After a year of innumerable twists and turns in US politics, 2021 is shaping up to be a year of significant change.
President Donald Trump will exit the White House on January 20 and leave behind a Republican Party searching for a way forward with or without him as the centre of attention.
President-elect Joe Biden will re-enter a Washington political scene that he hopes to tame after years of intense polarization and will be confronted not only by resistance from Republicans but from within his own party as well.
Here are four things to watch as a new year in US politics commences:
Biden’s first 100 days
As with any new presidential administration, all the focus will be on what is accomplished in the first 100 days – an arbitrary measure, to be sure, but one that politicians use to set an agenda, and one that pundits use to gauge a new president’s initial governance.
Biden has laid out an ambitious plan, mostly as a reaction to Trump’s policies as president, but particularly to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The president-elect said that he will ask Americans to wear masks after he is sworn in as president on January 20. “Just 100 days to mask, not forever. One hundred days,” he told CNN on December 3. A few days later, Biden vowed that he and his health team will get “at least 100 million COVID vaccine shots into the arms of the American people in the first 100 days” and “will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.”
Biden has also said he would rejoin the World Health Organization. Trump withdrew from it in June.
On foreign policy, Biden has repeatedly signaled that Trump’s “America First” philosophy will be a thing of the past and has promised to rebuild alliances he argues suffered under Trump.
Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on his first day as president. Trump left that accord in 2017. The new president is also expected to undo many of Trump’s executive actions on the environment, as well as on immigration.
“On day one I’ll end Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim Ban”, Biden told a Muslim advocacy group in October. Also on the list of expected immigration-related reversals: ending the emergency declaration diverting funding to build the wall on the southern US border, restoring protections for children who were brought the US illegally, and ending Trump’s stricter asylum laws.
In addition, Biden and congressional Democrats are expected to propose more pandemic stimulus funding, try to undo Trump tax cuts that benefitted the wealthy, expand Obamacare, and push for police and criminal justice reforms.
Will Congress get anything done?
Democrats will have control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate when January 20 rolls around, but that does not mean things will be smooth sailing, despite Biden’s optimism that he can restore bipartisanship to Washington.
Even if Democrats win both Georgia runoff races on January 5, resulting in a 50-50 Senate with Vice president-elect Kamala Harris the tiebreaking vote, the party’s control in both the Senate and House will be so slim that it will not be easy to get bills to Biden’s desk.
A 50-50 Democratic-majority Senate gives any single Democrat an inordinate amount of power to derail partisan legislation, leaving Biden and Democratic leaders to craft bills that can attract at least a few Republican senators or are written to guarantee all 50 Democratic votes. Hewing to the former likely alienates the most progressive Democrats, like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. And trying to come up with an idea that is palatable to all 50 Democrats without any defections will not be any easier.
Combine that with a Democrat-controlled House that will have the smallest majority by either party in 90 years, and in this era of extreme partisanship it could shape up to be a recipe for gridlock or, at least, a Congress that is unable to move any groundbreaking legislation.One other key factor to watch for as 2021 progresses: Members of Congress up for re-election, which includes every member of the House and one-third of the Senate.
“[L]awmakers will always think about the next election in 2022, a midterm vote that usually goes against the party holding the White House, making those members from swing or close districts — most of them from the moderate wing of the party — especially antsy and fearful of controversial issues or votes,” Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in the Washington Post this month.
One key problem for the Democrats is that they still have not decided on which direction they want to head policy-wise. As young progressives grew in numbers and became more vocal after the 2018 midterms, they have been trying to force the party further left. But with significant losses in battleground House districts as well as in over 200 counties won by Barack Obama and then by Trump in 2016 and 2020, the party’s moderates are blaming progressives for alienating middle-of-the-road voters.
These fights played out throughout the presidential primaries and are continuing through the Biden transition with progressives lashing out at old-guard Democratic leaders.
“For Democrats to succeed, [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and the rest of Congressional Democratic leadership have to be clear-eyed about their failures. Even as we celebrate President-elect Biden’s historic defeat of Trump, they must be held responsible for these disappointing down ballot results,” a coalition of progressive groups wrote in a November post-election memo.
Establishment and moderate Democrats argue that progressives’ unwavering insistence on unpopular policy ideas such as “defunding the police” and the Green New Deal, not only are turning off moderate voters, but they set up Democrats as easy political targets for Republicans.
“We have to commit to not saying the words ‘defund the police’ ever again,” Representative Abigail Spanberger, who won an extremely tight reelection race in November, said on a post-election conference call with her fellow Democratic members. “We have to not use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again.”
“If we are classifying [Election Day] as a success and we run this way again, we will get f—— torn apart in 2022,” she added.
With progressives and moderates signalling that these fights will spill over into Biden’s term, it appears some policy gridlock could be self-inflicted for the Democrats and not just a result of the parties fighting with each other.
Trump’s – and the Republican Party’s – political futures
While the Democrats’ internal political battles may affect whether anything gets done in Washington in 2021, the Republicans’ own political battles will determine their future and who will be the key leaders of the party moving forward.
Certainly, the immediate focus will be on what Trump does when he leaves office and how involved he stays in politics. If he continues to be the centre of the party’s orbit – especially if he announces a 2024 presidential bid – that will be a key factor in determining the direction the party takes, especially considering Trump remains extremely popular among Republican voters.
Trump has not been shy about threatening Republicans who he feels have crossed him politically, going so far as calling his party’s leaders “pathetic” this week for not backing him forcefully enough on his efforts to overturn the election.
There is a long list of Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s children, numerous US Senators, governors, and other Republican officials, who will surely be looking to make names for themselves either as Trump heirs or as advocates of pursuing a path away from Trumpism.