This is not a third Obama term.
—Joe Biden, November 24, 2020
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He has a funny way of showing it. Biden's recent moves provide little comfort for Americans looking for a way out of the polarization, acrimony, catastrophism, and hysteria that have characterized politics lo these many years.
Not only is Biden filling his administration with the same people who made such a hash of things from 2009 to 2017. He has also selected, for some of the most important offices, progressive ideologues who believe it is the bureaucracy's job to pick new fights in the culture war. And he's doing it all while his family and his party face new questions about their entanglement with the People's Republic of China.
You are right to feel anxious.
Obama's appointees were known for their elitism, imperiousness, and cocksure expertise. What does Biden do? He brings them back. John Kerry becomes a special envoy for climate—though if you assume he will restrict himself to that portfolio, there's a bridge in Brooklyn you might like to buy. Janet Yellen gets Treasury—and a sure-to-be awkward relationship with her replacement as head of the Federal Reserve. Alejandro Mayorkas was deputy secretary of Homeland Security when he became ensnared in a visa scandal. Biden wants to promote him.
Jeffrey Zients salvaged Healthcare.gov from its catastrophic launch. He'll be coronavirus czar. Having lied about both Benghazi and Bowe Bergdahl while coordinating national security, Susan Rice will apply her mendacious talents to domestic policy. Denis McDonough was Obama's chief of staff during the Syrian "red line" debacle. He'll be secretary for Veterans' Affairs. A few officials—Vivek Murthy, Tom Vilsack—will be nominated for exactly the same jobs they held during the Obama years.
The cases where Biden has struck his own path are either strange or disturbing. Biden chose retired general Lloyd Austin, the former CENTCOM commander, for secretary of defense because "he played a crucial role in bringing 150,000 American troops home from the theater of war" and because he had a good relationship with Beau Biden. The selection, which requires a congressional waiver, not only raises the fraught subject of civil-military relations. It also guarantees a replay of the debate over America's 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and the subsequent growth of the Islamic State. And it's already created friction between Biden and members of his own party, as well as between Biden and members of the bipartisan foreign-policy elite who backed his candidacy.
Obama's Department of Health and Human Services was notorious for rules, such as the 2012 contraceptives mandate, that restricted religious freedom in ways calculated to benefit the Democratic Party. Our second Catholic president might try to reduce tensions between traditional believers and Washington, D.C., by appointing a nonpolitical HHS secretary with a directive to cope with the pandemic above all else. Instead, Biden picked Xavier Becerra, the far-left attorney general of California, who when not filing lawsuits against President Trump has targeted religious and pro-life organizations. The Becerra nomination is a rebuke to social conservatives. It puts the lie to Biden's call for unity. Obama must love it.
What Obama can't be happy about is Hunter Biden's admission that the U.S. attorney for Delaware is looking into his taxes. The reality of Hunter Biden's shady overseas business dealings, despite media and tech-sector attempts to suppress the information in the days before the election, can be avoided no longer. And Hunter's revelation came during the week that Axios released a blockbuster report on Chinese infiltration into West Coast political circles, and disclosed that one Chinese spy became so close to Democratic congressman Eric Swalwell that the FBI gave him a defensive briefing about her in 2015. Swalwell will remain on the House Intelligence Committee. "When that was made known to the members of Congress, it was over," said Nancy Pelosi.
Well, then. That settles it.
In truth, Biden's denial that he would be the caretaker of Obama's third administration was exaggerated. He made it in an interview with Lester Holt of NBC. His reasoning deserves a second look. "We face a totally different world than we faced in the Obama-Biden administration," he said. "President Trump has changed the landscape."
What will make his presidency novel, Biden revealed, is neither personnel nor approach. It's circumstances. The world is "totally different." Trump transformed politics, economics, diplomacy. Hence a Biden term will be unlike Obama's simply because it's four years later.
This is begging the question. Of course the world is different. It always is. But similar objects can inhabit varying landscapes. What matters is whether Biden will diverge from Obama in people, policy, and style. Not because he holds any animus toward the forty-fourth president. Because the success of his own presidency depends on it.
Biden may not think so. He shares Obama's goals. He'd like to enjoy Obama's popularity. He forgets that Obama's good marks were personal. They never translated to the Democratic Party. As Obama pressed ahead with his agenda despite public ambivalence and hostility, his party lost one chamber of Congress, one governor's mansion, one state legislature after another.
Deprived of allies in Congress, Obama relied on judicial and bureaucratic means to achieve his ends. But this approach enraged the Republican base while creating the widespread sense that the electorate no longer controlled its government. The result was Trump. Who promptly unwound Obama's executive orders.
Biden seems eager to reboot this sordid drama. But he's playing a weaker hand than Obama enjoyed at the outset. When the next Congress convenes in January, Democrats will have their smallest House majority since 1893. The best case scenario for Democrats is a 50-50 Senate. In 2009, Obama had a huge majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. He still couldn't get everything he wanted.
Unusual staffing decisions, needless fights, the specter of corruption, the promise of gridlock—and inauguration is still over a month away. Biden gives us the same team and plans as his former boss, but with more awkward presentation and additional scandal. The third Obama term is on track to be as disappointing as the first two.