Joe Biden is approaching his moment of truth

Conflict was always destined between Joe Biden the healer and Joe Biden the agent of change. Healing America meant turning on the bipartisan charm he deployed in the Senate for 36 years. Changing America means bypassing a Republican party that has no intention of giving him any legislative wins.

To govern is to choose. In the coming days, Biden will have to decide which of his two personas matters more. He could permit his agenda to judder to a halt in the quest of a gauzy bipartisan past. Or he can move away from Washington’s vacant middle ground in favour of passing bills. It is a measure of the tension between the two Bidens that we still cannot be sure which way he will turn.

The sense of emotional release after Donald Trump left office produced many overwrought — and premature — verdicts on the nature of Biden’s presidency. Comparisons with Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were a dime a dozen. As time has worn on, and talks with Republicans have acquired that futility Barack Obama came to know so well, early excitement has given way to rising anxiety. Senate Republicans last week killed any hope of a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection. The six Republicans who voted for it were not enough to overcome the filibuster. All 50 Republican senators are poised to vote against bills to secure America’s election system

Their opposition goes way above routine partisanship. A group of the world’s foremost democracy scholars, including Francis Fukuyama, Pippa Norris and Robert Putnam, issued a “statement of concern” this week about the parlous state of America’s election system. “Our democracy is fundamentally at stake,” they wrote. “History will judge what we do at this moment.”

Biden clearly agrees. America’s right to vote was “under assault with an incredible intensity like I’ve never seen”, he said. The stakes are considerably higher than whether he can enact his “build back better” agenda — though that is also now in doubt. Failure to pass election reform would make him the last president to be elected under agreed nationwide rules. Most worryingly, many Republican states are passing laws that would give legislatures control over their electoral college returns. 

The clash between the two Bidens boils down to the Senate filibuster. This was the instrument Republican senators used to sink the January 6 commission and will deploy again to stop election reform. It was also what southern senators used to preserve slavery in the lead-up to the 1861 US civil war, and defend Jim Crow racial discrimination in the aftermath of the south’s defeat. The filibuster appears nowhere in the US constitution. It would take the 50 Democrats plus vice-president Kamala Harris’s deciding vote to scrap it and pave the way for simple majority voting. That’s how most other democracies operate. The filibuster is one strand of American exceptionalism that is past its sell-by date. 

Biden will have to decide if he cares more about preserving that relic of the south’s “lost cause” than securing the future of US democracy. To most of Biden’s allies that is a no-brainer. Two obstacles stand in his way. The first is the tiny coterie of centrist Democrats, chiefly Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Manchin says he has faith that there are “10 good people” among the Republicans to surmount the 60-vote threshold. The evidence is against him. Manchin also says he is “not willing to destroy our government” by scrapping the filibuster. His argument is back to front. By blocking change, the filibuster is jeopardising US democracy. It is no small irony that Republicans used it to torpedo an inquiry into what was the worst peacetime assault on US democracy since the early 1930s.

Biden’s second barrier is himself. Great presidents of both parties — from Roosevelt to Reagan — personify the country’s change of era. Half of Biden is stuck in romantic attachment to a bipartisan era that no longer exists. It is possible he will agree to a shrunken infrastructure bill with a small group of Republicans. Ditto for his families plan bill.

There are no deals to be struck on preserving US democracy. It is tempting to say that Biden risks drifting into an incrementalist presidency, like Bill Clinton’s. But that would be the wrong analogy. None of Biden’s Democratic predecessors confronted a dilemma comparable to what he faces today. For things to remain the same — Biden’s dearest wish — everything must change.

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