If your politics lean at least somewhat left, then the beginning of 2021 (despite everything else going on) may bring some relief or celebration. After the Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 6th, Democrats now hold a (slim) majority in both houses of congress. When Biden ascends to the presidency on Jan. 20, Democrats will hold a trifecta not seen since the 2008 election. Control of the House of Representatives was retained by the Democrats even though they lost 10 seats, and Senate Democrats saw three new members join their caucus, bringing their total number up to fifty (giving them control as Vice President Kamala Harris will almost assuredly cast any tie-breaking votes in favor of her party). What might this new power mean in terms of policy?

The answer to that question may be: not much, similar to what was accomplished under the trifectas under former President Obama and President Trump. I believe this to be the case because of the ideological similarities between Obama and President-elect Biden. 

When Democrats won control of the legislative and executive branches in 2008, they did so by huge margins. The partisan breakdown in the Senate was 60-40 for Democrats — a filibuster-proof majority, while House Democrats won 59% of the 435 seats. While such large partisan gains may seem to bode well for the president of that same party, Obama often ended up frustrated in his attempts to pass legislation related to his agenda. This frustration was caused by his initial attempts at bipartisan, or post-partisanship, that he was, in part, elected for. 

Electing the first African-American president was obviously historic and a cause for celebration: it showed America was moving in a good direction. His campaign sought to paint him as a bridger of divided peoples that would bring the “Change” from the gridlock that had marked Washington, D.C. This issue was that Republicans, after suffering massive electoral defeats, entrenched themselves in their own conservative ideology and refused to concede any ground to the “liberal-in-chief.” In effect, Obama’s early attempts to bridge the partisan divide were seen by Republicans as progressivism cloaked as post-partisanship.

Obama also sometimes found himself frustrating members of his own party. In trying to appeal to Republicans for their support concerning his agenda, he often conceded ground to Republicans, and by doing so, frustrated liberal members of his party (often with no reward, as Republicans — even after concessions from the president — rarely broke from their party to vote with the Democrats). For example, and in parallel to current times, during the 2008 financial crisis, Democrats hoped to pass a massive trillion-dollar economic stimulus package to create jobs and invigorate a slumped economy. Instead, despite having the Democratic votes to unilaterally pass the bill without any Republican support, Obama narrowed the scope of the bill in order to gain their support. The final bill came up $200 billion short of the $1 trillion that Democrats had hoped for and contained within it $300 billion in tax cuts that were obviously designed to appeal to Republican legislators. Yet, on the passage of the final bill, only three Senate Republicans voted to pass it and not a single House Republican did.

During the campaign, Biden has marked himself in a similar vein as Obama had done: a candidate who will rise above partisan rancor and unite all Americans under one banner. This is self-evident in Biden’s declared commitment to ensuring, “a presidency for all Americans,” where there are no “red states and blue states, but a United States.” I would go so far as to argue that Biden and a Democratic-controlled congress may get even less done than Obama with the same electoral position as the latter did not have to contend with an (as) ideologically fractured Democratic Party. Neither did he have to contend with Republicans fueling extremist political emotions to the point of inciting their supporters to invade their own nation’s capitol as Biden now faces. Dissent and objection will come from both the left and the right.

I hope I am wrong, as there is so much good, tangibly helpful policy a Democratic trifecta could pass. But only time will tell how much will get done. As seen with Obama, first impressions can sow eventual disappointment, and that which may seem doomed to fail may end up achieving more than that which was hoped (or vice versa).


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