Notwithstanding a few head-scratchers among his cabinet and staffing picks, Joe Biden is being hailed as a paragon of conventionality after years of chaos and discord. But given his initial momentum out of the gate, Biden is already on track to effect radical change – and his team is actually competent enough to do it.
WASHINGTON, DC – Joe Biden knows enough about the US presidency to understand that the first few weeks are the easiest and most pleasant. There inevitably will be setbacks and crises, particularly for a president who took office amidst a raging pandemic, economic collapse, and a climate crisis near to a tipping point.
In the early weeks a new president can accomplish a lot through executive orders, reversing previous administration policies and signaling a commitment to certain values without interference from Congress. Biden can use the powers of his office unilaterally to push his first priority: controlling the pandemic.
The new president also has a pretty free hand in naming his cabinet. When he first announced his choices to fill many top advisory and cabinet positions, many observers worried that Biden was turning to yesterday’s names to handle today’s most demanding jobs. Biden is gambling on experience as his key to success.
In any case, the Biden team’s hyper-emphasis on cabinet diversity has sometimes made it seem that it was more important to be able to say that a nominee was “the first” of something, rather than that he or she was the best for the job. Nonetheless, Biden selected a competent cabinet overall; only after the usual shaking-out period will we really know which picks succeed.
The nomination of US Federal Appeals Court judge Merrick Garland to be attorney general seemed at first to be primarily an “up-yours” to Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who refused even to allow hearings for Garland when Barack Obama tapped him to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. To those who know Garland, however, he is an excellent choice: brilliant, calm, and fair – just the person to restore integrity and morale to a Justice Department battered by Donald Trump.
Similarly, Biden’s chief-of-staff, Ron Klain, is almost as experienced as his boss, having served as chief-of-staff to Biden during his vice presidency and to Vice President Al Gore before that. This comfortable working relationship has helped Biden not put a foot wrong thus far.
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The historical truth is that fresh faces in the Oval Office might be exciting, but they come with risks. Within three months of taking office, the relatively inexperienced John F. Kennedy, widely adored for his looks, charm, and eloquence, landed up in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
George W. Bush, the son of a president and two-term governor of Texas, was probably the most experienced of recent incoming White House occupants. Nonetheless, he presided over two avoidable calamities early on: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (numerous warnings and clues went unheeded), and the invasion of Iraq (which, like Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War, was based publicly on a lie).
Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both former southern governors, were smart men with limited Washington experience. They, too, stumbled early on. And Obama had served for only three years in the US Senate before being elected; he neither enjoyed dealing with Congress nor had much of a feel for it.
Biden’s relationship with Obama and his legacy are more complicated than appearances suggest. Whereas Obama frustrated many Capitol Hill Democrats with his innate caution and readiness to compromise with Republicans (liberal Democrats referred to him privately as “Mr. 50-yard line”), Biden deliberately describes his own proposals as “bold.” His immigration proposals contradict Obama’s policy of pursuing substantial deportations of illegal immigrants. The message seems to be that Biden will no longer dwell in Obama’s shadow.
After serving four decades in the Senate before becoming vice president, Biden has a feel for Congress unmatched since Johnson. Still, it won’t be long before we know if all of his talk about working with the Republicans is based on nostalgic naivete or is a clever way of setting up Republicans for obloquy if they try to obstruct his proposals.
And obstruction seems likely. McConnell may have seen eventually that Trump’s denial of losing the election wasn’t doing the Republican party any good, but that doesn’t mean he’s become a less fierce partisan.
Biden is also playing a sophisticated game with his party’s left. He managed to form a government without giving jobs to Senators Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, both of whom sought to join his cabinet. Sanders’s followers even threatened Biden if he didn’t give the Vermont senator the job he wanted. Biden has explained his actions away by noting – conveniently but not unreasonably – that the Democrats’ margins in Congress are too slim to risk a single open seat, although he did select three House members from relatively safe Democratic districts for top jobs.
Sanders didn’t take long before carping at Biden’s policy proposals. But that’s part of the show. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” could also keep up pressure from the left, while Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state which went heavily for Trump in 2020, poses a problem from Biden’s right. In a 50-50 Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking any tie, every vote counts. Still, Biden has adopted much of the left’s agenda, and will try to sell these policies from the center, his political home.
One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair shake.
Following the Götterdämmerung of Trump’s presidency, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Biden’s term would be dull. But Biden is coming off tougher and more imaginative than people thought he would be. So far – and to be sure it is early – Biden’s presidency is turning out to be more interesting and surprising than expected.