After the dust has cleared [from the midterm elections this year], Congress will be narrowly divided, and President Joe Biden will have to work hard to govern effectively. Whether he can do so will depend on plenty of different factors, but none will be more important than his relationship with members of both parties in Congress.
To the extent that Americans think about how national policy is developed, they tend to focus on the president and his positions. Congress often has its own agenda, of course, but there’s no question the president is usually the chief actor, laying out an agenda, proposing a budget, driving media coverage. Still, the president is not all-powerful: To achieve his goals most effectively, he has to work with Congress, which will often debate, change, and sometimes reject them.
In recent decades, as Congress has grown more divided and partisan, frustrated presidents have sought an end-run, exploring the use of executive orders and other unilateral approaches to setting policy. And as former presidents of both parties have discovered, once the White House changes hands, one of the new occupant’s first priorities has been to reverse his predecessor’s actions. If you’re interested in sustainable policies that will last longer than an electoral eyeblink, the road runs through Congress.
Taking it won’t be easy. If both chambers turn Republican, there’s a decent chance the new majority will spend the next two years doing everything it can to undermine Biden’s presidency. If the chambers split, with Republicans running the House and Democrats the Senate, substantive legislating may take a back seat to maneuvering for the 2024 elections.
Yet even if gridlock and partisan tension might be on the docket, they don’t have to be. Biden did depend entirely on his party for the climate change and other policies embedded in the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed along strict party lines. But it was an exception in a surprisingly productive Congress. Most of the major steps Congress has taken recently, whether on guns or health care for veterans or strengthening U.S. technological capacity, have been hammered out and passed by coalitions of Democrats and Republicans. Common ground, in other words, is possible.
The challenge will be to get there. And on that front, much of the weight will be on the Biden administration’s shoulders.
For one thing, the president will have to take the lead and do what needs to be done to encourage or entice political leaders in Congress to work in a bipartisan way. He’ll need a strategy for this, since it’s likely to put him at odds with some members of his own party — party loyalists and policy activists don’t like seeing their leaders reach across the aisle to get work done — and put Republican leaders at odds with members of their own party.
One key to achieving this is to have a structure in place that makes it easier: clear lines of communication between the White House staff and congressional leaders, staff on both sides who know one another and have experience working with one another, and a president who doesn’t just make himself accessible to key members of Congress, but knows how to listen and adjust to meet congressional demands. On all these fronts, the past two years could serve as prologue.
Regardless of party, as Americans we should all hope that the Biden administration and congressional leaders can pull it off. Over the course of a long career watching national policy get made, I’ve been impressed by a simple fact: the more bipartisan it is, the better its chances of lasting. On the whole, Americans want commonsense approaches to resolving our problems. Even on tough issues like immigration and police reform, there’s common ground. The challenge our leaders face is to agree to inhabit it.
Lee Hamilton, 91, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.