Biden is already walking a political tightrope over a layer of thin DC swamp ice | Analysis

The president-elect has often sounded in one moment like an old pro deftly navigating dangerous waters and borderline naive about the country’s tribal politics in the next, writes Washington Bureau Chief John T. Bennett  

Friday 04 December 2020 16:29
Joe Biden asks Dr Fauci to be part of his Covid response team

Joe Biden will have to walk a tightrope suspended over a thin layer of ice for the next four years. His Thursday night CNN interview and other comments this week make clear that he knows it.

The president-elect, known in part for a career of gaffes, mostly has used careful-but-pointed rhetoric aimed at longtime rivals in the opposition party and hard-charging newcomers to his own since being projected as the winner of the election on 7 November.

He has often sounded in one moment like an old pro deftly maneuvering dangerous waters and borderline naive about the country’s tribal politics in the next.  

Mr Biden will not become the 46th president of the United States for 47 more days, but already he is balancing the forces that could sink his term with Democrat-on-Democrats infighting and partisan gridlock.

To avoid the frigid waters under that layer of Washington swamp ice, the incoming chief executive with 47 years under his belt in the capital city already is practicing tough love with the progressive wing of his own party that could plunge it into civil war ahead of the 2022 midterms – even as he compares himself to liberal icon Franklin D Roosevelt at the height of the Great Depression – and also pressuring the GOP Senate moderates he will need to pass major legislation.

“We have to rebuild the backbone in this country, the middle class, that – and this time bring everybody along,” Mr Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Thursday night.

“This is a little bit not unlike what happened in 1932. There was a fundamental change, not only taking place here in the United States, but around the world,” he said, appearing to refer to the spread of facism abroad and FDR’s “New Deal” policies to prop up and revive the economy at home. “We're in the middle of [a] fourth industrial revolution, where there's a real question of … will there be middle class? What will people be doing? ... There's genuine, genuine anxiety.”

His floating what one might call a Roosevelt-like “Covid Deal” likely is music to the ears of his party’s progressive wing, including New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow House “squad” members.

They have held fire in recent weeks, but let Mr Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris know just before and after Election Day they have demands – and expect the incoming team to pursue them on Capitol Hill and in the slew of executive actions Mr Biden’s aides are promising to begin unraveling the Trump era.  

AOC and many House progressives are busy hammering Republicans, accusing them of holding up additional coronavirus relief legislation they say would help people buy food and pay bills – and keep some small businesses afloat.

“We’re trying to get COVID relief and stimulus checks out to people and right now Republicans are trying to prematurely adjourn Congress,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Thursday. “People are going hungry and they’re treating this like a game. Leaders don’t abandon people in their time of greatest need.”

Highwire act

But Mr Biden, from his highwire that soon will be metaphorically installed in the Oval Office, also appears to be trying to let Republicans know he understands pushing far-left policies would not only spell their immediate deaths on Capitol Hill but also further divide red and blue America after four years of Mr Trump’s divisive presidency.

“That's why you're going to see me reaching out, continuing to reach out, not just to the communities that supported me. I'm going to reach out to those who didn't support me. I mean, for real, because I think a lot of people are just scared and think they've been left behind and forgotten,” the president-elect told Mr Tapper. “We're not going to forget anybody in this effort.

“I'm told that there's somewhere between 20 and 22 Republican senators who say they won't even, they won't vote for anything,” he said of another Covid-19 recovery bill. “But here's the deal: If [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell just brought the bill up, just put it on the floor, I believe, the senator (Harris) believes, or former senator, soon-to-be former senator believes, that it would pass.

Then came his message for moderate Senate Republicans – and the 20 up for reelection in 2022: “Look, people are really hurting. They're scared to death. And what's happening to – and teachers are prepared to go back [to schools] if they know that there's something that where there's masking, testing there available to them. They're able to be in smaller pods. They need more help. But it's just not coming forward. And we know the answer.”

Mr Biden sees that answer as passing a major economic stimulus bill as quickly after he is sworn in on 20 January as possible. He’s trying to let his party’s progressives know that means giving him the clearance to give something to Mr McConnell and Republicans to deliver hundreds of millions in further federal aide – or more – to families and small businesses.

He’s also tightroping things with Republicans lawmakers who need Mr Trump’s conservative base to win their own new terms in less than two years.

“There have been more than several sitting Republican senators who have privately called me and congratulated me,” he said. “ And I understand the situation they find themselves in. And until the election is clearly decided in the minds, when the Electoral College votes, they get put in a very tough position.”

He is banking that the current public silence about his apparent victory will end then “with at least a significant portion of the [GOP] leadership.” He knows that’s where big deals are made these days because he brokered a few as Barack Obama’s vice president with Mr McConnell.

‘No moment of elation’

His soon-to-be handler of “the urgent need of the moment” is right with him on the tightrope as she settles into being the country’s first right-hand woman – while thinking about her own second White House run.

“Our agenda is pretty progressive,” she said alongside him in the CNN interview. “And some might call it ambitious. But we, the American people and, frankly, the world, can't afford anything less.”

Having uttered the p-word (progressive) that scares half the country, she seemed to catch herself, pivoting to talk about Mr Biden’s recent chats with “Fortune 500 folks” and “the head of GM.”

“So, we have reason to be optimistic about what is possible,” she said from the highwire. “It will not be easy. It will require a convening.”

In a break from the man he will replace next month, Mr Biden is making no grand promises about what he will accomplish. He seems keenly aware the rope on which he already is teetering only gets tricker to traverse when the political winds begin blowing directly at him on 20 January.

“Look, it's going to be hard. I'm not suggesting it's going to be easy. It's going to be hard,” he told Mr Tapper with a serious tone.

Perhaps that is why the man Mr Obama called “America’s happy warrior” in his 2012 victory speech sounds more like its stoic conscious these days.

“I feel like I’ve done something good for the country by making sure that Donald Trump is not going to be president for four more years. But there’s been no moment of elation,” Mr Biden told journalist Tom Friedman this week.

It is an odd thing for a man who tried on three different occasions to become the leader of the free world.

“It’s just one of those moments. There’s a lot of work to do,” he added soberly. “I’m just focused on getting some things done as quickly as I can.”

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