In another age, Joe Biden’s promise to heal the nation might have been regarded as the kind of blandishment expected from any new leader taking power after the divisive cut and thrust of an American election.
But the next president will repeat the oath of office on Wednesday sealed off from those he governs by a global pandemic and the threat of violence from his predecessor’s supporters. Biden steps into the White House facing the unprecedented challenge not only of healing a country grappling with the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world but a nation so politically, geographically and socially divided that seven in 10 Republicans say the election was stolen from Donald Trump.
Surging Covid infections would have discouraged the crowds who usually turn out on the National Mall to welcome a new president. But the storming of Congress by right-wing extremists and white nationalists in support of Trump has prompted an almost total shutdown of the heart of American governance.
Even before the assault on Capitol Hill, Biden warned that deepening partisanship was a threat to the stability of the United States.
“The country is in a dangerous place,” he said during the election campaign. “Our trust in each other is ebbing. Hope is elusive. Instead of treating the other party as the opposition, we treat them as the
enemy. This must end”.
The enormity of the challenge was made starkly clear by the sacking of the Capitol. Most Americans recoiled in horror at the sight of their compatriots, some dressed as if ready for war, smashing up congressional offices, beating police officers and threatening to hang the vice-president. Five people died, including a member of the Capitol police.
Yet more than 70% of Republicans agree with the protesters’ core claim that November’s election was rigged and say Biden is not the legitimate president. What will it take to even begin to heal the country, as Trump is likely to maintain his role as agitator in chief? The incoming president also faces a moment of racial reckoning in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests that have given new urgency of demands for America to reconcile with a bitter past and present.
Polarisation is not going to go away no matter what he does in the short term Charles Franklin
Can Bideneven hold together the Democratic party, as its more liberal wing advocates for police reform, a green new deal and public healthcare – not policy positions which all moderates support.
“We are so polarised that polarisation is not going to go away no matter what he does in the short term,” said Charles Franklin, director of the respected Marquette opinion poll in swing state Wisconsin.
“The question is whether over a little bit longer term, let’s say over the course of the year, whether Biden can win over a segment of the population to create a majority that is both willing to give him a chance and is not unhappy with his performance. That’s up in the air but I don’t think it’s inconceivable.”
The clamour for change that elected Barack Obama and then Trump has not gone away, and large numbers of Americans continue to believe the system does not work for them. For many Democrats, the key to addressing that is to think big and deliver while the party controls both houses of Congress, which may be for no more than two years.
The incoming president faces the immediate challenge of intertwined health and economic crises caused by a pandemic that has killed nearly 400,000. Trump’s mishandling of coronavirus has left testing and vaccination rates woefully short of his promises, and unemployment claims are rising sharply again as the economy struggles with the latest wave of shutdowns, infections and deaths.
Biden is likely to be judged swiftly on his ability to accelerate the pace of inoculations, presenting the opportunity to create early goodwill and momentum.Rafi Peterson, 63, receives the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Chicago on Thursday. Photograph: Ashlee Rezin Garcia/AP
In an early sign that he wants to be seen to act decisively, Biden on Thursday outlined $1.9tn in emergency relief, called the American Rescue Plan, including $400bn to deliver 100m vaccines in his first 100 days. The plan also directs more than $1tn to Americans through individual economic stimulus payments of $1,400 and increased unemployment benefits. It proposes more than doubling the national minimum wage to $15 an hour alongside other measure to alleviate child poverty.
Biden has said the plan is only an interim measure and that more money will come. But even the present proposal will be too much for most Republicans in Congress and the bill will provide an early test of how far they are prepared to cooperate or if they will pursue the same obstructionist strategy deployed against Obama.
Biden has the advantage of control but only by a slim margin in the House of Representatives and by relying on Vice-President Kamala Harris’s casting vote in the Senate. A lack of votes for the full package may force Biden to scale back his proposals but with them the incoming president put down a marker.
David Paul Kuhn, author of The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution, about the Democrats’ loss of their traditional blue collar base, said the incoming president has spoken more clearly about the struggle of working class communities than any since Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
“Biden’s done a good job in sounding measured in a hyper-polarised environment, and that’s really important,” he said. “He gave several speeches targeted towards Obama-to-Trump voters. He acknowledged that they were forgotten and that he sees them now. Those were comments that we haven’t heard from any Democrat, like on the dignity of work, since Clinton. It was a significant step in the right direction.”
Biden’s ability to deliver across a range of issues is something that preoccupies his supporters. Some Democrats are haunted by what they regard as a central lesson from the Obama years – the failure to seize the opportunities offered by the Great Recession when he took office in 2009, to reform an economic system that has worked against most Americans for at least four decades. To a part of America, Obama lookedto have rescued the banks while abandoning millions of ordinary people who lost their homes to foreclosure – helping drive some of the shift to Trump in 2016.
Biden gave several speeches targeted towards Obama-to-Trump voters. He acknowledged that they were forgotten David Paul Kuhn
Kuhn said Biden would do well to heed the lesson: “Barack Obama was talking about a new New Deal leading into December 2008 but there was no new New Deal. When Joe Biden was vice-president, there are the voters who lost the most jobs during the Great Recession while they saw stimulus payments going to the fat cats on Wall Street.”
The pandemic has helped lay the ground for bold policies by once again exposing deep economic inequalities and the precarious financial position of large numbers of Americans. But Biden will have to tread carefully over key legislation pushed by the left of his party, particularly the green new deal which is hugely popular among some Democrats but reviled in parts of the country.
Some Democrats think a relatively easy path would be a major spending bill to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, such as dangerously old bridges and dams, as well as new projects like high-speed rail. It would not only offer a vehicle to address some environmental issues but provide jobs and investment in some of the most neglected parts of the country.
“An infrastructure bill might include a lot of clean energy but it would not be mistaken for the green new deal. It’s a good compromise that’s actually conceivably possible,” said Franklin.
“I think infrastructure, of all the issues we deal with, it’s one that most easily resonates with working people, whether it’s construction work or highways, or water mains or electrical utilities. The irony is Trump talked a lot about infrastructure but never put forward a bill, when his own party probably would have thought it was pretty good.”
Another challenge for Biden is to develop policies to address a sense of abandonment felt in mostly white rust belt and midwestern rural communities that were once solidly Democratwhile also addressing racial inequality and discrimination.
“Biden talked about blue collar workers in his background, the people he grew up with,” said Franklin. “I thought that was an attempt to reach that disaffected blue collar, but not theneo-nazi Klan racist segment of the population. He tried to speak directly to those folks in a way that many see the Democratic party more generally is failing to do.”Protesters meet in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in November. Photograph: Bing Guan/Reuters
Kuhn said Biden should go further: “If he’s talking about common cause, he can push back against this fashionable notion in the United States that these families living pay cheque to pay cheque, that their struggle through life is actually a ‘privilege’ because they are white. Clearly, some portion of the American right feel that their frustrations don’t matter, because they happen also be white. ”
Lilliana Mason, a professor of politics and author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity disagrees. She sees communities that provided bedrock support for Trump’s white nationalism and questions whether Biden will find backing even for programmes that help them.
“There’s this increasing inequality which has created this kind of rural white Republican identity that’s based on white rural people feeling condescended to and that no one really listens to their needs,” she said. “But there’s also this resentment that their tax dollars go to the cities and to black people. They don’t want their tax dollars to help other people, meaning black people, even while it helps them.”
The structural inequality that is rooted deep within our society must be addressed Derrick Johnson