Joe Biden has a problem on his hands, other than the man in the White House who refuses to behave himself or go away.
Biden has too much power. It’s not an issue that was evident in November, when Democrats managed to seize the presidency but lost ground in the House of Representatives and appeared to have failed in a bid to gain control of the Senate. That struck many as an ideal outcome: a new president, a less disruptive agenda, and a divided Congress that would provide a brake on the overexcited members of the Democrats’ most extreme left-wing, with their demands for government jobs for all and a cornucopia of new benefits.
That changed on Tuesday when voters in Georgia unexpectedly evicted two Republican senators in favour of Democrat replacements. The result is a Senate evenly divided at 50 seats for each party, with Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris holding the deciding vote. Biden now has both the executive and legislative branches of government in his pocket, and an energized “progressive” wing that is eager to change the world as quickly as possible.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the popular face of the leftists, was already putting pressure on Biden before Tuesday’s result. In December she told an interviewer both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator minority leader Chuck Schumer had to give way to newer, younger replacements less tied to “the moneyed political establishment that rules Washington.”
Last week she demanded Biden sidestep Congress and use his executive powers — a tactic often deployed by President Donald Trump to Democrat outrage — to quickly cancel billions of dollars in student debt . “We have to push the Biden administration hard,” she said. ” ‘We can’t cancel student loan debt’ is not gonna fly.”
Biden had made clear he’d be resistant to widespread use of executive authority, preferring to work with Congress. “I think that’s pretty questionable … I’d be unlikely to do that,” he said of the debt demand.
Thanks to Georgia, he no longer has a convenient excuse. Debt forgiveness is a popular idea among Democrats, and pushing it through Congress would give the new administration a handy victory while it undertakes the much-more difficult task of bringing the COVID-19 crisis under control. Biden would prefer a more limited plan that granted partial forgiveness, but almost certainly wants to avoid a head-on confrontation with the progressive wing as his administration is just getting settled.
The left-wing plan would cost at least US$1 trillion at a time the U.S. federal deficit is projected at US$3.3 trillion — producing a debt larger than the economy itself — and after Biden pledged to send US$2,000 stimulus cheques to millions of Americans if Democrats gained a majority in the Senate.
As with the debt proposal, Biden initially supported a more cautious stimulus approach. He urged approval of a plan for payments of just US$600, but shifted position in the heat of the Georgia campaign, and under pressure from Senator Bernie Sanders, the 79-year-old “democratic socialist” from Vermont who almost succeeded in defeating Biden for the Democratic nomination.
“Promises made must be kept,” Sanders declared in the wake of the Georgia outcome. “With Democrats in control of the Senate, we must keep faith with the working families of this country.”
It’s one of those anomalies of politics that two run-offs in Georgia, both decided by less than two percentage points, mean that instead of two years battling with the right in the form of hard-nosed Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Biden will face an insurgency from the left in the persons of Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, none of whom got choice spots in the Biden cabinet but all of whom have personal Twitter armies and seats in Congress to press their advantage on an administration with a heavy agenda and a capital city staggered by Wednesday’s shocking assault on the halls of Congress.
A leading proponent of the debt write-off, Warren responded to Wednesday’s violence by demanding Trump’s Cabinet invoke the 25th amendment and remove him from office. It was, she said , “an attempted coup and an act of insurrection egged on by a corrupt president to overthrow our democracy.”
“Democrats need to deliver,” Warren insisted before this week’s events. “No matter what. We have to use every tool, and we need to use it early, boldly, confidently, and unapologetically.”
The narrowness of the Democrat margin in both the House and Senate should enforce a degree of caution, but if Biden is looking for cool, calm voices committed to easing emotions and tempering the rhetoric in Washington, he’s not going to find it in the activist ranks of his party. That’s a melancholy prospect at a time the U.S. finds itself more sharply divided than any time since the South went to war with the North, and home to people who think the path to meaningful change means defacing monuments and invading the Capitol. Biden is a moderate man, but he comes to power in an immoderate time in a country never known for a tendency towards restraint.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021