January 20, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 80—Joe Biden’s presidency

Today, Americans will watch the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. But if the months since the November elections have shown us anything, it’s that the U.S. is more deeply divided than we’ve experienced in a very long time. Lee Hamilton, a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, says this divisiveness has been building at least since the 1990s, starting in Congress and ultimately reflected in a polarized electorate. We now have a Congress and electorate divided along multiple fault lines; Hamilton says. There are, of course, the partisan differences on the complex challenges that confront this country — climate change, economic growth, the pandemic, policing and racial justice, our policies toward China and Russia. Political groups with divided opinions on these and other issues are more sophisticated, more active, more insistent, and more aggressive in trying to shape public dialogue than ever before, Hamilton says. Each side tends to be suspicious of the other, viewing their adversaries not just as wrong, but as attacking the national security interests of the country. And now in the mix, Hamilton says, are divisions stoked by President Trump. The president and his followers traffic in conspiracy theories lacking evidence and reject the norms, principles, and institutions we’ve relied on for centuries to build this nation. The stark, take-no-prisoners divisions in our country make the life of our elected leaders — the people we choose to move our country forward — overwhelmingly challenging. Hamilton says every indication is that President-elect Biden identifies himself as a moderate and plans to govern from the center or a bit to its left. Biden believes that he can advance his goals through bipartisanship and cooperation. To be sure, Hamilton says there are plenty of forces working against bipartisanship. Many Democrats will be eager to reverse the policies of the last four years. Many Republicans will see political advantage in either peddling the fake narrative that Biden’s win was illegitimate or reprising the rejectionist stance taken by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell when Barack Obama became president. But, Hamilton says, with Congress’ divisions mirroring the country’s, maybe there’s also room for hope. If a core of legislators of both parties are willing to work with the Biden administration, find common ground, and pass legislation that makes the country better, then perhaps Washington can actually set an example that helps a reeling nation heal.

In other news, Biden has spent the last month choosing members of his cabinet, including IU’s Janet McCabe, who has been nominated to serve as deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. McCabe, director of the Environmental Resilience Institute at IU and a professor at the university's law school in Indianapolis, previously served as the acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA for much of the Obama administration. She was named director of the Environmental Resilience Institute in August 2019.