Michael Tomasky is a Special Correspondent for The Daily Beast, the Editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. His book If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed, and How It Might Be Saved will be published in paperback in June. (July 2020)
Joe Biden, by most accounts, has been a different man since the pandemic hit. Last year, he sometimes spoke of his presidency as a return to a pre-Trump era. Now, with unemployment nearing 15 percent and calls for change from protesters becoming more urgent—and with the crisis starkly laying bare the economic precarity in which so many Americans were living even before the virus hit—he sees himself in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, a leader who would rise to the vast challenge history has thrust upon him and introduce sweeping change. The change in Biden has sometimes been overstated. But it is real, and it makes the prospect of a Biden presidency (provided it’s combined with Democratic capture of the Senate) far more intriguing than it was just two months ago.
It may well be that by November 2020, the American people will have learned enough about Trump’s corrupt and unethical acts as president that a majority will vote for anyone running against him. But assuming that Trump is still in office, the question of the election will be: Can any of the Democrats recreate and energize the Obama coalition? All of them have talents and strengths—but all come up short with crucial elements of it.
Lately, Barack Obama doesn’t look like such a bad poker player. Roundly criticized for “negotiating with himself” before the Republicans even got to the table on the tax compromise—and for the Democrats’ abysmal showing in the midterm elections—the president can now claim a head-turning sequence of out-of-nowhere legislative victories: the long-sought repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, the approval of the New Start treaty with Russia, and, on Wednesday afternoon, a bill extending health coverage benefits for rescue workers and others who got sick in the 9/11 aftermath. Republicans had invested much time and energy in blocking all of them, and very few Democrats in Washington would have been willing to predict two weeks ago that any of these measures would pass.
Many reasons have been served up to explain the Democrats’ dismal withdrawal of the energy bill last week: the President was too reticent about fighting climate change; they failed to drum up sufficient public support; they let too many other things take precedence on the legislative agenda. But one reason towers above all others—the dysfunctionality of the Senate.
The speed and certainty with which the conventional wisdom in Washington flips can be a comical thing to watch. A mere forty-eight hours ago, Barack Obama was a struggling president, even a likely one-termer. Today, in the wake of the House’s narrow passage of the health-reform bill—which is to say, on the strength of a grand total of four votes, which if cast the other way would have ensured reform’s defeat—he’s suddenly once again a political mastermind and one of the most consequential presidents of the last half-century!