Ultimate ‘swamp-dweller’ Biden could be the man to renew America
The pre-eminent 19th-century American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau had a thing for the regenerative power of swamps. As he put it: “A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it.”
However, former US President Donald Trump took the contrary view. During his startling rise to power in 2016, America’s populist champion promised his energized followers that he would “drain the swamp,” castigating the country’s ruling elite as corrupt, privileged, out of touch, and utterly unresponsive to the needs of vast swathes of the country, particularly Trump’s largely white, high school-educated, male base.
Now, in an about-turn, the American people have elected as the country’s 46th president a man who epitomizes the “swamp” Trump described. Former Vice President Joe Biden spent 36 years wheeling and dealing in the Senate. But, contrary to Trump’s denigration of expertise, it is this very swamp-dwelling quality — the experience of navigating the treacherous political shoals of America’s capital city — that is Biden’s greatest asset in his efforts to renew a divided America.
The political lay of the land has decisively shifted over these past few weeks. The Democrats’ surprise victory in both Senate runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5 gave them a paper-thin majority in the Senate. The 100 seats are now shared equally between the parties, but Vice President Kamala Harris, in her constitutional role as president of the Senate, is able to break tied votes.
And, with a slim 10-seat majority in the House of Representatives, the Democrats find themselves in the rare position of controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, even if only by the slimmest of margins. This means that an administration that had counted on facing a hostile Congress now has the chance to spend the lion’s share of its time and effort on pushing its domestic agenda, rather than concentrating on foreign affairs.
Biden’s years of experience in the swamp means he knows that, to be politically successful, he must focus on a few big things and get them done quickly. A history of the modern presidency illustrates that most of the domestic agenda of any White House is enacted in its first two years, as was the case with Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. Biden has made clear that his administration’s focus will be on economic relief from the pandemic, increasing vaccinations, and passing a massive and much-needed infrastructure bill.
Biden’s experience in the swamp means he knows that, to be politically successful, he must focus on a few big things and get them done quickly.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
It is here that Biden the swamp-dweller comes into his own. The genius of this clear, targeted approach is that Biden is cherry-picking issues where he stands a good chance of gaining at least some Republican support, splitting the GOP caucus. For example, as part of his proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill, Biden has proposed upping government support for individuals by a further $1,400 to $2,000 in total, counting recently enacted pandemic support measures. This is the exact amount that Trump proposed, to the consternation of the Republican Party establishment. By co-opting Trump’s populist base — and incidentally placating his own leftist populist base — Biden may well tempt a good number of Republican defections in the Senate to his cause. This expert maneuvering, his ability to know the politics and to get things done, is of course the result of decades served in the Senate. There are advantages to being a swamp-dweller, after all.
Further, Biden has a very good relationship with now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was the only Republican senator to personally attend the funeral of the president’s beloved son, Beau, in 2015. In Washington, people make policy. The personal rapport of these two titans of American decision-making makes it far more likely that vital compromises will be made on both sides, allowing Biden’s domestic agenda to largely advance.
The same exact political calculations hold true for the proposed $1 trillion infrastructure bill, designed to provide blanket broadband access to America’s rural communities (Trump’s base), as well as to repair and enhance the country’s bridge and road systems. Elements in both parties have long bemoaned the slow decline of American infrastructure, pointing out the cumulative toll it has taken on the US economy. Trump mentioned moving on this front many times, but never made infrastructure renewal a priority, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that Democrats seemed at least partially open to working with him on this huge domestic project.
In making this a priority, Biden is walking through an open political door; working with Republicans on an issue that has long been a concern for many of them. However, Biden — well-liked personally in both parties — does not carry with him the vitriol that Trump came to epitomize in the American political system. It turns out that broadly getting along with people, rather than dividing them, has its political upsides.
In overlooking the present American political landscape, we can see a counter-intuitive upside for the country, as — far from lurching into further political chaos — there is a strong case to be made that Biden’s domestic agenda will meet with great success. If it does so, a core reason for this will be the simple adage: It takes a swamp-dweller to truly drain the swamp.
• Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via chartwellspeakers.com.