February 18, 2021

Today felt like a breather between the real, final end of the Trump presidency and the ramping up of the Biden years.

The Senate acquitted Trump of incitement of insurrection on Saturday. In response, the former president issued a statement reiterating all his lies in the months since the election. Then, last Tuesday, he lambasted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for blaming him for the insurrection. McConnell, clearly the winner in this exchange, didn’t even bother to answer.

Trump broke his post-trial silence yesterday, calling in to the Fox News Channel to acknowledge the death of talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. “He was with me right from the beginning. And he liked what I said and he agreed with what I said. And he was just a great gentleman. Great man," Trump said.

Limbaugh’s passing felt like the end of an era.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration are unveiling proposals for the future. Today, Democrats offered a proposal for providing a path to citizenship for most of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally offered to restore the Iran nuclear deal that Trump abandoned.

As we dive into the Biden presidency, I have some observations:

It is much harder and more complicated to build something, as the Democrats are trying to do, than it is to destroy something. This means it will be harder to give a clear daily picture of the Biden administration than it was of the previous administration. The status of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, for example, is not clear right now because it is being marked up in committees, as such a bill should be. While the contours are likely what they were when they went in, what will emerge and then be put into a draft bill is not yet clear enough that we can talk about it definitively.

Biden also appears to favor making a number of changes in different programs to achieve a goal, rather than moving a single large piece. On the table right now, for example, is the question of the forgiveness of up to $50,000 in student loan debt. Biden said yesterday he did not favor excusing more than $10,000, but White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said tonight he has asked the Department of Justice to look into whether he has the constitutional power to excuse the debt, something that is not at all clear.

My guess is that his administration will try to avoid legal questions by getting rid of predatory lending and chipping away at debt in limited, clearly legal ways, rather than facing the issue in one fell swoop. So, for example, the coronavirus relief bill contains rules that will prevent for-profit colleges from taking advantage of military veterans. It will be important to look at the big picture of Biden's policies, rather than taking stock of them in pieces.

There are two big questions the Biden administration is going to have to negotiate. One is the conflict between the constitutional role of Congress and the increasingly powerful presidency. In our system, it is Congress that is supposed to pass the nation’s laws. The president’s job is to make sure the laws are executed. But the presidency has taken on more and more power since at least the time of Richard Nixon’s administration, using the president’s direction of the executive branch to determine where the money Congress appropriates goes, for example, and sending troops to engage in military actions without a congressional declaration of war. As the Senate under McConnell has increasingly refused to act, more and more power has flowed to the White House.

Biden is an institutionalist who values the role of Congress—he was, after all, a senator for more than 35 years-- and yet the refusal of Senate Republicans to agree to any Democratic legislation means that he has launched his presidency with a sweeping range of executive actions. This runs the risk of alienating not only Republicans, but also those of his supporters who worry about the concentration of power in the presidency. His apparent refusal to use an executive order to cancel student debt without a firm declaration of legality from the Department of Justice suggests he’s trying not to push this boundary too far.  

And yet, how can he preserve the power of Congress to pass legislation if it refuses to? How can the Democrats pass popular legislation if the Republican senators refuse to budge? Observers note that Biden’s coronavirus plan is exceedingly popular: 64% of voters want to see it happen. But Republican lawmakers are all opposed to it. It’s a conundrum: how can the Democrats both preserve the power of Congress and, at the same time, actually pass popular legislation over the obstructionist Republicans who appear to be out of step with the American people?

Democrats are committed to passing the coronavirus relief measure with or without Republican votes, and they predict they can do so by the end of next week. But then they are hoping to pass a $3 trillion infrastructure package, and there is little hope of finding Republican votes for it. The Democrats can pass an infrastructure bill through the budget reconciliation process or by getting rid of the filibuster, but doesn’t it set a bad precedent to spend almost $5 trillion by partisan votes alone? They would prefer to negotiate with Republicans.

The question of how—or if—that can happen is tied to the other big question the Biden administration will have to deal with, and that is whether it will be the Democrats or the Republicans who manage to advance their plan for voting rights. While the first measures Democrats introduced in this session of Congress were bills to expand and protect voting, Republicans in state legislatures across the nation are considering measures to limit voting. Expanded voting rights will encourage lawmakers to vote for laws that are popular; voter suppression will make that less important. What happens in state legislatures will echo at the national level.

So there is a lot on the table going forward.

But for today, it is a bit of a wonder that the news is no longer absorbed by the latest outrage from the presidential administration. The big story continues to be the disaster in Texas… along with the landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars, where it will explore the Jezero Crater. Almost four billion years ago, this was the site of a lake, and the rover will look for microfossils to bring back to Earth. It will also look for signs of life, and record sound on the planet for the first time ever.

Biden was quick to claim the theme of Perseverance for today’s nation. “Congratulations to NASA and everyone whose hard work made Perseverance’s historic landing possible,” he tweeted. “Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.”