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How Biden Can Rule America in Spite of Everything

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“The People Have Chosen EMPATHY,” read the video screens flanking President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris during their victory speeches in a Delaware parking lot on Saturday night.

They also told us that the people had chosen “UNITY” and “SCIENCE,” but they had it right the first time. Empathy — or rather, President Trump’s inability to even fake it — was what doomed him.

Politically, the arrival of Covid-19 should have been a godsend to Mr. Trump, as any experienced politician would have known. A natural disaster is a leader’s meat. No one was about to blame him for a virus that originated in China. All he had to do was to make a good-faith effort to suppress it — and to show empathy.

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

A President Trump who started each daily news conference at the height of the (now resurgent) pandemic by reading a letter from the loved one of a victim or lauding a frontline worker; a President Trump who flew into Detroit or Chicago, or even the “anarchist city” that is his native New York, with an Air Force One full of PPE; a President Trump who did everything he could to empathize with the American people and turn the medical response over to the experts, would likely have breezed to victory in last week’s election.

Yet in a wider sense, the president’s inability to even fake a show of empathy hamstrung his entire administration.

Mr. Trump ran and was elected as a “disrupter” president, in a long American tradition. Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts and Ronald Reagan are previous examples of disrupters — presidents who upset the political status quo, broke up a political stalemate, resolved or at least confronted a lingering problem head on and changed the course of our country’s history. And different as the times they lived in and the problems they faced were, they all had one thing in common: an ability to empathize with Americans at a moment of confusion or crisis.

Jefferson, Jackson and both Roosevelts were wealthy landowners, Reagan was a former Hollywood star, and Lincoln a well-off railroad lawyer. Yet all of them were able to at least project a populist image: Jefferson greeting the British ambassador in his bedroom slippers, Jackson the very personification of frontier toughness, Reagan a genial alternative to the scowling, Cold War conservatism of Barry Goldwater. Teddy Roosevelt, the youngest man ever to hold the office, and his adorable family entranced the nation. Franklin Roosevelt was “the only man we ever had in the White House who would understand that my boss is a son-of-a-bitch,” as a North Carolina textile mill worker once said of F.D.R.

All of them had their own prejudices and hypocrisies, all of them failed or fell short at times. Yet they had more than just the common touch. They genuinely believed in what they were doing, were fully engaged in pushing the national project forward, whether or not we all agreed with what that project could or should be. They wanted to take us, ultimately, to where most Americans wanted to go.

Credit…Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thomas Jefferson kept America from falling apart by refusing to retaliate in kind against the partisan violations of civil liberties and limits on immigration that had been installed under John Adams. He doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase, opening up vast new territories to satisfy the restless ambitions of the yeoman farmers in whom he put his faith — though in so doing, he also started an expansion of slavery and another dispossession of Native Americans. Jackson made white, male suffrage universal, and as a military leader had already added still more territories to the United States — though he also encouraged the growth of the slave power and included an unforgivable betrayal of America’s Native American allies, one that led to the genocide of the “Trail of Tears” and nearly overthrew the power of the U.S. Supreme Court in the bargain.

Lincoln ended the festering sin of slavery, even if at times he favored the idea of shipping Black people back to Africa. He passed legislation to provide land-grant colleges to the states and homesteads to the people, and flung the Transcontinental Railroad across the nation. Teddy Roosevelt pushed through the long-delayed, progressive reforms that first checked the absolute power of big business — though he embraced the fraudulent, white-supremacist theories of eugenics that were prevalent in his time, and embarked on imperialist adventures abroad. Franklin Roosevelt fundamentally changed the nature of American life, in the midst of battling the Great Depression and defeating worldwide fascism, although he also made limited progress on race and acceded to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Ronald Reagan deregulated businesses and markets, and pushed the Cold War to a triumphant end, even as he destroyed much of the labor movement, ignored the plague of his day — AIDS — for years and played the race card in shrinking the social welfare state.

I would argue that Reagan was the most destructive and backward-looking of all the disrupters who preceded Mr. Trump, certainly in the modern era. Reagan’s policies created much of the disparity in wealth and opportunity so corrosive in American life today. But as President Barack Obama noted, Reagan was “transformative,” whether you agreed with what he did or not, and there is no doubt that his politics served as an inspiration to a generation of American conservatives and entrepreneurs. Flawed men with flawed policies, all of these presidential giants stood for something real that could be debated or denied.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, always seemed like a facsimile of a president, just as he had been mostly a facsimile of a builder, a casino magnate, an airline owner, a university founder. Even when he was playing a business tycoon on TV, his lines and his persona were largely provided by the show’s producer. He was a virtual man in a virtual era, and for a time that served him well. He came to power repeating the grievances of the man on a bar stool — or in his case, on a golf course. He could be funny and audacious and irreverent, and his followers adored that, mistaking it for honesty and openness. What president other than Mr. Trump would announce that he had thought of getting a dog, but that it “feels a little phony to me.” “That’s not the relationship I have with my people,” he said.

Yet in the end the president also had no coherent plan, no worldview to address the concerns of the tens of millions who voted for him, because in the end he possessed no ability to truly put himself in their place and discern what they might want beyond the superficial grumblings of another working day.

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Credit…Associated Press

Mr. Trump, it is true, faced more amorphous problems than previous disrupter presidents — how to humanize globalization and make it work for all Americans; how to deal with the challenge of a revitalized China and rapid climate change — but he came up with only amorphous solutions or pure denial. Sporadic stabs at reworking trade deals, throwing up part of a border wall to stop illegal immigration from Mexico, railing against this or that foreign nation, embracing the coal industry in its death throes. He failed utterly to do what any effective leader must do, which is to convert vague feeling into specific policies. Worse even than the ineffectuality of these erratic approaches was the lack of any humanity underlying them, the disdain that kept slipping out: the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the border; the characterization of other countries and the people who live in them as beneath contempt; the description of veterans as “suckers” and “losers.”

Donald Trump, like other presidents before him, grasped and mastered the new media of his day — but it was a devil’s bargain. Unlike other presidents, he never backed out of the public eye because ’round-the-clock entertainment is what the internet requires. The internet is also all about entertainment at any cost, not empathy or humanity, and lost in its brambles Mr. Trump could not find a way forward (if he was ever interested in that), or to find the hearts, and the real wounds of his supporters (if he was ever interested in that).

Empathy is not something that Joe Biden has ever been accused of lacking. (I write this as the recipient of a Biden bearhug at one of his speaking engagements, even though I had never met him before and he doesn’t know me from Adam.) He will need every bit of it in the days and the years ahead.

The challenge to Mr. Biden before Election Day looked as if it would be holding together a broad coalition and organizing it to deal with the same challenges Mr. Trump had faced and more. The question of how to proceed was fraught. All American political coalitions hold the seeds of their own destruction and the larger those coalitions are, the shorter they tend to last.

Instead, as it turned out, that coalition seemed to fracture before it ever took power. For various reasons, some of the male Hispanic and Black voters Mr. Biden had hoped to pick up did not come along, and his appeal to the white working class was more limited than had been hoped. Instead of riding a blue wave, the president-elect finds himself at the front of a Democratic Party that is at best a long shot to retake the U.S. Senate, that saw its majority in the House much diminished, and suffered yet another in what has now become a long string of state and local election losses.

Credit…Alexander Gardner via Reuters

This will greatly limit his options. Without the Senate, Mr. Biden will have no chance to expand the Supreme Court even if he wanted to. Some equivalent of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal is imperative as time runs out on stopping irreversible climate change, but good luck on getting that past a still powerful Republican opposition, or even a divided Democratic House caucus. Other ambitious proposals from the left, like statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, or reparations for slavery are almost certainly dead letters. Expanding health care, increasing the wages and benefits of working people, even rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure — another unfulfilled Trump promise — will be an enormous lift and may require dispiriting compromises from Democrats. In some ways, an opposition party able to stifle a bold agenda will make it easier for the new administration to deal with the disparate parts of its coalition. But will anything get done, including things that have to be done and fast?

Given all this, how is a President Biden to act? Some clues might lie in the records of those presidents who followed not successful disrupter presidents — all of whom succeeded in putting their handpicked successors into power, one more proof of the popularity of their projects — but in those presidents who followed what Mr. Trump now appears to be: not a true disrupter at all, but a merely contentious president, with a rejected agenda.

These would include the likes of both Adamses, John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Succeeding even such unpopular figures has often not been easy. But here a good model for Mr. Biden might be found in President Ulysses S. Grant, who replaced Andrew Johnson, an accidental president who ended up being at least as widely hated as Donald Trump. The slogan of Grant’s campaign — and his administration — came from his famous reply accepting the Republican Party nomination: “Let us have peace.”

This was more than merely a pious wish for harmony. Peace, for Grant, would mean suppressing the first Ku Klux Klan by force and trying to guarantee the civil and voting rights of newly free African-Americans through signing the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and supporting the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. He also appointed his longtime aide, Ely Parker, a Native American from the Seneca nation, commissioner of Indian Affairs, as part of a bold new “peace policy” of justice and reconciliation with Native American peoples throughout the continent. “Peace,” in other words, was not simply a sentiment, but an active effort to right old wrongs and forge a path to a more just and equal future.

Things didn’t work out as Grant hoped. White supremacists ended Reconstruction and canceled civil rights for Black people almost as soon as he was out of office. His Native American policies, well-intentioned though they were, proved to be misconceived and meaningless in the face of whites’ continuing desire to grab Indian lands. The runaway corruption of his own administration — and throughout American politics at the time — along with an economic crash in 1873, negated Grant’s large majorities in the Congress, and most of his reforms. But Grant’s essential decency shone through — at the time, and in a legacy that at least demonstrated what might be possible in American race relations (and for which his standing in the historical record has skyrocketed of late).

Or — for another example, there is Mr. Biden’s old boss, President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama’s caution frustrated many of us who had supported him, and he, too, ended up losing a congressional majority of a size that Mr. Biden will never get to enjoy. But he did guide America out of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, passed the first major, social welfare reform in forty years, and established a new presidential benchmark of decency, class and incorruptibility for the American presidency.

If Mr. Biden can emulate this achievement, it will be a good start toward mending the country without surrendering his principles or the reform platform he ran on. He will probably have to do it mostly through executive orders and key appointments — choosing a truly liberal secretary of labor or head of the Environmental Protection Agency would alone do wonders — but if nothing else, maybe the sense of empathy he will restore to the White House can pull him, and us, through.

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