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Reuniting the States

President-elect Joe Biden has called for a time of healing and has pledged to be a unifier. That's not an easy task in a nation as divided as this one, but Biden is in a position few recent president-elects have been, a position that affords him a better opportunity to achieve this goal: His party is not in full control of the Congress. Not since George H.W. Bush took office in 1988 has a president begun his first term with the Senate in the hands of the opposition party.

Bill Clinton in 1992, George W Bush in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008, and Donald Trump in 2016 all enjoyed a compliant Congress during their first two years as President. They all enjoyed easy legislative wins early, and began pushing a more extreme agenda after this success. And they all saw the opposition party take control of Congress two years later. (A year and a half later, in W's case, due to the defection of one of his party Senators in mid-2001.

But unless the Democrats manage to win both runoff elections in Georgia on January 5, the Republicans will be in control of the Senate when Biden takes office. It's been 20 years since a Democrat last won a Senate seat in Georgia.

So Biden's talk of unity may not just be political rhetoric; it is also a recognition of political reality: If he wants to accomplish anything at all as president, he will need help from one or more Republicans. Clinton and Bush learned to do this after losing the Senate. Clinton worked with Republicans to pass welfare reform and free trade agreements. Bush worked with Democrats to pass education reform and Medicare drug benefits.

Barack Obama talked about promoting bipartisanship, but ran into an intransigent Republican party whose primary mission was to see him fail. As then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put it before the 2010 midterm election, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president". McConnell failed in that mission, but did succeed in wresting control of the Senate in the midterms.

But each of these presidents started their first term with a friendly Congress. Clinton pushed a slew of reforms, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Brady Handgun bill, and voter registration legislation. Bush pushed tax cuts, then rallied the nation after 9/11. Obama had enough support among Congressional Democrats to pass the Affordable Care Act, as well as equal pay legislation and prison sentencing reform.

But Biden will enter the White House with the opposing party likely in control of the Senate, and with his own party having lost seats in the House of Representatives. He'll have to work with at least a few Republicans from the start if he wants to get any legislation passed at all. With McConnell still in charge of the Senate, it doesn't seem likely to happen, but I can imagine a scenario where some Republicans work with some Democrats to pass bipartisan bills in response to the Covid crisis.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has suggested paying people to stay home until Covid cases begin to decline again. This idea appeals to the Democratic base because it can be seen as a precursor to a universal basic income. It appalls Republicans for the same reason. It is likely to be a nonstarter even with some Democrats, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, currently the most conservative Democrat in the Senate.

President-elect Biden has met with Democratic Congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, and Schumer has opened discussions with Senate Republicans about a stimulus package that could win bipartisan support. So even as contentious as this election was, and as bitterly partisan as the two parties have become, there is a glimmer of hope that they can learn to work together for good of the country. But it will take a willingness to compromise from both sides, and that's something we haven't seen for a while.

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