December 3, 2022

By Idrees Kahloon: Washington bureau chief, The Economist, Washington, DC
MUCH OF THE first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency has been consumed with trying to manufacture consensus among the squabbling legislators from his own party. In the next two years, that task will morph into something impossibly harder. In the midterm elections held on November 8th, Republicans won back control of the House of Representatives (albeit barely). That will ensure divided government beginning in January 2023 and continuing until after the presidential election of 2024. It is hard to imagine anything very productive coming out of it.
It used to be that having the Speaker of the House and the president from opposing parties was not necessarily the death knell for worthy legislation. But lately the role of Speaker has morphed from being an occasionally conciliatory legislator—as Tip O’Neill was with Ronald Reagan—to more of a chief tormentor.
There is little reason to hope that Kevin McCarthy, the presumptive Republican successor to Nancy Pelosi, would exceed expectations. There is vanishingly little that Democrats and Republicans agree on beyond a shared scepticism towards Big Tech and China. Republicans appear to be held together not so much by policy preferences as by a disdain for Democrats and their allies in the business and cultural elites.
The important but little-noticed work of Congress, like the cobbling together of appropriation packages for defence spending, may proceed. But everything else will slow to a crawl under divided government. Whatever Mr Biden has not got done by the end of 2022 is unlikely to be achieved.
Whatever Mr Biden has not done by the end of 2022 is unlikely to be achieved
That will leave Democrats even more frustrated. Progressives had hoped that Mr Biden could benefit from Democratic control of Congress to bring in a new age of big social-welfare and climate-mitigation spending. He has had some success, though not as much as they might have wanted.
Mr Biden will probably pivot to issuing sweeping new regulations on pollution and big business as a substitute for legislation. But that is unlikely to mollify those in the party who expected, in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s words, “big structural change”. Those internal tensions, relentless investigations from Republicans in Congress and plain old age may push many in the party to consider the president unviable for the 2024 election.
If so, that would kick off a succession contest. The deep cracks that emerged between the Democrats’ moderate and progressive factions in the 2020 primary election would appear once more. And jostling between contenders—Kamala Harris, the vice-president, is an unappealing heir-apparent—would come to dominate Democratic circles in 2023.
Idrees Kahloon: Washington bureau chief, The Economist, Washington, DC
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition of The World Ahead 2023 under the headline “Knife edge”
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