An Open Letter to President Biden
Dear President Biden,
Congratulations. As I am writing this, your party has managed to hold the Senate, and still—as of Nov. 14—has a fighting chance of holding the House. Your instincts have proven correct: above and beyond political disagreements and the public’s view of your presidency, the majority of voters expressed their desire to prevent government by the people, of the people, and for the people from “perishing from the earth.” Yes, it was a close call, and too close for me to be content with. However, the majority did speak with a resounding voice, bringing a decisive defeat to election deniers and other anti-democratic rhetoric within the Republican Party. For now, the threat of authoritarianism in America has stayed.
I, for one, give you your proper credit. When others in the party did not, you had faith in the working people across this country making the right choice. And when Democratic pundits fell into hysterics about “red waves,” you kept calm. But now we have won. And, like Robert Redford in The Candidate, we must ask this question: “What do we do now?” The battle is not over, and the stakes are higher than ever.
We see the rise of “new and improved” Trumpian and anti-democratic politicians like Ron DeSantis. We see one of our two major political parties still consumed by election denialism and political primaries that reward these election deniers. Worst of all, we see that the Republican Party establishment is, as it stands now, far too morally bankrupt to repudiate Trumpism once and for all. Even if Republican Party leaders cast Trump aside, they will only cast him aside because he “didn’t work” like they wanted him to—like a child throwing away a dysfunctional toy.
Our politics cannot survive like this for much longer. One might say the Republican Party will implode if it continues on this path. On the other hand, it might not. It might instead take us on more of a “winding road” toward authoritarianism. We cannot take the chance.
You want to be a great president. What’s more, you need to be a great president for our republic to survive. To overcome such fundamental threats to our democracy, nothing less than a great transformation of American society is necessary. And when the problem is our politics and, more to the point, our politicians, then a top-down transformation appears even more appropriate. Consider the example of history too. Each time we have had a “crisis of confidence” in our democracy—whether during the Civil War or the Great Depression—a great President has led us closer to the Promised Land.
Like Thomas Paine once said of the American Revolution, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” But that requires an ambitious agenda, on par with Johnson’s Great Society and FDR’s New Deal. Of course, I can hear your advisers saying, “But we have done that. Haven’t you heard about our historic investments in infrastructure? And what about our historic initiative to get Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices?” I respond simply: the infrastructure investments, historic as they are, are like pouring a bucket of water onto a California wildfire. Likewise, Congress passing a bill allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, while appreciated, was long overdue.
What I am saying is go bigger. Think bigger. President Johnson could have made historic progress on civil rights without passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Why? Because other presidents had not been able to do much of anything on that front. And President Johnson could have made historic investments in combating poverty without the Great Society. All he had to do was invest $1 more than Kennedy or Roosevelt had. But that is not what he did. History rightly celebrates Johnson for his vision. Without that type of thinking, would anybody have the chance to enjoy the benefits of Medicare and Medicaid?
Nonetheless, I realize you face certain practical limitations. By all means, acknowledge them. For my part, I will be brutally honest: this is going to be hard, and it at times will seem impossible. It will take some masterful politicking, just as it did in Johnson’s time. Even then, advancing a bold legislative agenda is no less impossible than it was to get the Civil Rights Bill through a Senate with segregationists and the filibuster.
I am confident the American people will follow a good vision, with results that positively affect their everyday lives. Voters may not be able to fact-check as well as they could, but they can read “the signs of the times.” If your Administration passes the bills, your Administration will reap the rewards.
It’s getting there that’s the problem. You have a possible Republican House, you have at least 50 Democratic Senators, and you have Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. What could you possibly do with that?
It may look like you got the wrong deck of cards for a great presidency. Nevertheless, there is still some hope. But not in conventional compromising. Those days are over, for better or worse. I propose to you, as St. Paul did to the Corinthians, a “better way.” Consider again Johnson’s Civil Rights Bill. As Jonathan Rauch notes in “How American Politics Went Insane,” getting that bill passed meant getting it past House Republican leader Charles Halleck of Indiana. How? Was it through a passionate debate of the issues or principled arguments for the equality of all people? No. A NASA research grant for Halleck’s district was enough to do the job. This approach to politics might make one cynical, but not me. Instead, it shows how even political self-interest can lead to monumental change.
I will add this: per the old cliché, “nothing succeeds like success.” Republicans will not compromise on their own; the people must force them to take their places at the negotiating table. If your Administration can pass more and more ambitious legislation—even if by one vote—and people start to like what you are doing, then Republicans will have to compromise. Self-interest and self-preservation will drag them along. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus.” President Johnson likely would have agreed. Compromise, indeed, is not exactly the right word to describe how Johnson passed the Civil Rights bills; arm-twisting is perhaps the more accurate term. Johnson used every method of persuasion he had to get his party and those in the other party onboard.
Obviously, you might not want to imitate everything Johnson did. But a little more arm-twisting may do some good, especially if Democrats gain a seat in the Senate and especially if somehow Democrats hold the House. Arm-twisting, aggressive public relations efforts, and some good old-fashioned backroom negotiations. They have never failed the traditional politician, and it may be fatal to go back to the “let’s split everything down the middle” model of compromise. Instead of splitting things down the middle (after all, what is the middle now? The halfway point between you and Marjorie Taylor Greene?), we must push the middle over.
Thomas Paine once said, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” And if we do not take advantage of that power, then others will. And we may not like the world they give us.