On the eve of Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration, which followed a vote count contested by outgoing President Donald Trump and his allies, a trio of professors from Franklin & Marshall’s Department of Government discussed Biden’s incoming administration. The Jan. 19 virtual town hall was viewed by 275 F&M alumni and friends.
Stephen Medvic, the Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkle Professor of Government, presented context as he and Associate Professor Jennifer Kibbe and Professor Matthew Schousen opened the discussion, focusing on the two months of post-election controversy that culminated in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, incited by Trump.
“I think tomorrow is going to be an historic day in more ways than one,” Medvic said.
About 25,000 National Guard troops are stationed around the Capitol, ringed with fencing and razor wire, to provide additional security for the inaugural and Congress after thousands of Trump supporters stormed the building Jan. 6 and left five dead.
With that as a backdrop, Medvic said Biden is expected to begin his presidency in what is “a deeply polarized country.”
“Sometimes we forget how evenly divided we are as a country, in terms of political power, in terms of competition within elections or in terms of control of institutions,” he said. “The Democrats currently hold 51 percent of the seats in the House and they hold 50 percent of the seats in the Senate. Biden got 51.4 percent of the popular vote so that the nation is sort of divided right down the middle.”
The last six consecutive elections, he said, “have had the narrowest average margin of victory of any six consecutive elections in American history outside the post-Reconstruction era.”
Medvic added, “To be polarized, as we are, in a 50-50 country is really combustible. In this environment, any move that any politician makes is a move in a zero-sum game. If one side wins, the other side loses. This suggests that the Republicans are not likely to give President Biden anything that he can claim as a victory.”
This sort of politics creates negative partisanship, where instead of feeling neutral about the opposing party, as voters did years ago, people have a strong dislike, “even a hatred,” for the other party, Medvic said.
What does this mean for Biden’s legislative agenda? First, a 50-50 split in the Senate will require Vice President Kamala Harris to preside in the chamber.
“The vice president is going to be tied to the Senate,” Schousen said. “It’s going to limit her ability to be effective within the administration because vice presidents can really help presidents. They can work on key legislation; they can travel domestically and internationally on behalf of the administration; they can reach out to key constituents; they can act as sounding boards for the president.”
Considering the vice president’s skill set, “her ability to connect to key constituencies within the Democratic Party – younger voters, minorities, women – and Biden’s really good working relationship with her, I think she’s a valuable asset to Biden that Biden won’t really be able to use if she’s spending her time in the Senate,” Schousen said.
To move his agenda forward, Biden will use executive orders and reconciliation bills, while trying to establish bipartisanship, particularly in the Senate. Whether enough Republicans are willing to work with him remains a question, Schousen said.
An early indication may be when Biden’s choices for Cabinet members go before the Senate. They bring long experience in government, said Schousen. He believes that Biden, who served 36 years in the Senate, will reach out to individual lawmakers to build bipartisan consensus.
“I feel that you’ll see him get personally involved,” Schousen said.
During his first 100 days in office, Biden is expected to introduce his infrastructure program, Build Back Better. He’s also expected to repeal Trump’s tax cut, strengthen voting rights and the Affordable Care Act, pursue criminal justice reform, and vaccinate 100 million people in the fight against COVID-19, Schousen said.
On foreign policy, Biden is expected to get the pandemic under control and to prepare for future pandemics by, among other initiatives, rejoining the World Health Organization; address climate change by, among the first steps, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement; and challenge China on human rights issues and climate change, Kibbe said.
As for the tariffs that Trump imposed against China, Biden will likely use lifting them as leverage to negotiate other deals with that country, she said.
“I think this is what you’re going to see with several policies that they want to repeal from different countries, but they’re not going to just take it back,“ Kibbe said. “They’re going to try and get something in exchange for it.”
Perhaps Biden’s biggest foreign policy task is to reassert America’s role in the world and regain the trust of allies that Trump either dismissed or ignored during his term in office, Kibbe said.
“Biden really has to reassure our allies,” Kibbe said. “This questioning of U.S. reliability and competence, those are issues no U.S. president has ever had to deal with before.”