The Biden Administration Represents Democrats’ Best Chance in Years to Push Their Agenda

Vinod Bakthavachalam
Vinod B
Published in
6 min readFeb 5, 2021


The Long Night from Game of Thrones was one of the most memorable episodes of television ever. In the face of an impossible onslaught of White Walkers, there was a moment in the beginning of the battle that alluded to hope in the face of incredible odds. The people of Westeros from disparate human kingdoms to northern tribes had united to confront the evil that plagued their world, and when Melissandre lit their swords with fire, victory seemed possible.

The reason that image is so memorable today is because Democrats are in a similar position. It is no secret that the deck is stacked against them due to structural barriers in American Democracy: the Electoral College, gerrymandering, Senate election process, Supreme Court, and campaign finance rules all distort incentives and reduce political competition, making it harder in many instances for Democrats to amass power.

Yet despite these odds, Democrats have obtained a united government under the Biden administration with control of the Presidency and both legislative houses of congress that position the next four years as their best chance to enact real, lasting change.

The reason, and this is no surprise, is that Democrats are more likely to pass bills under a unified Democratic government. The chart below shows the fraction of bills initiated by legislators in each party that pass under a non unified government (Other Govt), a unified Democratic government, and a unified Republican government. In blue are bills proposed by Democratic legislators and in red are those proposed by Republican legislators. The sample covers congressional terms from 1947 to the present day. A Democratic unified government increases their ability to pass bills from 4.5% to 6%, which might not sound like a large change, but when pared with a core bill related to the Democratic agenda, that increase is huge.

Therefore, Democrats finally have the opportunity to deal with the innumerable problems facing America (and the world) that range from climate change to immigration to healthcare to criminal justice. Already we have seen a flurry of executive orders from President Biden to remove Trump’s policies around immigration and climate regulations and Biden has also sought to restore international relations by rejoining various pacts and coalitions.

The list of challenges is daunting, but Democrats have a real chance to enact substantial change. However, they will not be able to push through policies on everything. Democrats have only slim majorities in the Senate; indeed, they only hold the majority due to the tie breaking vote of Kamala Harris, the Vice President. This means that they will be hampered by the filibuster in the Senate, which can be used to block any legislation they propose which Republicans do not like and is unrelated to the budget (or any bills Democrats cannot use the byzantine rules of the Senate for to avoid the filibuster).

Any Democratic agenda therefore faces the potential of obstinance from recalcitrant Republicans that have no incentive to agree to anything. We saw as much during the Obama years when they became the party of no. While there is no hope that this could change, all the evidence suggests that Republicans and their base have no appetite for substantive policy that is tethered to reality. We have already seen familiar debates come out during Covid stimulus talks whereby Republicans decry the debt while simultaneously allowing for budget busting, regressive tax cuts that are a giveaway to their donors.

Because of this and the fact that political capital is limited, Democrats face a real constraint on the things they will be able to accomplish.

As the data below shows, the probability of passing a bill decreases pretty dramatically during a President’s term. It starts out just under 5% and then falls to around 3% after 1 year. The spike towards the end is not real because it is limited by smaller sample sizes and also a change in the type of bills passed. Most of the time, Presidents become lame ducks at the end of their terms if they lose reelection and don’t pass substantial legislation.

This means that the Biden administration really has around a year or so to push substantive legislation. What then should they prioritize?

First and foremost, Covid relief needs to happen. Everything must take a back seat to helping those struggling and to bolster a nationwide vaccine rollout to allow a return to economic normalcy. National crises call for immediate relief.

But next? The smart thing would be for Democrats to push for structural reform. The reason is while risky, all the problems that America faces will require long term solutions and cannot be fixed with a quick bandaid bill today. Therefore, while they have power, the push should be for Democrats to enact structural reforms that will lead to better functioning democracy and a higher chance for them to succeed in future elections. The Biden administration needs to pave the way for reigniting Democracy in America.

If Democrats don’t they will have wasted their best chance, and the future does not look great for their agenda as is. The Electoral College is not going away anytime soon and creates an inherent disadvantage whereby a 2%-3% popular vote win by Democrats only leads to a coin flip in the Electoral College, essentially meaning that Democrats have to over perform by even more to amass the necessary 270 electoral votes.

And the same goes for house elections where gerrymandering prevents many local contests from being competitive. The fact that Democrats in the 2020 cycle lost many local elections for governorships and state legislatures, means Republicans will be able to draw congressional districts in many states. Expect them to gerrymander districts in their favor to lock up those house elections.

We also know about the inherent bias against Democrats in the senate because of equal senators per state and lack of control of the Supreme Court, due to the Merrick Garland fiasco and Trump appointing two judges during his tenure.

Add in the fact that parties in power during unified governments typically lose both house seats and senate seats in the following election, as the graph below shows, and this initial window for the Biden administration truly seems like a once in a generation moment for real change.

Typically, since 1947, the Democrats have lost 15 house seats and 3 senate seats in elections after terms where they had control of a unified government. Given that Democrats control the House 222 to 211 and the Senate purely because of Kamala Harris’ tie breaking vote, they would be expected to lose control of both legislatures in the midterms.

So what specifically should Democrats do then? Like the people of Westeros who laid out a Hail Mary plan, Democrats need to do the same. They should get rid of the filibuster. By doing so, they can begin to unite the party around passing additional structural reforms like statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, reducing the influence of gerrymandering, campaign finance reform, and a host of other potentially crazy sounding ideas.

The downside is that Republicans cry foul and benefit from the lack of a filibuster in the next cycle. But the truth is that the Republican party today appears so detached from reality and any sensible policy that whatever they decry is meaningless. These structural reforms will serve to make elections more competitive and representative of people’s preferences in the long run. Both those factors currently favor Democrats since their party is more popular among a vast majority of individual voters. And more competitive elections will also have a moderating effect on Republicans who will have to adapt in order to win, making tackling current issues easier.

The time is nigh for Democrats to push for structural reform and use their unified government to set them up for maximal success in future elections. It is hard to know when another opportune moment will present itself in the current environment, so the party needs to maximize their advantage today.



Vinod Bakthavachalam
Vinod B

I am interested in politics, economics, & policy. I work as a data scientist and am passionate about using technology to solve structural economic problems.