Here’s how Trump’s parting acts have improved Biden’s shot at history

Attempted Prophecies: America’s hay days
Joe Biden leaves after delivering a speech at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., December 28, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

It wasn’t US President Donald Trump’s intention, but he did his successor Joe Biden a potentially historic favor through his incitement of the violent insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, for which the House impeached him for an unprecedented second time this week.

No right-minded individual would wish for that assault, which has resulted in five deaths and more than 100 arrests (and counting). However, it also served as a wakeup call, not only about the dangers posed by Trump’s refusal to accept his election defeat, but also about the increasingly toxic perils of America’s political, social, and racial divisions.

At the same time, the Capitol insurrection—and the political backlash that has followed—has increased Biden’s odds of becoming one of the rarest of political creatures: a US president of historic consequence. The past days’ events have greatly improved Biden’s chance of being the sort of transformative president who comes along only every generation or so.

“I think it makes my job easier,” Biden told reporters in Wilmington, Delaware two days after the Capitol Hill riot. “We must unify the country.”

Biden’s actions this past week underscored that he understands his opportunity and is in a hurry to seize it. At no point in my memory has a president-elect laid out such a detailed and ambitious plan even before his inaugural address.

His announcement of a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last week , followed a day later by the unveiling of a COVID-19 vaccination offensive, were both designed to produce measurable achievements during his first weeks in office to address Americans’ two predominant concerns: their health and their jobs. The fact that he’ll deploy a wartime law to ramp up vaccine production underscores his authority as commander-in-chief.

What’s most telling is the extent to which the economic plan was designed to be bipartisan, discarding some of the more controversial ideas among the party’s left. Those ranged from “baby bonds,” a proposed $1,000 savings account for every child born in the United States, to “automatic stabilizers,” which would kick in more budgetary support without legislative action should benchmarks be triggered.

Given the Democratic victories in both Georgia Senate run-off races this month, Biden could have chosen a more partisan path through fast-track rules known as reconciliation. That would have required just fifty-one votes—the fifty Democratic votes plus Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker in her role as president of the Senate.

But that approach would have launched the Biden administration on a divisive trajectory, defying his campaign pledge to be a unifier serving all Americans.

The reconciliation path also comes with restrictions: there are caps on how often it can be used during the year, and it is limited to tax and fiscal legislation. Finally, Biden knows that history’s lesson is that overreach in the next two years, with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, could result in blowback at the ballot box in the 2022 midterm elections.

With all that in mind, Biden is wagering that he can land at least ten Republican Senate votes for the sixty he will need to pass his $1.9 trillion legislation.

He at the same time would be setting the table for further legislation, likely to be put forward in February, that will tackle his campaign goals of renewing American infrastructure, creating jobs, combating climate change, and advancing racial healing and equity.

So how has Trump been helpful to Biden’s ambitions, particularly with his actions of the past days?

First, though Republican legislators haven’t abandoned Trump in the numbers some had hoped, ten Republican members of the House joined the most bipartisan vote to impeach a president in US history. A growing number of Republican leaders are willing to distance themselves from Trump, who will now have a more difficult time avoiding prosecution and sustaining his party leadership role.

Second, the shock of January 6 and growing threats of extremist violence this week have stunned and frightened Americans who are now more eager to see effective, bipartisan governance in Washington. The inevitable economic growth of a vaccinated, stimulus-injected America in 2021 is also likely to shore up the Biden administration.

Beyond that, America’s allies were already suffering what one European diplomat calls “TTD—Trump Trauma Disorder.” They are even more keen now, having seen the dangers to American democracy in such stark relief, to embrace Biden. They understand the world faces an inflection point determining whether global democracies or Chinese-led autocracies will set future standards.

The internet is awash with lists of history’s greatest and most transformative American presidents. The one attached here, taken from a Business Insider survey of two hundred political scientists in 2019, is typical of the genre. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan are all in the top ten. (Trump was ranked last.)

What the greats have in common is a historic challenge, not one of their own choosing, and the character to guide the nation through it.

Lincoln had the Civil War, FDR the Great Depression and World War II, Truman his post-war Marshall Plan and international institutions, and Ronald Reagan the decisive Cold War years. (I’ve always thought for that reason he should be viewed together with George H.W. Bush, who, as seventeenth on this list, is underrated).

Biden’s moment is of similar consequence, a defining moment not only domestically but also globally with China’s rise.

“President Biden is facing not only an economic crisis but also a political crisis, a cultural crisis, a public-health crisis and an epistemological one,” said historian Jon Meacham in the Wall Street Journal. “It’s immense and they’re all related.”

What Meacham is referring to with “epistemology” is that Americans no longer even agree to a common set of facts and realities, and that may be the most difficult bridge for Biden to build.

That brings us to character.

That’s what Americans will judge in his inaugural address this week, without their chosen social networks mediating. Without vilifying his predecessor, Biden will make the contrast through his words, designed to calm a nation, to be truthful about the challenges, and to lay out a unifying plan and vision. Biden faces vast challenges, but Trump, through his actions of the past days, inadvertently made the president-elect’s job easier. 

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Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.

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