James Broughel: Joe Biden’s looming legitimacy crisis (and what he can do about it)

15December 2020

As a wild 2020 rolls into 2021, President-elect Joe Biden sits in a precarious position. Even as the Trump campaign’s election challenges strike out, millions of voters question Biden’s legitimacy. He promised to unite a divided country, and now he has to find a way to deliver.

It would be best for Biden — and for the country — to take a cooperative rather than a combative approach. With true bipartisan leadership, there is a surprising amount that might be accomplished even with a Democrat-led House and what’s likely to be a Republican Senate (pending the two runoff elections in Georgia). Immigration, entitlements, deficit reduction and regulations are a few areas where this division of power could allow the stars to align for reform.

In one of his first speeches after the media called the election, Biden promised to be a unifying president who will not exacerbate our divisions. While most Americans, this author included, are willing to believe him, he will rapidly lose goodwill if he follows his party’s leftmost flank.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has called on Biden to take an aggressive pen-and-phone strategy out of the Obama playbook, meaning to pursue extensive use of executive actions. This would allow him to bypass what could be a gridlocked Congress. On the other hand, it will almost certainly antagonize Republicans and centrists, and increase the likelihood that Biden is viewed as an illegitimate president — one abusing the tepid trust he earned from a weary American public.
The last election may have been a rejection of Donald Trump’s fiery brand of politics, but many observers note that it was also a rejection of far-left policies, due to the many successes of Republicans down ticket. Thus, the president-elect’s real mandate is to pursue the types of reforms that all but the most partisan among us support.

There are many more of these opportunities than we realize.

On immigration, former President Barack Obama was able to get a bill through a Republican-controlled Senate, but couldn’t convince tea party Republicans in the House to go along. It might be feasible now with Democrats holding the House.

President Obama also failed at entitlement reform due to a breakdown of negotiations with then-Speaker John Boehner. Obama never seemed committed, but Biden has had sensible things to say about the insolvency of Social Security and Medicare. Given that some expect the 78-year-old to be a one-term president, could he achieve the unachievable and address the infamous “third rail” of politics? Rather than pander for votes, he should shore up the precarious finances of these programs.

Entitlement reform would also enable him to defuse another ticking government time bomb: the exploding federal deficit. President Trump was no fiscal conservative. Even without the coronavirus pandemic contributing to a tsunami of federal spending, trillion-dollar deficits were expected to be the new normal. Biden can right this ship if he works across the aisle with Republicans to pass a sensible deficit reduction package.

Finally, regulatory reform can reassure a skeptical mainstream public that Democrats are not an anti-business party controlled by Bernie Sanders, Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Cutting red tape has been a priority of every recent Democratic president, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to Obama, and Democratic-controlled states have also shown that it’s a great way to grow the economy. Rhode Island, under the leadership of Gov. Gina Raimondo, sunset its entire regulatory code in 2018. New Jersey also appears on the verge of historic regulatory reform.

Now is an opportune time. The pandemic has revealed major shortcomings in the regulatory system, as evidenced by the hundreds of regulations waived or suspended during the emergency. Moreover, at nearly 75 years old, the law that governs the federal regulatory process (1946’s Administrative Procedure Act) is considered by many to be antiquated and desperately in need of updating.

Biden is in a tough place. Fairly or not, many voters don’t trust him. Let’s take him at his word when he says he wants to bring the country together. Right now, there is an opportunity for a reasonable, centrist policy agenda that would grant him a legacy— and legitimacy — in the history books.

More importantly, it would make him a president beloved by the entire country, rather than one reviled by half of it. Wouldn’t that be nice?

James Broughel is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He wrote this for Tribune News Service.

 

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