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Monday, January 25, 2021

Do you really want this job?

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The good news is that Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the United States. The bad news is that, even as he celebrates, Biden is already battling a highly fractured (and fractious) Democratic Party. In short, he’ll have to avoid being in the crosshairs of a circular firing squad of his ostensible allies. (“Friendly fire,” which is one of the worst euphemisms ever conceived, is nevertheless an appropriate analogy for what Biden faces.) At the same time, he’ll have to dodge proverbial projectiles — ranging from sniper fire to grenades — courtesy of his political opponents in the Republican Party. (Undoubtedly, they’ll plant a few landmines for good measure.) 

More than any president in recent memory, Joe Biden will be in the very unenviable position of trying to deftly navigate a battlefield in which the distinction between “friend” and “foe” will sometimes be quite fluid. Many Democrats and Republicans consider Biden to be the worst of apostates — a dedicated political centrist who is willing to compromise with extremists on the left and right. Such is the reality of the post-Obama and post-Trump era — an era in which uncompromising polarization is often the only “qualification” for being elected or appointed to office. 

The current state of affairs has been decades in the making. Every president since Bill Clinton has come to power largely as a repudiation of his immediate predecessor, while concurrently fighting a civil war in his own party. For example, Clinton had to balance the hopes (and fears) of progressive Gen Xers with those of right-of-center Democrats. Still, he benefitted from Republicans who felt betrayed by George H. W. Bush — a man who was more committed to doing what he felt was right for the nation as opposed to mindlessly adhering to an irresponsible fiscal policy. In turn, George W. Bush moseyed into the White House largely because Republicans were not only disgusted by Clinton’s behavior, but also felt that they had unfairly jettisoned the elder Bush. Yet, he had to constantly fight a conservative base who endlessly pushed him to the right.

More recently, Barack Obama benefitted from the fact that some Americans were tired of political dynasties (and, as a result, rejected Hillary Clinton), as well as the fact that other Americans felt that Republicans (especially George W. Bush) were largely responsible for the Great Recession. Yet, near the end of his term, there were rumblings among Democrats that he was a poseur who failed to deliver on all manner of progressive priorities. (Today, he is pilloried by those on the far left, some of whom have leveled astounding personal attacks.) 

Then, as Van Jones so appropriately stated, a “whitelash” ushered in the Trump presidency. In other words, the 45th president’s rise was fueled in large measure (though not exclusively) by white Americans who simply could not get over the fact that a Black man occupied the White House. Ironically, however, Trump has never had to fight his very conservative base in the way that the Bushes did; their loyalty has remained unwavering even as he adopted some decidedly liberal policies (e.g., regarding firearms). 

Finally, Joe Biden will take the helm at a time in which tens of millions of Americans believe that our collective ship is taking too much water — but who won’t agree on the size, shape or color of the buckets that he’ll need to bail it out. Rank partisanship and unforgiving internal polarization are a toxic brew.

It’s important to know this context to understand how daunting a task Joe Biden faces. America is a de facto two-party state, despite the fact that most of us hold beliefs that don’t fit neatly into either major party. Still, tradition, convenience, practicality and (sometimes) irrationality cause most of us to hitch our wagons to one or the other. Those who are chosen to govern are constantly reminded that “the people who sent them there” are always watching. I don’t feel “sorry” for the president-elect. But I am concerned that many people in the Democratic Party (and the surrogates with it is yoked) won’t allow him and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the time and space that they need to fix what’s broken.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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