America has spoken
In the face of a perfect storm of crises, America has laid its hopes in a Biden-Harris led White House engineering a full turn-around and bring a fractured nation together
With the passage of this week's Electoral College vote, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr has 'officially' been elected President-elect of the United States of America. Leading current US President Donald Trump by a margin of over seven million votes in the popular count and 74 votes in the Electoral College, Joe Biden won the election with a convincing margin that leaves little space for doubt. But, It is a testament to the irregularity of this US election that even at this stage, a small room for doubt must be left for the 'what-if' scenario of Donald Trump and his supporters somehow reversing this loss.
When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take the White House on January 20, 2021, they will face a slew of challenges that would require immediate priority. Biden's perf-ormance in the critical early days of his administration will likely define his entire presidency and to a lesser extent, the fate of American democracy.
A nation divided
American historian James Harvey Robinson commented on the old American tendency towards partisanship in such a manner- "Partisanship is our great curse. We too readily assume that everything has two sides and that it is our duty to be on one or the other." It should be noted that American politics in Robinson's time were less consistently ideological. Both the Republican and Democratic party represented a variety of positions that could be conservative or liberal as decided by the issue and not a broad party position as is the case today. This is consistent with much of American history where the two parties balanced extreme partisan tendencies. But now with the mainstream rise of ultra-conservative movements such as the Tea Party movement, partisanship in America is becoming an absolute divide.
In the weeks following the US elections, Trump and his Republican supporters have filed a number of lawsuits contesting the results of the election with unverified, vague and often outlandish accusations. While most of these over 60 lawsuits were too limited in their scope of meaningfully altering the election result, the lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was troublingly audacious. Paxton sued four key battleground states for the election — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin over claims that pandemic-era changes to election procedure in these states that Biden won somehow violated federal laws. Paxton asked the US Supreme Court to effectively invalidate the votes of these states by blocking them from voting in the Electoral College vote. The fact that this lawsuit sought to invalidate millions of legally cast ballots is troubling enough, what makes it even more troublesome is that it was supported by 126 House Republicans and 17 other Republican state attorney generals. Representing nearly two-thirds of the House GOP strength, this mockingly labelled 'Kraken Caucus' can be seen as an adequate representation of how toxic partisanship has become to American democracy. While the case was later dismissed by the Supreme Court on the simple grounds that Texas has no legal standing, in this case, it was still a troubling slide from attacks on the Democratic Party to attacks on democracy itself. Multiple news reports claimed that Trump had been consistently putting pressure on his party to fall in line and support him any way they could, directly and unsubtly asking many of them to outright overturn the election. The ones supporting this attempt to subvert democratic process are not a minority. Indeed, a far smaller number of Republicans actually acknowledge the results of the election. This represents a key feature in the partisanship swamp of America — the increasing lack of objective reality.
Over the decades, partisanship has taken on the additional feature of creating ideological silos. Simply put, people who ascribe to a certain ideological position dictated by the party they support are more likely to view those opposing their views as being outrightly harmful to the nation, 'enemies' in simpler terms. The result? Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are more likely to push their agenda rather than one that broadly benefits the nation.
In 2010, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell was known to have famously declared the single most important thing for the GOP at that time was to make sure that Obama remained a one-term President. They would carry out their plan by organising a stern, almost unyielding opposition front that would make bogging down Obama administration legislation in partisan debates its first priority. Democrats losing control of Congress did not help matters. In-office, Obama faced record government shutdowns as budget debates spiralled into ideological showdown and legislations were locked down. Partisan voting for bills increased many-fold under Obama, a true shame considering that he came into the White House with the promise of easing the grip of partisanship. As his Vice-President, Joe Biden saw first hand how ingrained the animosity behind partisan politics had become. Now, he faces similar circumstances. If anything, partisanship has become even more ingrained as a survival mechanism to keep hold of power. Nowhere was such desperation notable than the Black Lives Matter movement and conversations over overhauling (or even defunding) the police following the murder of George Floyd. While a few Republicans did break party lines to join the protests in a show of support, the party as a whole went with the White House's narrative of portraying the protestors as a radicalised leftist mob supported by Democrats who wished to destroy suburban America and defund the police. A restructure of the police force and policing is one of the key agendas for the Biden-Harris administration. As of now, the Democrats maintain a slim majority in the lower house of Congress and are the minority in the upper house. If the Democrats win both the upcoming Georgia elections for the Senate, then they can gain control of both houses of Congress. For Biden to successfully face the early challenges, control of Congress is especially critical as bipartisan legislation becomes increasingly rare.
Of course, Biden optimistically believes that the exit of Trump will somehow force the GOP and its supporters to course correct and go back to the days of across-the-aisle dealmaking. His bid to start 'healing' America and its divides began with his cabinet picks. Joe Biden's cabinet picks have been described as the most diverse cabinet in US history. If confirmed in its entirety, Biden's cabinet would establish several firsts for the nation — with the first Native American as Interior Secretary, the first female intelligence chief, the first Latino Homeland Security chief and the first openly gay cabinet member as some of the highlights. There are even strong indications that Biden may be considering a Republican nominee for Commerce Secretary as an attempt to start mending political bridges early on. Most commentators, however, maintain that the influence of Trumpian politics will remain long after he leaves office, much like how McCarthyism has stuck around. Clashes between Trump supporters and groups such as Antifa are becoming increasingly common. As are threats of violence and retribution against those who are perceived as traitors or disloyal to the US President. Through his personal popularity, Trump may well influence the GOP to continue being 'his party' long after he leaves the White House due to fear of his conservative supporters turning against the GOP. This is the America that Biden will inherit, a nation pulling itself apart due to paranoia and a basic lack of agreement over what the problems are, let alone the solutions.
The darkest winter
As of December 18, the US has registered 17,628,568 cases and 317,929 deaths. With the onset of winter and holiday season, the US quickly saw its hospitalisation rates rise to levels that far surpassed the spring wave. Since November, the US has had record daily increases that surpassed 250,000 daily cases just this week. As the US medical system approaches breaking point with reports of hospitals running out of space to treat patients, the approval of a second vaccine by the FDA for emergency use is welcome news. The Moderna vaccine is based on similar technology as the previously approved Pfizer vaccine. All the same, health experts have warned of a great ordeal that America will undergo until COVID-19 can be brought under control by the vaccination campaign. Director of CDC, Dr Robert Redfield was recently quoted as saying, "We are in the timeframe now that probably for the next 60 to 90 days we're going to have more deaths per day than we had at 9/11 or we had at Pearl Harbor."
Now, as the US faces historic levels of job insecurity and homelessness, the US Government may be heading for another shutdown as lawmakers struggle to approve a USD 900 billion Covid relief bill. There have been many arguments over the finer points of increased food rations for the poor, reimbursements to local governments for Covid related expenses, etc. While lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have indicated that it is vital for the US Government to not shut down, there are expectations that negotiations could go on until and possibly well-past Christmas break. In the latter case, there has been discussion of a temporary bill being run through Congress to keep the Federal Government funded and open. There is also hope for passing important sections such as the extension of federal unemployment benefits and USD 330 billion worth of aid for small businesses.
Invariably, as US President-elect Joe Biden has indicated multiple times, this is one of a series of such aid reliefs that Congress is going to need to pass until the ravages of the pandemic are recuperated and America is 'ready to get back on its feet'. For the US to truly turn the corner in this darkest winter, the oncoming Biden administration must focus on both, executing a well-coordinated inoculation campaign and comprehensively rebuilding the American economy with his 'Build Back Better' plan.
Biden has already promised to innoculate 50 million Americans in the first 100 days of his presidency. This is part of the three-part COVID-19 plan that was developed by his healthcare team. The other two points revolve a 100-day masking effort and the safe reopening of a majority of schools within the first 100 days of his administration. He has also laid emphasis on a robust testing and contact tracing strategy that looks to patch up decades of public health infrastructure neglect that has made nationwide monitoring of the pandemic difficult. Another important point of note regarding the Biden-Harris Covid plan is the proposal of a new task force for the dedicated purpose of addressing the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on minorities. Biden will also have to tackle the significant anti-mask, anti-vaccine sentiment that has been allowed to take hold in America. Biden is shortly expected to take the vaccine publicly in order to allay fears of severe side-effects. In the long term, Biden will have to fight tooth and nail with a reluctant Republican side to not only preserve the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care) but also expand it at a time when more Americans are losing healthcare coverage and long Covid leaves behind a whole host of new co-morbidities. Most importantly, Biden has pledged to rejoin the WHO on day one of assuming office in his larger effort to 'pick up the pieces' of Trump's foreign policy,
America is back
Even as America handles several crises at home, there is one message that Biden wishes to communicate to the world at large — the America of the pre-Trump era is back. Biden has aimed towards building an internationalist cabinet that is more technocratic in nature. They will represent a return of America to many of its international commitments of old. Thus, Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris climate accords on day one and make the necessary steps to reestablishing America as a leader in climate change science and mitigation action. This ties in with his plan to use climate change as a vehicle for job creation and infrastructure overhaul in his Covid reconstruction plan.
Biden has also promised to immediately start fixing America's immigration system and reversing many of Trump's extreme immigration position including the infamous Muslim travel ban and the larger effort to rebuild the wall.
For many nations, the dawn of the Biden presidency is indeed a return to the stability of US relations with a clear sense of allies and rivals. But not everyone sees a Biden presidency in such positive light.
China has adopted a cautious approach as there are expectations that Biden will not go soft on China for the fear of appearing weak, particularly in the face of aggressive Chinese trade practices.
While a lesser priority, experts have also urged Biden to address North Korean relations early in his presidency. There are fears that if he were to wait for too long as Obama did, North Korea would be able to take the initiative and set the tone of any future negotiations.
Biden's position on Iran is also a cause of great concern. While Iran has indicated its interest in walking back into the old Iran nuclear deal and starting anew with Biden, the Gulf allies of the US have expressed great apprehension over any renewal with Saudi Arabia and Israel being prominent in their protests. Both nations are themselves unsure of how to see the Biden presidency. Biden's new 'Middle-East' plan is expected to be less tolerant of Israel's unilateral territorial annexations and the sensitive issue of human right in Saudi Arabia. Under Trump, US relations with both nations had actually improved under Trump due to his transactional approach to foreign policy in the region. Biden will also have to decide almost immediately as to what to make of the abrupt US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan that Trump authorised. While Biden has indicated his support for ending American presence in the region, Congress may be able to persuade him to make the exit more orderly so as to avoid reversing the limited gains made by decades of US presence in the volatile area.
All in all, it is safe to say that Biden will have some of the most difficult and busy first 100 days of presidency. While he may have reached the White House due to the anti-Trump pushback, his standing before the American people is tenuous. Battered and divided, the public will be less accepting of any perceived shortfalls in pulling America out of its immediate crises. Any ground ceded by Biden will gladly be taken by the forces of partisanship. Biden, thus, may represent a return to the old ways or a last 'Hail Mary' before moderate, bipartisan America disappears into the sunset.
Views expressed are personal