Josh Kurtz: After January 20, 2021

Former vice president and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala D. Harris, at an appearnace in Wilmington, Del., in August. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Progressive groups and their Democratic allies are necessarily focused on the week between now and Election Day. And they’re understandably worried about what happens between Nov. 3 and whenever critical national races are called ― especially the presidential election.

There will be understandable jubilation in many corners if President Trump is actually voted out of office.

But some Democrats and progressives seem to forget that the real work will actually begin on Jan. 20, 2021, the day Joe Biden would be sworn in as president if he wins. And in some respect, that’s when the real peril begins, too.

Anyone who has lived through the past dozen years in America must surely know that Biden’s political honeymoon would last about a minute and a half. And the tasks before him and his administration would be so much greater than even the challenges President Obama faced when he took office in 2009, as the Great Recession was hitting full force.

On the policy front, confronting COVID-19 and the economic catastrophe it has spawned, will be job number one. But even if Biden has solid Democratic majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate, how do you begin to repair all the damage that the past few years have wrought? How do you govern a populous that is so riven with division?

And how do you return the political discourse to “normal” when the Trump era has badly damaged the credibility of so many institutions ― from the intelligence community to the military, from the electoral system to the post office, from diplomacy to the FBI, from the courts and the confirmation process to the civil service and the media?

Just because Trump may be out of the Oval Office doesn’t mean that he’ll be truly gone if he loses. He’ll still have his Twitter platform. No doubt, he’ll still be phoning regularly into “Hannity” and “Fox and Friends.” Heck, he may even have his own TV network or show before too long.

And even if Trump himself is somehow sidelined and silenced, Trumpism will not be dead. It will just have a different, less orange face. It may be tall and handsome and measured, with an Ivy League pedigree and military background, perhaps, and without the grifter tendencies and fondness for porn stars. Despite Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s most fervent hope, the Republican Party may not be returning to any semblance of sanity and normalcy soon, whatever that means.

The forerunner of Trumpism, the tea party, still has its grips on the Republican caucuses on Capitol Hill and in statehouses. Add in Trump, the creeping legitimacy of QAnon in GOP circles, militias, and god knows what other insanity is hidden out there, and there is much to fear.

Even if Trump is out of office, Fox News will still be with us. Even if he’s relegated to the role of minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell ― surely the most consequential politician of the past generation, and that includes the first Black president of the United States and the first female speaker of the House ― will still be in power. The Supreme Court that McConnell and Trump built now has a 6-3 conservative majority, with 200 young right-wingers installed in lower federal courts from coast to coast.

In statehouses across the country, including Maryland’s, bitter political battles over congressional and legislative redistricting will soon commence ― and they don’t get more raw and self-interested than that. Biden and other Democratic leaders must surely be aware that the last two Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, suffered catastrophic congressional and downballot losses during their first midterm elections. Which means Biden and his allies in Congress will have to move deftly and with dispatch to get any kind of agenda passed in his first months in office.

The 2022 election cycle will kick off any day now. How soon before the airwaves are saturated with dark ads attacking Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and socialism, which have proven so effective ― or at least ubiquitous ― in off-year elections? How soon before some of the geniuses at the Lincoln Project, who have been so brutally effective in their take-downs of Trump, return to the Republican fold and work to defeat Democratic senators and members of the House?

Moving swiftly and boldly is frankly not in Biden’s DNA. His inclination, baked in by four decades in Washington, D.C., is to reach out to Republicans and build consensus. But the kind of Republicans he’s used to reaching out to barely exist and they will be even more endangered, through retirements and defeats, after this election.

Biden has reportedly told advisers and friends that he knows he’s going to have to be as innovative and nimble as possible, that nothing less than a New Deal-type legislative approach is necessary to the challenges facing the nation. But what does that look like for a septuagenarian creature of Washington and how does that translate in this toxic and hyper-partisan political environment?

How much rope does the Democratic left give Biden during his first days in office ― and how much should it give him? How caught up will everyone get in the symbolic and real wins and losses in Biden’s cabinet picks?

What happens if Biden taps, say, a Lawrence Summers type as Treasury secretary rather than an Elizabeth Warren type? What if his push for a public health care option or serious climate action is too sluggish and saccharine? How fast does Bernie Sanders start squawking? When does Biden, fairly or not, become the face of institutional American racism?

On any given day, Biden is going to get hit hard by the left, the right and the center. Can he withstand these blows? Right now, it looks like all the vitriol that Obama endured ― and granted, it was fueled by the fact that he is Black ― will be Pablum compared to what Biden is going to face.

The policy challenges will be just as daunting ― because Obama didn’t have a public health disaster accompanying the nation on the precipice of financial ruin to deal with when he took office.

So by all means, progressives and Democrats, celebrate if Joe Biden is actually sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021 ― a circumstance, no matter what the polls say, that no one can be sure of. Celebrate for one minute ― and then get ready to fight.

[email protected]

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.