After four exhausting and often exasperating years of Donald Trump’s presidency, Canadians naturally hope to see the Canada–U.S. relationship improve under President Joseph Biden. Yet it is important to temper expectations. U.S. politics remains polarized. Institutions are under stress. And the problems facing the new president are immense.
Biden’s inauguration reflected the crisis of American democracy: following an election in which more Americans voted than ever before, spectators were outnumbered by police and National Guard troops. The new president announced a series of executive orders to reverse executive orders issued by Donald Trump, whose executive orders in many cases canceled executive orders issued by President Barack Obama. Governing by executive order is a form of rule by decree and is not a sign of a healthy democracy.
Legislation would be a better option for the Biden administration, but the 2020 election reduced the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives from 232 seats to just 222 and replaced a Republican majority in the Senate with a 50–50 tie. Only the fact that Vice President Kamala Harris is now the presiding officer in the Senate gives the Democrats nominal control of the upper house of Congress. Yet to voters outside the Washington Beltway, Democratic control of Congress means that Democrats will bear responsibility for what Congress does or does not do. The 2022 midterm elections could see Republicans benefit from the perception that a gridlocked Congress did not do enough.
In the 117th Congress, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi remains in charge, but her decision to advance a second impeachment of President Trump shows the weakness of her position. Democrats are dived between centrists, progressives and various other groups. The one thing they agree on is their intense dislike of Trump. The second impeachment brought House Democrats together in a show of unity and even managed to draw 10 Republican votes, but the move will make working with Republicans harder.
Without Republican support, Pelosi will need almost every Democratic member of the House to pass legislation, and this leads to a second challenge. Individual Democratic House members can use their much-needed votes as leverage to get other things, from money for pet projects to personal perks like choice committee assignments. Such bargaining makes it harder to control the House and will lead to fewer bills making it through the House. Those that do will be packed with unrelated items added to secure the votes to pass.
Senate rules give the party with a minority greater ability to slow or block legislation and other votes, although this has eroded since Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid limited the use of the filibuster in 2013. Still, Senate confirmation votes are required for more than 1,200 officials to join the Biden administration, ranging from members of the cabinet to deputy assistant secretaries and ambassadors. Delays in hearings and votes can make it harder for the new administration to implement its policies. In as little as 18 months, the 2022 elections will become the focus of partisan maneuvers, with Republican candidates charging that the Biden administration and the Democrats in Congress did not do enough with their control in Washington. This dynamic is one reason why midterm elections often boost the party in opposition.
The United States constitutional design deliberately made the country difficult to govern without compromise and cooperation between political factions, different regions and diverse interests. What we are seeing now is an extreme result of this design, made more complicated by partisan polarization. Democrats and Republicans have worked together before, raising the question of why it is so difficult for them to find common ground now.
U.S. parties are “big tent” coalitions encompassing a variety of different interests, factions and groups. These party coalitions shift from time to time and are shifting now. The Democratic Party was the party that attracted labour union support and criticized Big Business; today it is the party with the most support from Wall Street and Silicon Valley tech firms, and many union voters responded to Trump’s populist appeal in 2016 and 2020. The Republican Party supported low taxes and free trade, but under Trump became more protectionist.
Parties that are in the process of shifting their bases become unsure of themselves, campaigning on broad themes to avoid specifics that might drive away supporters currently in their “tent.”
Demographics are driving the change in the political parties. Up until 2016, the Baby Boom generation was the largest cohort in the American electorate. The identities of the two parties were stable because they reflected how Baby Boomers saw the parties and affiliated with them. In 2016, Millennials displaced Boomers as the largest block of voters, and they are in the process of sorting out their own views on policy and affiliating with parties — and transforming them from within. It is easy to miss this by looking at the elderly leaders of both parties.
What does all this turbulence mean for Canadians? Washington is becoming more dangerous and challenging for outsiders to navigate, because it is not always clear which individuals or issues are ascendant and which ones are falling apart. Canadians are affected by this more than other foreigners thanks to economic integration. In some world capitals, the State Department and White House are all that matter. For Canada, every federal department of the U.S. government matters, and congressional actions and inaction can have a direct impact on Canadian interests.
President Biden’s decision to revoke the presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline is a sign of things to come. So too is Pelosi’s second impeachment gamble. The United States is in transition, and its leaders are preoccupied with political dynamics at home.
This increases the chances that Canada will be drawn into U.S. domestic battles. Today, the symbolic value of canceling the Keystone XL pipeline is greater than the risk of a feud with Canada. Tomorrow, helping Canada cope with COVID-19 vaccine supplies could be attacked as putting America second. When Canada is viewed in Washington as aligned with Democrats or Republicans on an issue, Canada has entered the political battlespace and become a legitimate target for the other side.
A weak presidency and gridlocked Congress at a time of geopolitical tension, global pandemic, and economic hardship is in nobody’s interest, least of all Canadians’. If Canada gets pulled into U.S. domestic political fights during the Biden administration, the consequences will outlast Biden and Trudeau and will not be good for either country.