Welcome to the New Political Order. It was announced, ceremoniously, by President Biden at his Jan. 19 news conference marking the end of his first year in office. “The public doesn’t want me to be the president-senator,” Biden announced. “They want me to be the president and let senators be senators.”
Biden was announcing a transition from government by deal-making to government by leadership. Deal-making, negotiation and compromise are skills essential to a legislator. But they are not the skills essential to a president these days.
“I’m used to negotiating to get things done,” President Biden said at his press conference. “In the past, I’ve been relatively successful at it. But I think the role as president is a different role.” After all, the president, along with the vice president, are the only political offices elected by the entire country.
Since John F. Kennedy’s administration, television has made politics both more national and more personal. The president’s role is to lead — to articulate the goals and aspirations of the American people.
Biden’s more partisan policies have gotten nowhere — voting rights, expansion of the social safety net, climate change, police reform. Those issues require presidential leadership strong enough to overcome partisan resistance. Not so easy in an era of intense party polarization, when compromise is often seen as betrayal.
“Voting rights always used to be bipartisan,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) lamented. This year, only one Republican senator voted to end the filibuster on voting rights. Partisan interest took priority. Republicans know that demographic trends are not in their favor — Democrats have carried the national popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections. So Republicans now want to tighten voter restrictions.
What’s driving partisan polarization? The rise of populism has a lot to do with it. Populism involves resentment of elites. Left-wing populists resent the rich. Right-wing populists resent educated elites and experts who tell them what to do (get vaccinated, wear masks). The radical right has been around for a long time (McCarthyism, the John Birch Society), but the election of Donald Trump has driven them to open revolt. Especially against President Biden, because, in their view, Biden cheated their hero out of re-election.
Social media weaponizes populism. It gives ordinary Americans — especially those with strong opinions — a voice. In social media, there are no editors, no producers, no fact checkers. You can say whatever you want.
Social media also creates a sense of belonging. People find a community of shared opinions online. That re-enforces their views and helps produce a sense of identity. Identity politics is usually depicted as coming from the left (women, minorities, gays) — but it is equally powerful on the right, among people who identify as whites, Christians, “real Americans.” (Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said last week, “African-American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”) When people’s views are invested in their identities, compromise becomes impossible.
President Biden got elected on a promise of bipartisanship. The clearest sign that we are in a New Political Order came when Biden said, “I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done.”
Republicans long ago gave up on bipartisanship. Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent calls attention to a revealing statement made by McConnell in 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was being considered in the Senate. “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of those proposals,” McConnell said, speaking for his party. “When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”
The failure of Biden’s bipartisan efforts, mostly because of solid Republican opposition, has had the effect of making Biden look weak. That is very damaging for a president. A participant in a New York Times Opinion focus group said about President Biden, “He’s a nice guy, and sometimes you don’t need a nice guy being president. You just need someone tough.” A participant in another focus group called Biden “wishy-washy,” an adjective often used in the 1970s to describe former one-term President Jimmy Carter.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a populist of the left, offered President Biden this recommendation for a way out: “Our job now is to show the American people what we stand for and what the Republicans stand for.” In other words, show some fight.
In the New Political Order, maybe President Biden could toughen up and use the “how dare they?” trope:
“How dare they argue that protecting the filibuster is more important than protecting the right to vote?”
“How dare they refuse to see climate change as a serious threat to our country?”
“How dare they force suffering Americans to pay exorbitant prices for essential medication?”
In 1886, Winston Churchill’s father uttered a famous battle cry during the fight over Irish home rule, then the most divisive issue in British politics. Lord Randolph Churchill, an opponent of home rule, declared, “Ulster will fight! Ulster will be right!” Imagine President Biden issuing a similar rallying cry when he delivers his first State of the Union speech in a few weeks: “Democrats will fight! Democrats will be right!”