Joe Biden is the most “elected” president in US history, having won not only the November 3 2020 election but also many court challenges which have reaffirmed the election result. The January 6 formal announcement of his election victory was marred by one of the worst acts of violence in Washington DC history, when the Capitol building was stormed by Trump supporters who were still challenging the result.
There will be a welcome change of tone under Biden. But many of the problems that were not solved by Trump, will not be solved by Biden either.
Two immediate issues result directly from the Trump legacy: alienated voters and the COVID crisis. Trump won more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016 and more votes than any previous Republican candidate (Biden also did extraordinarily well and so beat him). Trump had made politics interesting.
For a vast swathe of Americans who felt neglected by the inner-city, political-correct-driven politicians, Trump gave them a voice. (Tragically he gave them a voice but few concrete reforms, such as reforming the exploitative financial system).
There are now record sales of guns and ammunition and talk of a “cold civil war”. Hopefully the reactions to the violence at the Capitol may dampen the risk of political violence. But Biden will have great difficulty unifying such a divided country.
On COVID, we now know from journalist Bob Woodward that Trump had been briefed on the severity of the risk very early in the crisis. He gambled that the predictions were wrong – and his inaction cost more lives in one year than US involvement in World War II over four years.
Trump was haunted by the need for re-election (and most presidents do get a second term; one has to go back to George Bush 1988-92 for a president who failed to get that second term). Trump reasoned that no president has failed to get re-elected in a booming economy. He gambled on a weak COVID crisis and a continuation of the economic recovery (at least by Wall Street standards) from the 2008 global financial crisis.
Another fact is that every president since 1812 standing for re-election in a war has been re-elected. People rally around the flag. Trump could easily have talked up the “China virus”, declared himself a “wartime president”, and put the nation on a war-footing (which is basically what he did with the amazing development of the vaccine). I think he would have been re-elected if he had followed that strategy (especially given the lack of enthusiasm for Biden).
How To Fight Covid
Biden’s second immediate problem is therefore combatting COVID. Vaccines don’t save people – vaccinations do. The COVID crisis has highlighted the US’s dysfunctional healthcare system. Trying to get the vaccines distributed will further illustrate that dysfunction.
Biden’s third problem is what gave Trump his stunning 2016 victory: the resentment many people feel about the death of the “American dream”. Trump was besotted by the growth of Wall Street but this was a mirage. That growth was due to financial engineering and the “financialization” of the US economy (bankers and other people who use money to make money – rather than actually make something of use).
In the real economy of agriculture, manufacturing and basic services (such as teaching and nursing) there has not been such a dramatic increase in wealth. For the first time in recent US history, a generation is coming into adulthood that does not expect to be earning more money that its parents. This generation is saddled with student debts, limited good employment opportunities, and the prospect of having to survive in the “gig” economy bouncing from one insecure job to another. The American dream has become an American nightmare.
The new right economic rationalist reforms that began under Ronald Reagan (1983-89) were continued by both Republican and Democrat presidents. The dominant economic paradigm (as it is in Australia) is that the “poor have too much money and the rich have too little”. Hence we beat up on welfare recipients and give tax cuts to the rich. Many Americans live paycheque to paycheque, with limited savings.
Biden will make little progress in reversing the trend. Indeed he was part of it in the Obama Administration and many of his proposed appointees are veterans of that Obama era. That era helped Trump get elected; Biden’s failures will help Trump or his successor in the 2024 election.
Rise of China
Part of the American nightmare has been the rise of China as the global factory. China expects to be the number one global power by 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the Chinese communist revolution). It is on a collision course with the current number one power.
Therefore although Biden may use a less aggressive tone towards China, the underlying problems will remain. Trump to his credit did not embark on additional conflicts against extremist Islamic groups. Instead he redirected the US military towards a more conventional military challenge: a conflict with China in the South China Sea. That risk remains.
Incidentally, Australia is like a child caught between divorcing parents. It is an ally of the US but China is its main trading partner. It needs China and US to remain on good terms. Australia does not want to be forced to make a choice between them.
The problems confronting the US are not easily solved by any one president. The US has major structural problems and competitors. COVID and violence extremists may get the publicity but there are deeper issues at work that will overwhelm presidents.
The US has, of course, solved structural problems in the past. Over a century ago, the US government took on oil and railway corporation giants (the Facebook, Apple, and Google of their day) and broke up the corporate giants. In the 1930s the Roosevelt Administration turned away from the new right economic rationalism of the 1920s and created a new American economy (which then gave us the “American dream” of the 1950s and 1960s).
Reform is possible. But I doubt that Biden is the person to do it.