Mr. Biden may take the oath of office facing a lattice of crises that make some other tough-times inaugurations look enviable: a health crisis, an economic crisis, a racial-justice crisis, a climate crisis and a crisis of representative democracy revealed and exacerbated by his predecessor. These are problems that snicker at incrementalism.
In one favorable scenario, come January, two Democratic runoff victories in Georgia leave a President Biden facing a 50-50 Senate, with his vice president, Kamala Harris, possessing the crucial tiebreaking vote. Even then, the scope of available policy reforms would still be substantially limited unless Mr. Biden sought to eliminate the filibuster that requires 60 Senate votes to get major legislation enacted. Doing away with this rule would, of course, immediately doom any chance of a constructive working relationship with Republicans.
But it could still be a risk worth taking. If Democrats win the two presumed Georgia runoffs, Senate Democrats will represent roughly 41 million more people than the Republican half of the chamber. If Mr. Biden is to meet this moment, he can’t let his cautious temperament and deep hankering for civic comity stop him from making the policy changes families need.
The most immediate problem is the plague. Mr. Trump was so inept at containing it that he couldn’t even keep it from infecting him. But the sanity and science-based competence that Mr. Biden has promised will go only so far. Suppressing the virus and executing a vaccine rollout, while boosting an economic recovery that will have slowed over the winter, would require trillions of dollars in investment and a font of bureaucratic creativity.
For tens of millions, the economic traumas of the pandemic have come on top of decades of stagnation and precariousness. Since 1989, the wealth of the bottom 50 percent of Americans has fallen by $900 billion. Before Covid-19, 44 percent of American workers were being paid median annual wages of $18,000. And the evictions now surging are coming in the wake of a housing market that has long been unaffordable. Even if high unemployment were reversed, it would hardly repair our increasingly classist and Uber-ized labor market.
And if Democrats do win the Senate? Senator Schumer told me he envisions a first 100 days filled with a raft of measures on the virus and economic relief, mixed in with policies that address inequality, climate change, student debt, immigration and more. A Biden administration’s early days “ought to look like F.D.R.’s,” he said. “We need big, bold change. America demands it, and we’re going to fight for it.”
Much, however, could still get in the way. First, Mr. Biden’s own instinct toward caution — which can easily end up enabling paralysis at a time when Democrats’ window for proving the promise of an active government could be closing. Any measure of success is likely to be determined by how seriously a Biden administration takes the inevitable calls for fiscal conservatism and austerity (despite historically low interest rates).