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President Biden Will Struggle to Make the Center Hold

The new president stressed “unity” above all else at the inauguration. But many of his political opponents hear nothing but a pronounced ideological agenda, beneath restorative rhetoric.
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It was perhaps the signature book of the Barack Obama presidency. 

The spring after the 44th president’s surprisingly pronounced victory over Republican rival Mitt Romney, journalist Jonathan Alter released The Center Holds. Alter’s dispatch of reported opinion was, yes, a dissent from and a play on the famous W.B. Yeats lines. It was also a veneration of Obama against his enemies, that is: his old rivals, the house of Clinton, Wall Street, which backed Romney financially after favoring Obama in 2008, and the Republican Party, led by Mitch McConnell, which had sought for four years to portray, yes, the first black president as radically out of step with American tradition. 

Alter reported that former President Bill Clinton long thought Obama would lose the 2012 election. Obama warded off those who would have Clinton’s wife, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, primary the sitting president, as well as internal challenges from figures then seen as fringe, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders. The view internationally was one of general bewilderment at Obama’s domestic foes, with neoliberal stalwart The Economist endorsing Obama for a second time over the private equity pioneer Romney. The right was then, more or less, seen as the radical wing of the corporate state. 

Obama, it was broadly concluded at the time, also showed the American public to still be hungry for his “hope and change” mantra. He had won a new mandate for his repeated, usually dashed, insistences of reaching out to other side, including but not limited to the kind of “Obamacons” who wrote for this magazine. Alter concluded, in 2013, that Obama presaged a future of reasonable technocracy — and state-of-the-art campaign organization — that fossils like Bill Clinton had been shown to be past prime, and that Obama’s unreasonable opponents domestically, such as Donald Trump, were far from power.

We know what happened; Obama’s second term was swarmed with controversies over his wobbly healthcare plan, renewed international mayhem and the most unlikely of presidential successions. 

But on Wednesday, Obama’s old deputy, Joe Biden, was sworn-in as the 46th president of the United States. Former President George W. Bush is said to have told the House’s top black Democrat, the South Carolina kingmaker Jim Clyburn, that he was the “savior” for rescuing Biden in the Palmetto State last February, presaging his capture of the presidency. Bush’s spox quibbles with that characterization, but plenty agree with Bush’s reported handicapping of the 2020 race: only Biden could have defeated now ex-President Trump. 

Biden, in particular, dissented from the near-universal consensus in the largest primary field in Democratic Party history. The future president stressed the continued preeminence of compromise and camaraderie. The party, other than Biden, had seemingly moved on from Obama’s mantra, only to nominate its most enthusiastic proponent, his old hand on the Hill, Joe Biden. 

The new president nodded to this skepticism on Wednesday: “We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world. I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy.”

But it’s not just some on the left that deem this kind of talk naive. 

There are many on the right who hold that Biden lacks sincerity, or at least, doubt his capability to follow through on his rhetoric. If the American political system in early 2021 can be crudely broken down into four factions — a Democratic Party that’s moved staunchly leftward, old guard centrists, that is adherents to Biden the man, moderate or perhaps chastened conservatives, and then the remaining Trump rump — Biden’s political task is to at least win tacit approval from those first three groups.   

It won’t be easy. Biden’s inauguration previewed this tension. 

First, Biden pledged that he “will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did” to (relatively) tepid audience applause at this scaled-back inauguration. Obama conceded he failed to achieve the type of unity he called for as he rose to the presidency. Biden’s task will likely be even harder even if he makes compromises with the right; his leftist skeptics won’t be hesitant to call him a hapless old timer.

Second, Biden said there is “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” But what, exactly, does this entail? Only the fanatical fringe will defend those who stormed the Capitol earlier this month, but powerful conservatives such as Tucker Carlson and lefty journalists like Glenn Greenwald are sounding the alarm about a repeat of War on Terror mistakes— only domestically. An old War on Terror veteran, former CIA director John Brennan, on Wednesday outlined a potential state crackdown and equated “racists, nativists” with “even libertarians,” in a television appearance. Not exactly stuff that puts the concerns of the Carlson and Greenwald crowd to bed.

A third pitfall was revealed by a presenter who came after the new president— Los Angeles youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, just twenty-two years old. Gorman’s rendition of her “The Hill We Climb” was stirring but subtly revelatory of what divides Americans. Gorman hailed a goal “to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.” The latter three are settled issues in the United States, but the first one most assuredly is not. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who covets the presidency, left Washington this week saying “multiculturalism… is not who America is.”

This kind of stuff is not going away. Biden is potentially handing his enemies the sword, by leading off with immigration prerogatives. 

Trump’s shaky enactment of his immigration policies led to notorious moments in his administration, namely the widely-condemned images of caged children, most grimly. But Trump’s immigration approach, outside of the small, but real instances of aberrant cruelty, in many ways defied the economic skeptics, contributing to the hottest economy in years and a tighter labor market, to say nothing of his own rise to power. By the 2020 election, immigration had become a peripheral issue on the national political scene. And Trump, seemingly against all odds, actually markedly improved his performance with Hispanic and Asian-American voters, the dominant ethnic backgrounds of most new American immigrants. This is a long way of saying that the politics on this — on expanding immigration, and on the debate on a concept such as “multiculturalism” — are far from clear-cut, or uncontroversial, whatever the assumptions of inauguration performers. 

Yet, the White House announced the end of Trump’s declared emergency on the Southern border, and the preservation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on Wednesday night. Old Trump acolytes like former White House senior counselor Stephen Miller — who joined Twitter on Wednesday to some notoriety — are already trying to build up their names in opposition to such maneuvers. Miller rose to D.C. stardom, while working for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, in opposing Obama on immigration the previous time the Republicans lost a presidential election, when Alter wrote his book. The more that Biden deviates from popular centrist fundamentals — an infrastructure plan, economic stimulus (including further student loan relief) and sobriety in foreign affairs (including confronting China) — if what his old boss found means anything, the more he risks stirring up a hornet’s nest, at a moment of perilous crisis.

Biden has wanted to be president for a half-century. It is his management of early tests like these that will provide clues on whether he’s more than just a placeholder.