More than a month ago I was listening to two of my favorite people, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, talking about the state of the nation, and McWhorter referred to the book he is now finishing about wokeness. He said that the text already refers to "President Biden," on the assumption that Biden will defeat Trump. I was riding in my car when I heard that, and I yelled loudly, "NO! DON'T DO THAT!" because it struck me as tempting fate. We don't know who is going to win, and we don't know how long it will take to confirm their victory. Yet fivethiryeight.com now gives Biden a very solid chance of winning--around 85%--expects the Democrats to add a few seats in the House, and gives them a better-than-even chance of controlling the Senate. This column on that site asks what Democratic control would lead to, and spends most of its time predicting that centrism will triumph. While stressing once again that we do NOT know what is going to happen on November 3 and after, I will make a few suggestions of my own.
If Joe Biden wins, he, like Barack Obama, will take office at a moment of profound economic crisis. That means to me that he will face the same test that FDR did in 1933 and that Obama did in 2009: to show the American people, within two years, that he has materially improved their lot. Because Roosevelt passed that test, his large majorities in the House and Senate increased further in 1934 and again in 1936. (We'll look a little later at what happened after 1936.) Obama, on the other hand, passed a stimulus that might have kept things from getting worse, but did not rapidly make them get better, and then put all the Democrats' time and energy into the ACA, whose benefits would take years to become apparent. As a result, in my opinion, he lost control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 election and had to fight a series of holding actions for the rest of his two terms. Democrats at the moment are so obsessed with Donald Trump, that they are discounting the possibility that the Republican Party might have a renaissance without him. If a Biden Administration can't rapidly help the American people in this new economic crisis, adding jobs and protecting mortgage holders (as FDR did) and renters, another 2010 looks to me quite possible. Biden will, of course, face unprecedented deficits when he comes into office thanks to Trump's tax cuts and the pandemic, but he has already promised to increase taxes on incomes over $400,000. To that I can only say, the higher the better. Anything like this will require doing away with Senate filibusters--and that is the one sweeping institutional change that I recommend.
Biden has another equally important and almost unprecedented task: to show that the federal government can function effectively. At least three of our most important cabinet departments, State, Justice, and Interior, have been sacrificed to Republican prejudices and Trump's political needs. The Post Office is also in serious trouble and the EPA has essentially worked for four years to put itself out of business. The FAA appears to have let us down badly over Boeing's 737 Max. Instead of simply handing out jobs based on demographic balance, Biden needs to find ambitious, determined men and women who can get these institutions back on track, and give them the authority to do so. That is what both Lincoln and FDR did in our previous crises. It would help our political culture and our media culture enormously if we could get the public focused on what the government is actually doing.
Action on immigration is extremely important as well. In the last debate Biden called for a path to citizenship for our 11 million (if not much more) illegal immigrants, who now live in terror of deportation. This is essential for many reasons, not least because it will allow them to become voters, with vast consequences. In the meantime, however, I do not think he should be in a hurry to restore the new flow of immigrants into the country to much higher levels. We coped more easily with the Great Depression, as I have pointed out many times, because Congress in 1924, five years earlier, had already brought immigration almost to a halt. A similar pause now might also serve us well.
On the foreign scene, Biden will undoubtedly begin with well-publicized meetings with our NATO allies to show that we once again support that alliance. He would be well advised to put forward some vision of normal relations with China, including a willingness to compromise on some of our differences about maritime rights. He might also give some thought to continuing the peace talks that Trump has gotten underway in Afghanistan. Stopped clocks are right twice a day, and neither the Afghans nor the nation need that endless war.
Climate change is at least as serious as Biden made it out to be in the last debate, and he certainly needs to put serious proposals forward to deal with it, as well as returning to the Paris Accords. Yet there will be enormous resistance to truly drastic steps. I would recommend that he make this a three- or four-year project, beating the drum, stressing the terrible effects such as wildfires that we are already dealing with, and accepting anything he can get right away without sounding as if the problem is solved. Several of Roosevelt's most impactful measures, such as the Wagner Act and Social Security, passed in 1935. That's a precedent to keep in mind, one that might also apply for serous financial reform.
Democratic activists, meanwhile, are pressing for new steps to change the political balance in both Congress and the Judiciary. One is electoral reform, which has already gotten through the House and should be pushed through the Senate.
Activist Democrats are pushing for more radical measures to change the political balance in both the Senate and the judiciary. Such attempts were also common in the era of our other divisive crisis, the Civil War. The Republicans increased the size of the Supreme Court under Lincoln and then decreased it again to prevent Andrew Johnson from filling a seat, only adding another justice after Grant was in office. Lincoln during the war made a concerted effort to get new western states into the union to balance the south after the war was over, and Johnson stopped it. The admission of new states remained profoundly political all the way up until 1912, when New Mexico and Arizona (that had been territories for about 60 years) finally came in. I do not think that returning to such measures would improve our political climate. In the Senate, it might be easier just to win over a majority of voters in certain hitherto red states (as is already happening in Arizona and perhaps Georgia) than to make D.C. or Puerto Rico states. Regarding the Supreme Court, we should remember that FDR's attempt to pack it in 1937 was the greatest disaster of his administration. The controversy tied up the Congress for the first six months of his second term, before ending in a humiliating bipartisan defeat, and his huge majorities secured only one important piece of legislation before he lost them in 1938. The same thing could happen now.
Never, in my opinion as an historian, has our government worked as badly as it is working now, and never has public interest in it fallen so low. Rather than focus on specific measures, we need to show, once again, that it can work. If a new administration does that many new things will become possible. If it cannot, then the Trump Administration will become just one symptom of a long, possibly terminal decline.