It wasn’t President Trump’s intention, but he did his successor Joe Biden a potentially historic favor through his incitement of the violent insurrection on Jan. 6, for which the House impeached him for an unprecedented second time this week.
No right-minded individual would wish the assault on the U.S. Capitol on the United States, resulting thus far in 5 deaths and more than 100 arrests (and counting). However, it also served as a wakeup call, not only about the dangers posed by President Trump’s refusal to accept his election defeat, but also about the increasingly toxic perils of America’s political, social and racial divisions.
At the same time, the Capitol insurrection—and the political backlash that has followed it—has increased Biden’s odds at becoming one of those rarest of political creatures, a U.S. president of historic consequence. The past days’ events have greatly improved Biden’s chance at being the sort of transformative U.S. president who comes along only every generation or so.
“I think it makes my job easier,” Biden told reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, two days after the Capitol Hill riot to which he was referring. “We must unify the country.”
President-elect Biden’s actions this past week underscore that he understands his opportunity and is in a hurry to achieve it. At no point in my memory has a President-elect laid out such a detailed and ambitious plan even before his inaugural address.
His announcement of a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan on Thursday, followed a day later by unveiling a Covid-19 vaccination offensive, were both designed to produce measurable achievements during his first weeks in office to address Americans’ two pre-dominant concerns: their health and their jobs. That fact that he’ll deploy a wartime law to ramp up vaccine production underscores his authority as commander-in-chief.
What’s most telling is the extent to which the economic plan was designed to be bipartisan by discarding some of the more controversial ideas of the party’s left. Those ranged from “baby bonds,” a proposed $1,000 savings account for every child born in the United States, to “automatic stabilizers,” which could kick in more budgetary support without legislative action should benchmarks be triggered.
Given the Democratic win of both Senate seats in the Georgia run-offs this month, Biden could have chosen a more partisan path through fast-track rules known as reconciliation. That would have required just 51 votes – the 50 Democratic votes plus Vice President Kamala Harris as a potential tiebreaker in her constitutional role as president of the Senate.
The problem with that approach is it would have launched the Biden administration on a divisive trajectory contrary to his campaign pledge to be a unifier serving all Americans.
Second, the reconciliation path comes with restrictions, including caps on how often it can be used during the year, and its limits to tax and fiscal but not policy matters.
Finally, Biden knows that history’s lesson is that overreach in the next two years with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress could result in blowback in 2022 mid-term elections.
With all that in mind, Biden is wagering that he can land at least 10 Republican Senate votes for the 60 he will need for his $1.9 trillion legislation.
He at the same time would be setting the table for further legislation, likely to be put forward in February, that will tackle his campaign goals of renewing American infrastructure, creating jobs, combatting climate change and advancing racial healing and equity.
So how has President Trump been helpful to President-elect Biden’s ambitions, particularly with his actions of the past days?
First, though Republican legislators haven’t abandoned Trump in the numbers some had hoped, 10 Republican members of the House joined the most bipartisan vote to impeach in U.S. history. A growing number of Republican leaders are willing to distance themselves from Trump, who now will have a more difficult time avoiding prosecution and sustaining his party leadership role.
Second, the shock of Jan. 6 has left stunned and frightened Americans — with growing threats of extremist violence this week —more eager to see effective, bipartisan governance in Washington. The inevitable economic growth of a vaccinated, stimulus-injected America in 2020 is also likely to shore up the Biden administration.
Beyond that, America’s allies were already suffering what one European diplomat calls “TTD — Trump Trauma Disorder.” They are even more keen now, having seen the dangers to American democracy in such stark relief, to embrace President-elect Biden. They understand the world faces an inflection point where it will either be global democracies or Chinese-led autocracies that set future standards.
The internet is awash with lists of history’s greatest and most transformative American presidents. The one attached here, taken from a Business Insider survey of 200 political scientists in 2019, is typical of the genre. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan are all in the top ten. (Trump was ranked last.)
What the greats have in common is a historic challenge, not of their own choosing, and the character to guide the nation through it.
Lincoln had the Civil War, FDR the Great Depression and World War II, Truman his post-war Marshall Plan and international institutions, and Ronald Reagan the decisive Cold War years. (I’ve always thought for that reason he should be viewed together with George H.W. Bush, who at #17 on this list is underrated).
Biden’s moment is of similar consequence, a defining moment not only domestically but also globally with China’s rise.
“President Biden is facing not only an economic crisis but also a political crisis, a cultural crisis, a public-health crisis and an epistemological one,” said historian Jon Meacham in The Wall Street Journal. “It’s immense and they’re all related.”
What Meacham is referring to with “epistemology” is that Americans no longer even agree to a common set of facts and realities, and that may be the most difficult bridge for Biden to build.
That brings us to character.
That’s what Americans will judge in his inaugural address this week, without their chosen social networks mediating. Without vilifying his predecessor, Biden will make the contrast through his words, designed to calm a nation, to be truthful about the challenges, and to lay out a unifying plan and vision.
Biden faces vast challenges, but Donald Trump through his actions of the past days inadvertently made the President-elect’s job easier.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.
For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.