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How Biden's Agenda Can Advance Without Control Of The House, Senate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When President-elect Biden takes office in January, he could be the first Democrat since 1885 to assume power without his party in full control of Congress. Democrats have sometimes lost it later, but they've usually started with Congress. Democrats will, of course, have the House this time, but would need to win runoff elections in Georgia to capture the Senate. Republican power in Congress creates obvious obstacles for Biden. It also offers opportunities. Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The last two Democratic presidents inherited a mess - Bill Clinton had a recession; Barack Obama, a financial crisis. But that's small potatoes compared to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and a deep recession.

DAVID AXELROD: It's difficult because he is entering office in a period of crisis, which should allow him to rally the American people.

LIASSON: That's David Axelrod, President Obama's top adviser. For him and other Democrats, the thrill of Biden's decisive victory is tempered by the Democrats' unexpected shellacking down ballot.

AXELROD: It's going to be more difficult. We had both houses of Congress, and it was difficult nonetheless.

LIASSON: Who knew winning could be so difficult? But even before Biden tries to get anything approved by Congress, there's a lot he can do on his own - executive orders, of course, but also just staffing the government, which to Joe Biden is not a swamp or a deep state filled with enemies, but a tool to help ordinary Americans. Elaine Kamarck, who wrote the book "Why Presidents Fail," says this is where Biden can move fast.

ELAINE KAMARCK: He will be able to marshal the federal government in a way that Trump, frankly, just didn't know how to do. So there's going to be a lot of people around with experience in government, and he will understand the importance of getting these agencies up and running, particularly the health-related agencies.

LIASSON: Biden's first job will be to deal with COVID. And that, says former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer, gives Biden an opportunity on a daily basis to demonstrate empathy and competence.

DAN PFEIFFER: The way that Joe Biden's going to have the most successful presidency and the most leverage politically is to get the virus under control in the beginning. Everything else is just noise. Joe Biden has the opportunity to be the president that the vast majority of Americans have wanted and desperately needed throughout this pandemic. And it's the thing people want him to do, Republicans and Democrats want him to do.

LIASSON: With a tiny House majority and the Senate potentially still in Republican hands, legislating for Biden will be hard, if not impossible. Forget about rolling back the big Trump tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy that Biden needs to pay for his infrastructure, climate change and education initiatives, or adding a public option to Obamacare. This is an enormously frustrating prospect for Democrats. But for Republican strategist Bruce Mehlman, a moderate in his party, it's not such a bad thing.

BRUCE MEHLMAN: A Biden presidency with a Republican Senate is going to need to be more practical than aspirational. They're going to have to throw fewer Hail-Mary, change-the-world pieces of legislation out there and take a 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach to making gains. And you're just going to have to go back to that quaint idea of legislating with the other party.

LIASSON: Mehlman says Biden is a half-a-loaf guy who knows how to negotiate and how to put together coalitions, and he has years of experience dealing across the aisle with Republicans. As Biden himself said in his victory speech...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: For all those of you who voted for President Trump, I understand the disappointment tonight. I've lost a couple of times myself. But now let's give each other a chance.

MEHLMAN: He may be the exact right man of the hour. He's not threatening. He's comfortable being moderate. And in his mind, a bipartisan compromise is a better win than a partisan slam dunk.

LIASSON: But is bipartisanship even possible anymore? If Republicans retain control of the Senate, it will depend on what Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decides is in his best political interest - gridlock or compromise. Democrats are not optimistic. They expect McConnell to act the same way he did when he declared his top goal was to make sure Barack Obama was a one-term president. And with Republicans emboldened by their gains in the House, both parties in Washington will be even more fixated than usual on the next election in 2022.

David Axelrod.

AXELROD: Every midterm is a referendum on the president in some form or fashion. Donald Trump learned that. If McConnell sees the failure of Biden as a success for the Republican Party in the midterms, then he has an incentive to be subversive rather than supportive.

LIASSON: But, says Dan Pfeiffer, even though Biden had no coattails at all, he still has ways to create some political capital.

PFEIFFER: The other part of Joe Biden's political brand is that he is someone who wants to unify the country. And I think it's very, very important for Joe Biden to ensure that his credentials as a uniter is not defined solely by his ability to get Mitch McConnell to do the things he wants to do. It is going to be about being the president for everyone, going to red states. It's going to be meeting with people he may disagree with.

LIASSON: And that's one thing Joe Biden did get a mandate to do - lower the temperature in American politics.

Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.