The Trump era is officially over and the Biden presidency has begun, and with it will come a raft of different policies. But in watching President Biden’s inaugural speech yesterday, what ran through my head were not the public policy challenges he outlined, or the different approach he will take to Israel and the region than what existed over the past four years, but the differing fundamental precepts that President Trump and Biden respectively elevated. In some ways, what Biden must overcome is the same challenge that Israel faces, and it is one not of politics but of philosophy.
There is a long running political science debate about the merits of a presidential system of government. One school maintains that having a president is beneficial for democracy and for national stability. The argument is that a president stands above the rest of the political system and represents everyone, rather than just the political faction from which he or she comes as is the case with a prime minister, and thus a president has the ability to overcome and heal societal divisions. Presidential systems also give voters more choices, since they elect both a president and a legislature, and can be viewed as even more democratic because people vote directly for the president, whereas in many non-U.S. cases including Israel, voting for the legislature involves voting for a party rather than for the person who will hold the specific office in question. The key point though is that a president is a figure who is uniquely placed to represent the collective, taking into account the concerns of all citizens and not just the concerns of a narrow few, since he or she is elected by all, accountable to all, and stands alone within a system of government above the fray as a symbol of the nation.
The other school maintains that having a president is destructive to democracy and to national stability. The argument is that a president comes from a particular party or group and will work to prioritize the wishes and policies of his or her camp, thus serving not as a unifying figure but as a divisive one. In a society that is already polarized, a president will worsen that polarization not only through his or her own actions but because it can create a dual legitimacy problem, where some citizens will view the president as the more legitimate actor and others will view the legislature as the more legitimate actor. Furthermore, a president who is supposed to stand above the country and represent everyone but makes it clear that he or she is picking and choosing sides will tear a country apart at the seams and throw the legitimacy of the entire enterprise into question. One of the scholars who argues against presidentialism points out that the U.S. stands as an outlier among democracies as the only longstanding and continuous one with a presidential system.
The overwhelming preponderance of U.S. presidents have provided evidence to bolster the first view. Trump provided evidence to bolster the latter one. Whatever you think of his policies, he chose sides among Americans in a nearly unprecedented way, never even nodding in a genuine way to be the president of all but constantly making clear that he viewed himself as the president of his MAGA supporters. While one of his speechwriters would sometimes insert some platitudes about American unity into remarks for ceremonies or occasions that warranted it, there is no reasonable argument that Trump acted as a force for overcoming societal divisions or saw himself as someone who represented and was accountable to all. As was clear down to his last day in office, when he pardoned a raft of his political supporters and their friends, Trump prioritized his camp at others’ expense to an extreme degree.
Biden’s inaugural speech presented a wholly different vision. The central theme was one of unity, and he used his new presidential pulpit to argue that this was a cause he would embrace. He emphasized the American people as a collective engaged in a common project, explicitly pledged to be a president for all Americans, and described himself as motivated not by power or personal interest but by the common good. Whether Biden can actually serve as a force for unity is an open question with an answer that cannot yet be known, but the stark difference in rhetoric with his predecessor is undeniable. He views uniting the country as his mission, and getting people to buy into a collective sense of identity and purpose even if there is raging disagreement on policy. Beginning his presidency at a time when the U.S. is riven by divisions that appear deeper than any time since the Civil War, he has his work cut out for him, and while he did not even obliquely reference Trump in his speech, Biden clearly places much of the blame for this at Trump’s feet.
This is a situation not unfamiliar to Israelis, despite the fact that the debate about presidential systems does not apply to Israel. Most of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leading challengers are not lining up against him for policy reasons; Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett come from the same political camp as Netanyahu, and both worked directly under him as ministers (and in Bennett’s case, as a political aide). When Benny Gantz first challenged Netanyahu two years ago, it was not about Netanyahu’s politics, even if Gantz does not share Netanyahu’s overwhelmingly right-wing worldview. Gantz ran on a banner of “Israel Before All” and Sa’ar has picked up that mantle to challenge Netanyahu on his governing philosophy.
The unifying thread is that Netanyahu does not work to represent the country’s interests but his own, that he does not feign to represent all Israelis but only those who are represented by his “natural coalition” of Likud and the Haredi parties, and that he has exacerbated Israeli societal divisions in dangerous ways rather than seek to heal them. While Trump and Netanyahu are very different people and politicians, despite comparisons that seek to paint them with the same brush, the widespread perception that they place narrow self-serving interests front and center is an element that they share. In both the U.S. and Israel, there are signs of things coming apart at the seams, whether it is the sedition that took place at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 or the violence in Israel that has been threatened and directed at Netanyahu’s actual and perceived opponents.
The U.S.-Israel relationship is about to be reset with a new administration, and everyone will be looking to see how Biden and Netanyahu will navigate each other. But we should also be keeping an eye on how each addresses the badly frayed sense of national and societal unity that currently reigns in their countries, and whether the U.S. and Israel – which have marched in lockstep in this regard for years – now begin to diverge.