And Now for the Hard Part

This was a great week for America. But the country’s system is broken in ways even Biden is unlikely to fix.

People collect flags that decorated the National Mall in Washington, DC on Jan. 21.
People collect flags that decorated the National Mall in Washington, DC on Jan. 21. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Every day this week, the media has been filled with optimistic takes on the new Biden administration and its odds of successfully tackling the country’s problems.

It’s no wonder. Whatever you think of the merits of former President Donald Trump’s deplatforming, the shift in tone in the nation’s discourse in the last several days has been remarkable. President Joe Biden’s inaugural speech was a pitch-perfect display of modesty, humanity, and genuine longing to unify the country. His staff picks, heavy on bureaucratic competence and low on drama, were deeply reassuring—especially after four years in which the United States experienced very little of the former and way too much of the latter. And his early executive actions—on the climate, the pandemic, immigration, and so on—smartly focused on important changes that most Americans support.

If everyone feels a little giddy, then, that’s perfectly understandable; I share the feeling. So I feel churlish pointing to some of the big obstacles that remain in Biden’s path. But it’s important to do so anyway, both to temper expectations about what the new administration will actually accomplish, and as a reminder that unless the country finds a way to tackle its underlying structural problems—issues nobody is talking about right now—this moment of optimism won’t last.

The Senate, which—despite now being under notional Democratic control—is already gridlocked.

Three stories from the last week underscore the challenges ahead. The first involves the Senate, which—despite now being under notional Democratic control—is already gridlocked over how to share power, whether to preserve the Republicans’ right to filibuster, and when to start Trump’s impeachment trial. The result? As the New York Times reported Thursday, “On Mr. Biden’s first full day in office and Democrats’ first in total control of Congress, the Senate was in a state of suspended animation, unable to move forward with even the basic tasks of organizing committees or setting rules for getting virtually anything done.”

The second story, which ran Tuesday, explored the intense desire of rank-and-file Democrats to see Trump’s impeachment trial move forward. Biden may want the Senate to turn the page and focus on his legislative agenda, but the rank and file want justice. Independent research confirms this. On Wednesday, FiveThirtyEight released a polling average assembled from the latest available data. It showed that, on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, 87.8 percent of Democrats and 52.5 percent of Americans overall still favored removing Trump from office early using either impeachment or the 25th Amendment.

The third and most important story looked at the 139 House Republicans who had voted against certifying Biden’s electoral victory. Even though their actions may have disgusted a majority of Americans, much of the corporate world, and their party’s own leadership, the piece argued, the legislators are unlikely to pay a political price for their unconstitutional stand. The reason? Gerrymandering, which, by creating so many reliably red Congressional districts, has ensured that those members are unlikely to face any real Democratic opposition in the next election. All these members of Congress need worry about, in short, is their next primary—in which pro-Trump purity will likely be rewarded by hardcore party loyalists, the only people who actually show up to vote in primaries these days.

Taken together, these three stories highlight two things. First, they provide yet another indicator of how bitterly polarized the United States has become. Second, they underscore how hard it’s going to be for anyone—even a politician as right-for-the-moment as Biden seems to be—to change that.

Of course, I’d love to believe that Biden could win over the GOP through the power of upside surprises, as Tom Friedman recently suggested. Or that, as David Brooks argued, Biden will strike bipartisan deals using the trust he’s built up in the Senate and his ability to separate politics from the culture wars. Or, as Jonathan Last suggested in the Bulwark, Biden’s profoundly decent character and genuine desire to help will make the difference.

But like an atheist wishing he could find comfort in faith, I’m just not convinced. In my 2016 book, The Fix, I looked at how countries around the world have solved big, supposedly impossible problems. The first condition necessary to accomplish major reforms, I found, is a big crisis. We’ve got that. But the second is politicians willing to put their country’s best interests over their own, short-term political ones.

Biden may be such a politician. But he can’t do much without Congress, and there the picture darkens. As the Times’ piece on gerrymandering underscores, the United States has created a political system in which all the incentives point away from compromise. By allowing most Congressional districts to be turned into safe seats, we’ve ensured that Republican legislators who dare cross the aisle—even on measures that enjoy broad public support—will get creamed by ideological die-hards in the next primary. And by allowing virtually unchecked corporate spending on elections, we’ve given special interests the ability to beat back reforms that could hurt their bottom line.

None of that makes change impossible; if enough members of Congress decided to put collective good before personal good, Biden could still succeed in making major changes. But in creating a system where progress forces politicians to take huge risks, with no guarantee (or even likelihood) of political payoff, the United States has stacked the deck against itself. And that makes optimism a lot harder to come by—even at a remarkable moment like this one.

Jonathan Tepperman is an editor at large at Foreign Policy, a role he assumed in November 2020 after three years as the magazine’s editor in chief. He is the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman