Art of the possible

By Michael Belknap

The 2020 Presidential election is over. Joseph P. Biden Jr won. Now comes Biden’s opportunity to govern. How should he proceed? What should be his agenda? What are the challenges to accomplishing his goals?

Otto van Bismarck observed in 19th century Germany, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of next best.” Biden faces limits on what be changed. The lack of a mandate, a narrow margin in the Senate and House and deep divisions in the Nation are constraints.

Biden did not receive a mandate for change. He won 51.3% of the popular vote, a 4.5% margin, winning 25 of 50 states. He received 306 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 232. However, a shift of less than 45,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin with their 37 Electoral College votes would have resulted in four more years of the Trump presidency. The Democrats lost seats in the House, shrinking its majority to about twelve. In November, one Senate seat was picked-up. In many down ballot state races, the Republicans ran ahead of Biden.

What is a mandate? In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt won with a popular vote margin of 17.7%and 42 out of 48 states. Ninety-seven House seats were added to create a supermajority. The Democrats held a Senate majority for the first time since 1918. Taken together, these victories enabled the transformational New Deal legislation.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson enjoyed a 22.6% popular vote margin, winning forty-four of fifty states. With increases in members in both houses of Congress, the Democrats achieved supermajorities in both chambers. Those wins made possible the historic New Society and Civil Rights laws in the mid-60’s.

Lacking a mandate, Biden/Harris should proceed cautiously with programs which lay a foundation for victories in the 2022 Congressional races and the 2024 Presidential election. The opportunity for change will come only by a centralist agenda which lessens the disunity and division in the Nation.

Article I, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution provides: “All legislative Power herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” Democrats hold a narrow twelve seat majority in the House with an evenly divided Senate with Vice President Harris having the power to cast the deciding vote in a tie. Given the Senate rules and traditions, dramatic change on major issues such as climate change, income inequality and immigration are unlikely.

Tip O’Neill, famed Speaker of the House (1977-1987), instructed legislators, “Forge a coalition that includes at least some of the opposition Party.” Given the looming 2022 legislative races, where 13 of the 34 Senate seats are held by incumbents not seeking re-election, legislative proposals - Covid-19 relief and infrastructure bills - should be proposed. The Democratic legislative agenda should not focus on aspirational ideas. The “art of the next best” provides the most favorable path to a progressive future until larger Congressional majorities are won.

President Biden derives his power from Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution: “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States.” Biden should focus on executive action, not on legislation. Executive orders provide the opportunity to revoke many Trump polices, particularly, DOCA. His Cabinet Secretaries and their departments should reverse changes of policy over the past four years, particularly in Environmental Protection, Education and Labor. Then the executive power to make changes through regulations, directives and recommendations can be utilized to promote a progressive, pro-people program.

The President has dual roles: Head of Government and Head of State. The latter gives the President the opportunity to inspire, not incite; to unite, not divide; to represent the best of the nation to the world. Theodore Roosevelt used the “bully pulpit” to rally support for change. Inaugural addresses set the tone for the future – FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” or JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Barack Obama brought healing to the country when he sang “Amazing Grace” at a Charleston, South Carolina funeral.

Joe Biden promises to be President of all the people, not just Democrats. In his victory speech, he called for us to make the “hard decisions about who we are, who we want to be.” His election comes at a point in time when the majority of Americans yearn for a calmer, more peaceful nation. We all need reflect on what has happened to our democracy and how we can heal the divisions. The path forward lies with “the art of the possible,” not divisive dreams. Let us give President Biden the chance to reach “the attainable — the art of the next best.”

Michael Belknap is President of the Belknap Company, Ltd., a real estate development firm. Belknap has lived in a 19th century house in Columbia County since 1971.

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