As former Governor Mario Cuomo famously put it, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”
As he transitions to assuming office, President-elect Joe Biden may find writing that prose of governing to be historically hard, observers say.
At the forefront, a pandemic rages and the outgoing President has not only not conceded, but is undermining trust in the election’s legitimacy. The economy has somewhat stabilized, but millions of Americans still have big worries about paying bills and losing their homes. There are major concerns about racial inequality and climate change.
The incoming President quickly began ramping up a transition plan – launching a website and naming former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler, and Yale University's Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith co-chairs of a coronavirus working group.
Other members were announced early Monday, including vaccine expert Dr. Rick Bright, who claimed in a whistleblower complaint in May that he was demoted for political reasons, Beth Cameron, who helped create the “pandemic playbook” in the Obama administration, and Rebecca Katz, the Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center.
“The work starts right away,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden deputy campaign manager on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.
As for Trump, he spent Sunday golfing – and retweeting baseless accusations (without evidence) that Biden’s victory was a “hoax” amid other unproven allegations that the social media company flagged as unsubstantiated.
To return to Mario Cuomo’s prose metaphor, the outgoing President isn’t showing signs he’ll yield the pen to his successor.
And it’s unclear it’s going to improve, at least soon.
“I would certainly not be wanting to put any money on [President Trump] re-inventing himself and becoming a gracious loser and doing things that are necessary in a very difficult period of time to enable Biden to walk into the presidency with a head of steam," Doug Sosnik, a senior advisor to President Bill Clinton said in an interview with Spectrum News.
Ideally, observers say, the pair would cooperate, in front of the cameras, to project an air that a peaceful transfer of power continues in the 244th year of the Republic.
Behind the scenes, outgoing administrations are expected to provide funding and information that would allow Biden to assemble his choices to fill the federal government’s vast bureaucracy.
The Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition says Biden has to recruit 4,000 political appointees – 1,250 requiring confirmation from the U.S. Senate confirmation – prepare a $4.7 trillion budget, and assume leadership of a workforce of 2 million civilian employees and 2 million active duty and reserve troops.
“This was a hard-fought campaign, but history is replete with examples of presidents who emerged from such campaigns to graciously assist their successors,” members of the Center for Presidential Transition advisory board said in a statement, which was signed by top officials from the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
Trump’s supporters believe he is entitled to seeing a legal battle through.
Biden’s victory predictably set off jockeying for positions on all levels. Names floated for Cabinet posts included former National Security Advisor Susan Rice for Secretary of State; outgoing Alabama Senator Doug Jones for U.S. Attorney General; former Defense Department official Michèle Flournoy to lead the Pentagon; former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg for, perhaps, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
The makeup of the Senate could complicate Biden’s nomination process – and legislative agenda. Absent Democratic victories in both of Georgia two runoffs in January, Republicans will retain control.
What does that mean? To return, again, to Mario Cuomo’s prose metaphor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky would be a co-writer in governing – or at least a very powerful editor.
Both McConnell and Biden worked together when Biden was vice president under Barack Obama. They’ve talked warmly about each other – McConnell called Biden an “old friend” last week, Politico reported.
But McConnell also worked to stymie some of Obama’s biggest priorities – sometimes successfully – and the prospect he will do the same to Biden is alarming progressives. They had hoped for a public option in health insurance; robust action to curb carbon emissions and changes to police funding.
Biden could get frustrated. But a senator for nearly four decades, he’s seen as a deal-making pragmatist.
“What I think is so interesting about Biden is he is a throwback. Part of why he did get elected is because he said he would bring unity. He said he would bring calm,” said Lara M. Brown, Director of the Graduate School of Political Management at The George Washington University.
Brown, author of “Amateur Hour: Presidential Character and the Question of Leadership,” told Spectrum News that McConnell may also be inclined to cooperate with Biden, if only for his political survival.
“The fact that a first term president of a party has lost should suggest to the Republican Party that this way of governing has not been successful, even if they managed to retain their majority,” she said.
Apart from getting Covid-19 under control, Biden’s biggest promise is arguably lowering the partisan temperature.
“We must restore the soul of America,” he said in accepting victory Saturday night. “Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses.”
It could be, at least for the moment, that American reward cooperation between the parties.
“Governing productivity is what both the country and I daresay voters will increasingly demand,” Bruce Gyory, a veteran Democratic consultant, wrote in an email to Spectrum News.
All that would be made easier if Trump increases doses of cooperation, or at least accepts that he lost, sooner rather than later.
The current president is in a relatively rare position – losing his own re-election.
Still, the last time it happened, in 1992, George H.W. Bush was helped let his rival become his successor, said the Center for Presidential Transition letter:
“‘Your success now is our country’s success,’” George H.W. Bush wrote in 1993 to the incoming president who involuntarily retired him, “‘I am rooting hard for you.’”