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Image: The sun rises on the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 19, 2019.
The sun rises on the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 19, 2019.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

If Republicans hold the Senate, Biden faces a historic challenge

The last time a Democratic president took office alongside a Republican-led Senate? Grover Cleveland in 1885.


Since Watergate, seven presidents have been elected. Six of them took office at a time in which their party enjoyed a Senate majority.

In fact, looking back over the last several generations, this has been far more common than not. Since the turn of the 20th century, only three presidents -- Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush -- took office with their party in the Senate minority. And since Ford never actually won a national election, we're really only talking about two elected presidents over the last 120 years, who didn't have the luxury of political allies running the Senate when they entered the White House.

The last time a Democratic president took office alongside a Republican-led Senate? Grover Cleveland in 1885.

Of course, when Joe Biden takes the oath of office in 57 days, there's a very real possibility that the streak will end and he'll have no choice but to spend the first two years of his presidency trying to deal with a Senate led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). We won't know for sure which party will control the chamber until Georgia holds its two Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5.

But in the meantime, as NBC News reported, the president-elect is getting some advice: focus less on legislation and more on executive actions.

Democratic senators are calling on President-elect Joe Biden to use executive power to advance goals such as tackling climate change, relieving student debt and creating a more progressive immigration system. The calls from senators reflect a recognition that Democratic lawmakers may not be able to pass a transformative legislative agenda after underperforming in congressional races.

This is very sound advice. First, as Donald Trump has helped demonstrate, there's quite a bit a president can do through executive actions, and Biden should prepare to follow a similar course. Vox's Dylan Matthews recently put together a list of "enormously consequential things Biden can do without the Senate," and the list wasn't exactly short.

And second, the likelihood that McConnell, if he's the majority leader, will be willing to work with the Democratic White House in a constructive way is poor. We need only look at McConnell's actions during Barack Obama's presidency to get a sense of how the Kentucky Republican approaches his governing responsibilities.

As I noted in my book (see the first chapter), after Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Republicans were under some pressure to be responsible and constructive, with many pleading with GOP officials to resist the urge to slap away the Democratic president's outstretched hand. McConnell executed a different kind of plan, refusing to even consider bipartisan governing, even when Obama agreed with his opponents.

"Public opinion can change, but it is affected by what elected officials do," the Kentuckian told National Journal in March 2010. "Our reaction to what [Democrats] were doing had a lot to do with how the public felt about it. Republican unity in the House and Senate has been the major contributing factor to shifting American public opinion."

In other words, McConnell felt like he'd cracked a code: Republicans would make popular measures less popular by killing them. McConnell's plan was predicated on the idea that if he could just turn every debate into a partisan food fight, voters would be repulsed; Obama's outreach to Republicans would be perceived as a failure; progressive ideas would fail; and GOP candidates would be rewarded for their obstinance.

McConnell added soon after, in reference to his party's approach to policymaking, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.... Our single biggest political goal is to give our nominee for president [in 2012] the maximum opportunity to be successful."

As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, one need not pick up a crystal ball to know what Mitch McConnell will do in the Biden era. The GOP leader's goal will be to ensure Biden's failure.

When Democratic senators urge Biden to prioritize executive actions, they know of what they speak.

Postscript: This gets a little complicated, but on the first day of the new Congress, McConnell will be the Senate's majority leader, no matter what happens in Georgia, because the new Senate will begin its work on Jan. 3. Georgia's Senate runoffs will be on Jan. 5. If Democrats win both contests -- a daunting challenge, to be sure -- the chamber's leadership would have to be reorganized soon after.