Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
One of the big moments on Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention was former President Obama making the argument that democracy itself is at stake this November.
This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that's what it takes for them to win. So we have to get busy building it up. By pouring all our efforts into these 76 days and by voting like never before, there was also something noteworthy about when Obama wanted to say that to the American people.
Initially, convention organizers wanted him to close out the speeches that night with vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris going before. But according to multiple reports, Obama asked to switch it up. He thought he should go before Harris to show that he was passing the torch.
And I'm so inspired by a new generation. You you are pushing us to realize the ideals of our nation, pushing us to live the values we share. Consider this.
What does passing the torch actually look like? What do we know about how a Biden Harris administration would approach things differently from NPR? I'm Audie Cornish, in for Kelly McEvers. It's Thursday, August 20th. I was actually there for Vice President Joe Biden's speech at the last Democratic National Convention. I love you. The crowd was loud, like raucous, and you could just see thousands of people waving these little signs in the air that just said. Joe, ladies and gentlemen, thank you.
Thank you. Thank you. A key difference now, of course, is the crowd. There won't be one when Biden speaks tonight from his home in Delaware.
Another difference, Biden back then was still in mourning. His adult son, Beau, had died the year before of brain cancer. And Biden focused his message on empathy for people who, like his family, were suffering.
We think about the countless thousands of other people. Who suffered so much more than we have with so much less support. So much less reason to go on. But they get up every morning, every day, they put one foot in front of the other. They keep going. That's the unbreakable spirit of the people of America. That's who we are. It's not unreasonable to say that Biden will still beat the same drum of positivity, but this time the context is very different.
The extent of suffering is vast.
170000 Americans lost in a viral pandemic, tens of millions out of work. So if Joe Biden wins the presidency, what will the country look like when he takes office? We'd have exploding deficits and unemployment again, the coronavirus crisis, health care system that's gotten weaker over the last four years, climate change and weakened international relationships.
That's Phil Schiliro. He ran congressional affairs for the Obama administration and he spoke to NPR congressional correspondent Sue Davis, who's here. And Sue, I've covered Congress just like you in the last couple of years, are not about bipartisanship. So what do we know about what a Biden administration really could accomplish? Right. Like what would governing look like?
Well, we know that Joe Biden has a lot of experience and a lot of relationships. He spent 35 years in the United States Senate. He spent eight years as vice president. He knows how to do this. And that's why Phil Schiliro expects Biden will try to extend a hand to Republicans to come up with bipartisan solutions. But as he told me, that didn't work so well last time.
It didn't seem to make any difference with congressional Republicans because they wanted President Obama to own the problems.
And on fixing the problems, most Democrats are skeptical that a Biden administration would turn out any differently. Here's Democratic strategist and former senior Senate aide Mike Spann.
They're going to need to get Republicans to actually go along early and quickly to disprove the assumption from many on the left that it is impossible for Republicans to swing back to the old days of bipartisanship.
Part of Biden's pitch is that he knows how to work across the aisle, as he often did during his 35 year Senate career. But Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin says that's not how it works anymore.
We have stopped deliberating. We stopped legislating. Should Democrats win the Senate this November, there will be immense pressure to end the legislative filibuster, which lets any senator block any bill for any reason if it can't get a 60 vote majority.
We have not had this debate. I'm not anticipating what the outcome will be, but we need a serious discussion about the future of the Senate.
Biden long opposed ending the filibuster, but he indicated in July that he could support it if Republicans don't want to work with him.
Centrist Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar of Texas thinks Biden can succeed where the less social Obama did not.
I'll say this very gently. I think a President Biden will be able to use the the White House, maybe Camp David, invite members over to, you know, hey, let's sit down. Let's talk.
Republicans are just part of the challenges a President Biden could face while Democrats are united on what the big issues are. There are major ideological rifts on how to fix them between moderates and liberals like Congresswoman Primula Jiah Paul of Washington.
She co-chairs the Progressive Caucus, the rising force in the House.
I think Joe Biden is going to be forced because of the necessity of desperation across the country to be bold in a way that perhaps he wouldn't have before covid. And then I think that the movement will push him and embrace him as he does that.
Our counters that the House majority was built by winning swing seats that elected centrists and ignoring that reality would be a mistake.
As long as we don't let any fringes take over, I think we can work out compromises.
The burden to find that compromise within the party will fall to Biden, who will lean on his many long standing relationships in Washington, Schiliro says. At the top of that list in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who marshaled through legislative victories for the Obama administration like the Affordable Care Act, which both Biden and Pelosi have sworn to protect.
I would never have thought she could have gotten even stronger from where she was in 2009 and 10. But she is.
Schiliro believes Biden will want her to stay. So does KUAR. Thus, I need Pelosi. Heck yes. Heck yes. Heck yes. Pelosi has not yet said whether she plans to stay on as speaker if Biden wins.
So, Sue Davis, let's come back to this point about the person who can help out a Joe Biden. What does House Speaker Nancy Pelosi want to do?
Well, you have to think about the Biden and Pelosi relationship. I mean, it goes back a long time and there's been so much turnover in Congress that a lot of Biden's old allies just simply aren't in Congress anymore.
And the Democrats I talk to, you say that she basically is his strongest ally in Capitol Hill. And the pressure for her to stick around should Biden win will be great. Phil Schiliro, Schiliro told me that he expected Biden would be likely to ask Pelosi to stay on. And a lot of Democratic lawmakers say, yes, she will absolutely need to be there if Biden wants to have any level of a success. Passing a legislative agenda. That's NPR's Sue Davis, who thanks for explaining it.
You're welcome. So that's all on the legislative side. Here's another question whether a Biden administration, Justice Department, would investigate, possibly prosecute a former President Trump. Just today, Trump's former campaign manager, Steve Bannon, was arrested on 150 something foot yacht off the coast of Connecticut. Federal prosecutors say he was involved in a fundraising scheme with a group called We Build the Wall. The president's former attorney, Michael Cohen, and one of his other former campaign managers, Paul Manafort, have already been convicted of or pled guilty to fraud, tax evasion and campaign finance violations.
And a handful of other advisers have faced charges of conspiracy, of lying to Congress or to federal investigators if he leaves office. Is Donald Trump next? Would that be a priority or a Biden Harris administration? Here's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.
Joe Biden approaches the idea of prosecuting President Trump very carefully. Here's Biden with NPR Weekend Edition host Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
Could you envision him, a former president being prosecuted if the evidence shows wrongdoing?
Look, the Justice Department is not the president's private law firm. The attorney general is not the president's private lawyer.
I will not interfere with the Justice Department's judgment of whether or not they think they should pursue a prosecution. Then Biden added, I think it is a very, very unusual thing and probably not very, very, very. How can I say it? Good for democracy to be talking about prosecuting former presidents.
Biden seems to be on the way to adopting the position of former President Barack Obama. Back in 2009. The newly elected Obama said he didn't want to get hung up on prosecuting wrongdoers.
He meant the people who engaged in torture and warrantless wiretapping during the previous administration. Instead, he told ABC News his instinct was to make sure those practices never happened again.
And I don't believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.
The Obama Justice Department convicted only one person, a government contractor, for abusing a detainee who later died. But Biden could have a harder time drawing those kinds of lines today.
It's not at all clear that looking forward and not looking backward isn't available option.
Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith says most people aren't talking about how a Biden Justice Department might handle Donald Trump, but he says they should be. Congress and the Manhattan district attorney have open investigations into Trump and his company. Federal prosecutors have looked at his campaign payments in 2016 and his inaugural committee. Bringing a criminal case against a former president could widen the divide in the country.
Again, Jack Goldsmith, whether that's good for the country is a very hard question. It's going to be very messy, whether it's good for the Biden administration, whether it wants to be absorbed in being the first administration to ever prosecute a prior president. Those are very hard questions.
There could be a lot of political pressure. Some of Biden's rivals for the Democratic nomination didn't seem to think a Trump case would be a hard call. California Senator Kamala Harris pointed to evidence of obstruction of justice uncovered by special counsel Robert Mueller. Here's Harris now. Biden's vice presidential pick talking to the NPR Politics podcast last year.
I do believe that we should believe Bob Mueller when he tells us essentially that the only reason an indictment was not returned is because of a memo in the Department of Justice that suggests you cannot indict a sitting president.
Of course, when he was a candidate, Donald Trump called his opponent, Hillary Clinton, crooked and ate it up when crowds called for Clinton to be incarcerated. Remember retired General Michael Flynn on stage four years ago at the Republican National Convention?
Yeah, that's right. Lock her up.
The Trump administration brought no charges against Clinton, but it has launched investigations into former FBI Director Jim Comey, his deputy, Andrew McCabe, and the intelligence gathering process in 2016 investigations the president mentions on Twitter almost every day.
NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson additional reporting this episode from our colleagues at All Things Considered and from the staff of NPR's Washington desk, which, by the way, they've been putting out daily episodes of the NPR Politics podcast late each night recapping the Democratic convention. And they'll be doing that next week for the Republican convention as well. So you can get caught up on everything that happened first thing the next morning. For more coverage, download the NPR one app or listen to your local public radio station and remember supporting that.
Station makes this podcast possible. I'm Audie Cornish. We're back with more tomorrow, its presidential campaign season.
Donald Trump is doubling down on appealing to just his base. And Joe Biden, he's trying to build a big, broad coalition of anyone who might give him a vote. I talked with two political reporters to see what strategy might work. Listen and subscribe to it's been a minute from NPR.