Biden won the nomination partly on the perception he would restore normality. But, if he wants to succeed as president, he will have to be a norm-busting Democrat.
Despite a slight dip in the polls, Joe Biden – after formally accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination – maintains a healthy lead over his rival, Donald Trump, who was formally renominated at the Republican Party convention this week. If the election was held today, virtually every single prediction model anticipates a Biden victory.
In seeking to combat this, the Republicans have sought to paint Biden as a “hapless tool of the extreme left”, embracing the metaphor of the trojan horse. Joe Biden might ride into the White House on his brand of authentic and compassionate personal appeal combined with moderate and bipartisan political aspirations, but hidden under the Resolute Desk would be Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Elizabeth Warren all of whom are perfectly set to “abolish the suburbs”.
The fact that Trump’s team are saying this shows that even they do not believe Biden is, himself, a member of the so-called ‘radical left’. But nor is he a Joe Manchin style Democrat. He sits in the ambiguous centre, almost perfectly re-calibrating himself every so often as his party shifts to the left or the right. This ambiguity – or flexibility if you prefer to be kind – has put a large question mark of what a Biden administration would actually seek to do.
If the Democrats can re-gain control of Senate then Biden would join both Donald Trump and Barack Obama in enjoying unified Government for the start of his first term. That would, if he wanted, give him the platform to be more bullish and push through policy that many of his Democrat colleagues are longing for.
The problem is that does not sound much like Joe Biden, the man who picked up these now infamous comments by Republican Lindsey Graham. He has built his politics on compromise, not bullishness. In fact, it does not sound much like any Democrat.
The Niskanen Center has pointed this out, arguing that Democrats are so obsessed with manufacturing perfect policy, they do not to account for political pragmatism and consequently fail to capitalise when they get into power.
His former boss, President Obama, was guilty of this. Winning an election on a wave of hope and change, he sought to build consensus by appointing an unprecedented three Republicans to his first Cabinet. He wanted to prove to people that he wasn’t some radical Democrat who would bring crazy socialism to the United States.
It was, of course, in vain. When the Republicans gained control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 they proceeded to happily kill off any hope of ambitious legislation. Biden’s experience in a White House that was heavily curtailed by the opposition party might inspire him to bust the Democrat norm and push for large-scale change at a rapid pace.
Not least because there are a number of areas that are gaining broad popularity where should Biden wish, he could make swift progress. For example, the legalisation of marijuana now has unlikely support from former Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner and is already decriminalised in a number of states. The desire to tackle environmental issues continues to achieve bipartisan support, and the break up of Big Tech has yet to be sucked into the partisan vortex.
If Joe Biden decided to be even more activist, there could be relatively quick changes to things like increasing the federal minimum wage, giving Washington D.C. statehood, getting rid of the filibuster, and pushing aggressively on an Equal Rights Amendment.
In reality, expectations of a Biden presidency are low. Only 6% think he will an excellent president, possibly because the idea of him only serving one term has long been discussed, but possibly because of his very nature is not defined by the political bullishness that would be necessarily to enact such change.
Perhaps the temptation, therefore, to simply serve out a non-spectacular four years might be too much for the 77 year old. Perhaps clearing up the economic and social destruction of the COVID-19 pandemic will occupy all of the administration’s time.
I wonder, however, after having a front-row seat to the frustrating dark arts of Washington for nearly half a century, whether a President Biden would like to go on one final big blow out.