President-elect Joe Biden has a tough road ahead. He lost valuable time during the transition as a result of President Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the outcome of the election. And once Biden enters office, he will have a host of problems to contend with. We are still immersed in a pandemic, the economy is extraordinarily fragile and the nation is as divided as ever.
The Democratic House majority has narrowed significantly. The Senate majority rests on two runoff elections in Georgia this January. Regardless of the outcome, it seems all but certain that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will continue to do everything in his power to block the Biden administration’s legislative agenda. Biden should know — he saw President Barack Obama’s dreams of moving beyond a red and blue America crash into the McConnell wall.
It remains to be seen whether President Trump will tire of politics once he leaves office. His election loss was resounding, but it’s hard to deny Trump’s influence — 74 million Americans voted for him and many of his followers remain as passionate as ever. If he tightens his grip on the Republican Party and continues to rile up his base, he can prove to be a big headache for the White House.
Is there anything that Biden can do to break through this political situation? The answer lies in crushing the Covid-19 pandemic. And this involves two interrelated public health challenges. The first is containing the spread of the virus in the next few months by promoting targeted shutdowns, face masks, testing, and social distancing, as well as providing support for hospitals and medical workers. The second will be rolling out the vaccine. As Vice President Mike Pence said Friday when he received his vaccine, “Hope is on the way.”
This is true, but it won’t be easy. The difficulties posed by the rollout are immense, especially if the stimulus package, which is still stalled in Congress, doesn’t include adequate support for state and local governments that are already facing massive budget shortfalls. While the federal government will provide the vaccine and medical equipment like syringes, state leaders say they need billions in funding to hire enough medical workers, set up vaccination clinics, and provide community outreach. It will require a huge undertaking to combat disinformation and encourage everyone to get vaccinated. States will have to master the logistics of storing the vaccines, which need to be kept at specific temperatures, and ensure people receive both doses, which need to be administered weeks apart.
If Biden can handle this awesome challenge of governance, he could find himself with the kind of political capital that big elections usually provide. If we reach a point by next summer where the number of Americans dying or suffering from Covid-19 has fallen significantly enough that we can all resume some semblance of normality, the country will feel as if it has won a war. Americans will feel more confident about the future, economic markets will rebound, and the social events that we have missed so dearly, from family holiday celebrations to parties and sporting events, can return.
Doing so would put Biden in a very good place just as the midterm elections start kicking off, which is typically when things start to get more difficult for presidents. If Biden can be the leader who successfully oversees the end of the pandemic, he might have enough momentum and support to push for legislative items like a major infrastructure plan or climate change legislation that will have taken a back seat to Covid-19. Handling this well could even ameliorate some of the predictable losses that Democrats will likely face in the 2022 midterms.
Although Biden launched his presidential bid in response to Charlottesville, his presidency is one that will inevitably be defined by the pandemic. Covid-19 has ravaged the nation and Trump’s failure to adequately respond to this crisis handed Democrats the opportunity to take back the White House.
Now Biden has a chance to go down in history as the president who brought the country back from a disaster. If he manages to pull this off, he could use that momentum and goodwill to push for a bold and definitive legislative agenda.