Obama-Era Lessons for Biden: Move Fast, Be Clear, Keep It Simple
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, left, greets former U.S. President Barack Obama, right, with a fist bump in Washington. (Photographer: Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg)

Obama-Era Lessons for Biden: Move Fast, Be Clear, Keep It Simple

President Joe Biden can learn a lot from the successes, and stumbles, of his former boss, President Barack Obama, as the new administration launches an ambitious policy agenda, Democratic strategists say. The biggest lessons: Move fast, keep it simple and don’t chase bipartisanship too hard.

Biden was at Obama’s side as the president spent much of his tenure at loggerheads with Congress. They were able to push through health care reform and a large stimulus bill but were blocked on many other initiatives.

Obama-Era Lessons for Biden: Move Fast, Be Clear, Keep It Simple

Biden faces multiple challenges in his early months, including a push for a coronavirus relief package which, at $1.9 trillion, was met with sticker shock. He has also promised to enact legislation to deal with climate change, racial injustice and immigration. Many of those efforts will likely face opposition, particularly those involving attempts to restore Obama policies and undo the work of former President Donald Trump.

The president will have to draw on his long experience in Washington but adjust to new realities. Here is how strategists say he should move forward:

1. Move fast

Obama came into office in 2009 with a Senate majority that was just shy of filibuster-proof, meaning his agenda should have sailed through. But a contentious legal conflict kept the 60th Democratic senator from being seated right away. Then Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts died that August and was replaced by a Republican. In the end, Obama’s window for action was short.

Democrats say Biden, who has a narrow House majority and a tied Senate, should move quickly on his legislative priorities, because his small advantage may not last.

“As a general rule, the later it goes in the first two years, the harder it is to get things done,” said Phil Schiliro, who was Obama’s liaison to Congress. “That puts a premium on moving fast and not making assumptions we’ll still be able to get something two months from now.”

2. Keep it simple

The Obama administration pursued several sweeping issues: health care, immigration reform and climate change. Only Obamacare got past Congress. Some advocates say Biden should fight for smaller, more popular and specific goals, like creating a path to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, rather than take on dramatic reforms that may get bogged down.

“We were hoping to negotiate with Republicans back then, and they kept saying they would come forward, but they never really were able to produce a plan,” said Kerri Talbot, deputy director of the Immigration Hub, an advocacy group.

3. Don’t court the GOP too hard

One reason the battle over the Affordable Care Act dragged on is that the administration was working hard to win over a handful of Republican senators. Biden is a product of the Senate, having served there for more than 35 years, and he prides himself of making deals across the aisle. But the Republicans the Obama people courted ultimately didn’t vote for the bill.

Both moderate and liberal Democrats think that while Biden should try to get GOP support for his proposals, he shouldn’t wait too long or give up too much in order to get it.

“One of the lessons of the Obama era is not to let Republicans slow-walk or water down super popular bills just to get their votes,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy group.

4. Be clear about the benefits

One key part of the 2009 stimulus bill was a temporary tax break that most voters didn’t even realize they were getting. The Obama administration thought the quiet nudge would make the money more likely to be spent, which would help stimulate the economy. But it was so quiet, Obama didn’t get any credit for it. Some Democrats say Biden should forgo that kind of thinking in favor of bold action that voters will remember in two years, like the $1,400 direct checks under consideration in the current stimulus.

“The check matters,” said Kelly Dietrich, founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which trains candidates and staffers. “Having money in your bank account is a much more visceral experience than having some money knocked off your taxes or getting a tax credit.”

5. Focus on the economy

The Obama administration kept its stimulus bill below $1 trillion out of concern that the number was too high, but liberal economists now generally agree that it was too small and left the recovery stalled. Many Democrats say Biden should ignore concerns about the price tag on his $1.9 trillion relief plan and keep the focus on getting the economy moving again, since that’s what voters will ultimately judge.

“We’ve all seen this movie before,” said Chris Lu, who served as deputy secretary of labor in the Obama administration. “The Great Recession taught us that if you cut off economic relief too soon, the recovery is slower and American workers suffer longer.”

6. Be ready to change the rules

After opposition from Senate Republicans to Obama’s judicial nominees, Democrats ended the supermajority requirement for approval of lower court judges. Republicans later ended it for Supreme Court nominees. Although moderates like Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona oppose getting rid of the filibuster on legislation, some moderate Democrats outside Congress think they may have to, especially to pass voting rights and election reform bills.

“I don’t think we win these issues purely by changing the rules,” said former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, an ally of Obama’s. “I think the rules should be fair, but majority rule should matter.”

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