When Joe Biden is inaugurated, he will immediately be confronted with an unprecedented challenge — and I don’t mean the pandemic, although COVID-19 will almost surely be killing thousands of Americans every day. I mean, instead, that he’ll be the first modern U.S. president trying to govern in the face of an opposition that refuses to accept his legitimacy. And no, Democrats never said Donald Trump was illegitimate, just that he was incompetent and dangerous.
It goes without saying that Trump, whose conspiracy theories are getting wilder and wilder, will never concede, and that millions of his followers will always believe — or at least say they believe — that the election was stolen.
Most Republicans in Congress certainly know this is a lie, although even on Capitol Hill there are a lot more crazy than we’d like to imagine. But it doesn’t matter; they still won’t accept that Biden has any legitimacy, even though he won the popular vote by a large margin.
And this won’t simply be because they fear a backlash from the base if they admit that Trump lost fair and square. At a fundamental level — and completely separate from the Trump factor — today’s GOP doesn’t believe that Democrats ever have the right to govern, no matter how many votes they receive.
After all, in recent years we’ve seen what happens when a state with a Republican legislature elects a Democratic governor: Legislators quickly try to strip away the governor’s powers. So does anyone doubt that Republicans will do all they can to hobble and sabotage Biden’s presidency?
The only real questions are how much harm the GOP can do and how Biden will respond.
The answer to the first question depends a lot on what happens in the Jan. 5 Georgia Senate runoffs. If Democrats win both seats, they’ll have effective though narrow control of both houses of Congress. If they don’t, Mitch McConnell will have enormous powers of obstruction — and anyone who doubts that he’ll use those powers to undermine Biden at every turn is living in a fantasy world.
But how much damage would obstructionism inflict? In terms of economic policy — which is all I’ll talk about in this column — the near future can be divided into two eras, pre- and post-vaccine (or more accurately, after wide dissemination of a vaccine).
For the next few months, as the pandemic continues to run wild, tens of millions of Americans will be in desperate straits unless the federal government steps up to help. Unfortunately, Republicans may be in a position to block this help.
The good news about the very near future, such as it is, is that Americans will probably (and correctly) blame Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, for the misery they’re experiencing — and this very fact may make Republicans willing to cough up at least some money.
What about the post-vaccine economy? Here again there’s potentially some good news: Once a vaccine becomes widely available, we’ll probably see a spontaneous economic recovery, one that won’t depend on Republican cooperation. And there will also be a vast national sense of relief.
So Biden might do OK for a while even in the face of scorched-earth Republican opposition. But we can’t be sure of that. Republicans might refuse to confirm anyone for key economic positions. There’s always the possibility of another financial crisis — and outgoing Trump officials have been systematically undermining the incoming administration’s ability to deal with such a crisis if it happens. And America desperately needs action on issues from infrastructure to climate change to tax enforcement that won’t happen if Republicans retain blocking power.
So what can Biden do?
First, he needs to start talking about immediate policy actions to help ordinary Americans, if only to make it clear to Georgia voters how much damage will be done if they don’t elect Democrats to those two Senate seats.
If Democrats don’t get those seats, Biden will need to use executive action to accomplish as much as possible despite Republican obstruction — although I worry that the Trump-stacked Supreme Court will try to block him when he does.
Finally, although Biden is still talking in a comforting way about unity and reaching across the aisle, at some point he’ll need to stop reassuring us that he’s nothing like Trump and start making Republicans pay a political price for their attempts to prevent him from governing.
Now, I don’t mean that he should sound like Trump, demanding retribution against his enemies — although the Justice Department should be allowed to do its job and prosecute whatever Trump-era crimes it finds.
No, what Biden needs to do is what Harry Truman did in 1948, when he built political support by running against “do-nothing” Republicans. And he’ll have a better case than Truman ever did, because today’s Republicans are infinitely more corrupt and less patriotic than the Republicans Truman faced.
The results of this year’s election, with a solid Biden win but Republicans doing well down ballot, tells us that American voters don’t fully understand what the modern GOP is really about. Biden needs to get that point across and make Republicans pay for the sabotage we all know is coming.
c.2020 The New York Times Company