It did not look good for him. Though the centre of a scrum of adulation amounting almost to worship, and the honeymoon period the press are determined to keep going, President Biden’s political position is in a fine balance. That counter-intuitively may make him all the stronger.
The American system is hard to get a flavour of from British preconceptions: a Prime Minister’s strength depends on the size of his majority, if any, and the relative rebelliousness of the members in their party, and he or she may be tumbled out of his office at a moment. Australian Prime Ministers are with indecent frequency. In America though the Presidency is winner-takes-all and he is emplaced ,practically immovably for four years.
Even so, the Congress cannot be ignored, and he does not control it. The Senate is teetering with Mr Biden’s party in control only by the Vice-President’s casting vote. The House of Representatives is his party’s, but not overwhelmingly, and even in that unfortunate country’s state of angry bifurcation, party discipline is not so strong, nor need it be as their behaviour does not determine the rise and fall of the President’s government.
This may be an advantage to the new President. His opposition is not just from the Republican Party: his most dangerous opposition is from his own party. In that struggle, the presence of resistance from Congress is an ally.
President Biden’s first actions are in the immediate spotlight in the way his future actions may not be, and here he sets the tone, or what he wants to appear to be the tone for the next four years. Wisely, he has struck with a string of orders overturning his predecessor’s legacy, and that has generated the headlines he wanted. The orders in question may be quite ordinary and as expected, reversing Donald Trump’s isolationism and with a good deal of symbolism laid on. This will be an important impression of himself to lay down to the voting public and also to his own party, seething at his heels.
You see, his party has become filled with radicals quite opposed to the old values of the party (and by old values I am not going back to the days when it was the party of slavery, but what it established in more recent ages) and those radicals will be disappointed if he does to impose their wild, foolish, unconstitutional visions. The accusation is waiting, hovering waiting to drop: ‘Vote Biden; Get Trump’. He must deflect that accusation before it falls; firstly by projecting himself within the halo he currently enjoys, and secondly by resisting radical action because it cannot get through Congress.
The balanced Senate is an ally in particular: as the Senate must confirm many of his important appointments, knowing they will not approve a nutcase (to use the technical term) will allow Mr Biden to appoint moderates.
The Supreme Court is another opportunity disguised as a threat. It is said now to be dominated by conservative justices, and this has infuriate radical Democrats. That is not a logical fury though: while liberal justices have been active in overturning Acts of Congress to impose their personal vision, the ideology of conservative justices is the opposite: the prevailing doctrine is to read the Constitution as it is written and not to make rules up from their own preferences. In that case, when Mr Biden gets his legislation through Congress, he wants conservative justices there who will not interfere with it.
It is the radical Democrats who have more of an interest in trying to appoint a court which overrules the democratically elected Houses of Congress – which sheds a great deal of doubt on their being entitled to be called ‘democrats’ at all.
The tensions then and the blind hatred of the extremes, making a mockery of the pleas for unity, should ensure (if handled wisely) that the moderate path in all endeavours is the surest route to follow. That may be how Joe Biden can defeat both sides and be his own man.
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