes the oldest commander in chief ever.
This geriatric trinity of American leadership could continue well beyond the next four years. Using known details of his health, exercise regimen and other habits, the former vice president has something like a 75% chance of living until the ripe old age of 87, enough to get him through two terms, and possibly to 94, according to a calculator found on Blueprint Income’s website.
And legislators have stuck around well past the ages at which McConnell and Pelosi will be after the first run of the Biden administration. West Virginia’s Robert Byrd served for more than half a century and died in office at 92. South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond – who in 1957 spoke in Congress for a record-breaking 24 hours to stop the passage of the Civil Rights Act – hit the century mark before taking leave in 2003.
But this time is different. For starters, all three leaders are at the biological twilights of their careers at the same time. More importantly they are inheriting a deeply divided nation in need of the American equivalent of a national unity government, a construct best understood in the context of parliamentary democracies emerging from crises, like South Africa after Apartheid or Britain in World War One.
Things aren’t that bad in the United States, of course. But the results that have emerged from the long vote-counting process last week show a nation truly split along party, rural-versus-urban, racial and other divides. Biden’s victory was not a landslide. Democrats lost seats in the House. And even if they manage to eke out victories in Georgia, they will have a one-vote margin in the Senate.
As my colleague John Foley noted, without a majority in the Senate many of the bolder promises Biden made – from hiking taxes on the rich to give middle class folks a better break to giant investments in green infrastructure – are going nowhere. But even smaller acts of governance, like the confirmation of cabinet positions, will be harder to achieve under those circumstances.
Indeed, the refusal of Republicans under McConnell to confirm appointments when they were in the minority under Barack Obama was the reason Harry Reid, then-Democrat Senate majority leader, triggered the so-called “nuclear option” in 2013. This effectively allowed for legislative decisions to pass on a simple majority, rather than the traditional 60-vote threshold previously needed to force an end to debate, a process McConnell then extended to Supreme Court nominations.
All of this led to today’s hyper-partisanship, which Biden addressed in his acceptance speech on Saturday: “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy.” The reconciliatory tone is that of a national unity government leader, not a party hack.
That means Biden will need to put aside some of the more ambitious proposals of the progressive wing of his party relating to economics, trade and finance, for example. Even with a one-vote majority in the Senate, they risk failing and giving Republicans the ammunition needed to take the House in 2022, and perhaps win back the White House two years later. That much is clear from the way Latino voters in places like Miami latched onto accusations that Democrats are closet Fidel Castro worshippers.
The big reveal for Democrats from this election should be that while Trumpism can be defeated, Americans are a fundamentally conservative bunch. They want access to healthcare and good schools and the other promises of social democratic societies. But not enough of them – or, perhaps just too few of them in rural states with oversized voting power – voted in that way.
There are a few legacy-building compromises that can be achieved before this triumvirate of aged American leaders moves on to retirement and beyond. First, there is an urgent need to get help the country fiscally through the next wave of Covid-19. A stimulus package that keeps workers and businesses afloat while the world waits for a safe vaccine to be tested, manufactured and distributed is key.
Second, for all the talk of investing in America’s decaying infrastructure during the Trump administration, nothing substantial was done. While a Green New Deal may be too much for Republicans to bring home to their constituents, decrepit highways, airports and bridges are a bipartisan concern.
Finally, there had been consensus on immigration reform even during the Obama administration. Under Trump’s hard-line anti-foreigner ideology, meeting in the middle was virtually impossible for Democrats or even moderate Republicans.
As the chief executive of one Wall Street bank put it this week, “Biden needs to sit down with McConnell and ask, what can we get done?” The president-elect and Senate leader served together for decades in the upper house, at a time when right and left, Democrat and Republican, collaborated on legislation that moved to the center.
Conceding on some key policies, like universal healthcare or green investment, will leave progressives seething. Trump supporters will be spitting mad to see the wall along the Mexican border neglected. But if there is one benefit to hiring some of the oldest leaders in history to take the country forward, it is that they come with the muscle memory of compromise.
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