Joe Biden has a theory of the case that is guiding his Presidency thus far. And as theories go, it’s not crazy.
1. Rapidly roll out the vaccine, get the pandemic thoroughly under control and return daily life to something close to normality.
2. Pour money into the economy to get it roaring back to life.
3. Pour money into dramatic expansions of the welfare state and public investment to meet people’s needs and change the country’s economic trajectory.
4. Stay away from hot button social and cultural issues, by refusing to endorse the demands of the party’s left while carefully nodding to them rhetorically and avoiding any actions that might annoy them.
5. Break the midterm curse in 2022 as a grateful electorate rewards the party with enhanced House and Senate majorities due to the Biden boom and effective delivery of benefits and economic improvements.
6. Make further legislative progress after 2022 with their House and Senate majorities in a continued favorable economic environment.
7. Re-elect Biden in 2024. It’s morning again in America!
Like I said, not a bad theory. But, laid out like this, you can see a lot of things that might go wrong.
The first two items in the Biden master plan are the solidest. The vaccine is indeed being rolled out fast and the economy is already showing unmistakable signs of entering an unusually strong expansion. Sure, covid’s not truly under control yet and a new wave and lockdown would put paid to the developing economic expansion. In that case, the rest of the Biden plan falls apart. But there’s a very reasonable case for optimism on both these fronts.
The third item has been advanced somewhat already by the American Rescue Plan. But the heavy lifting will be done by the American Jobs Plan and still-to-be-announced American Families Plan. Here there is considerable uncertainty about what will be accomplished legislatively and at what scale given the incredibly thin margins the Democrats have to work with. In all likelihood, both will have to scaled back considerably and we cannot yet know what changes will ultimately hit the economy and government programs and how quickly and effectively they will be rolled out. Given that, it is quite unclear how much political benefit Democrats will reap from these moves in the fairly short time leading up to the 2022 elections.
Even less clear is how well Democrats will be able to implement item four on burying the culture wars. So far, the administration has fairly successfully placated the left, with various rhetorical gestures and some modest policy changes, while mostly refusing to engage the GOP’s barrage of attacks on these issues. But the sensitivity of the administration to the cultural left has also tied their hands in terms of dealing with genuine problems like the immigration surge at the border and rising violent crime, which can and will be weaponized by the GOP. The same could be said of the rising influence of ideologies within the Democratic party that insist there is only one correct way to think and talk about issues of race, gender and sexuality, which is highly off putting to most American voters and extremely easy for the GOP to attack. The administration may wish to ignore these problems but in all likelihood these problems will find them.
Item five in the theory of the case is where things really start to get dicey. Protecting the Democrats’ majorities in the House and Senate is going to be really, really hard. It certainly should help if there is a very strong economy and the covid pandemic is behind us. But that may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for Democratic success. If the economic boom is distributed in such a way that it enhances regional inequalities, which are closely tied to cultural divisions, and Democrats are hobbled by issues like immigration, crime and cultural leftism, it is easy to see the Republicans, given the demographics of the Senate and House maps, picking up the one Senate seat and/or handful of House seats they need to break Democratic control of Congress.
It therefore follows that Democrats need to do everything possible to tilt the playing field in their favor—not just preside over a growing economy and covid-free population—if they wish to avoid a return to divided government after 2022 and getting little done legislatively (item six) and putting Biden’s re-election/morning in America in danger (item seven). Beyond structural fixes to the electoral system, which seem unlikely in time for 2022, the most important thing will be to present a unifying message that markets the Democrats’ achievements as beneficial to voters across all races and regions, reassures them that Democrats take problems like immigration and crime seriously and avoids any hint of cultural elitism.
So, Joe Biden does have a master plan but there is a lot that can go wrong. Democrats would be well-advised to heed these possibilities and take evasive action. Otherwise, peace and happiness may not be our destination.