Four score and eight years ago, Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House with the United States on the brink of economic collapse amid a world of brewing tensions and fascist rulers on the rise.
Compared with what awaits Joe Biden, he had it easy.
As Biden takes the oath of office, he confronts a confluence of crises unmatched in American history. The worst global pandemic in a century has crippled the nation and killed more than 400,000 Americans. Countless more have suffered enduring harm.
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The virus has triggered economic chaos for millions of workers and businesses, even as others have been minimally affected or have prospered. Unemployment has soared. Emergency food banks have been inundated by demand. Millions are on the brink of losing their homes.
Meanwhile protests over racial injustice and demands for an end to systemic discrimination; the relentless march of global warming and climate change; and the dysfunctional dynamics of a damaged democracy, potently underscored by a mob attack on the nation’s citadel, round out the roster for Biden’s initial agenda.
Any one of these dilemmas would bedevil a new administration. All of them together will require the wisdom of Athena and Herculean resolve to surmount.
Plus there’s the minor matter of the repeat impeachment trial of his predecessor.
How will President Biden address these concerns?
Since COVID-19 erupted the United States has been a case study in how to fail a pandemic response. President Donald Trump recognised the danger immediately. But the danger he saw was to his own political fortunes.
From the start he downplayed and politicised the virus. His acolytes followed suit, repeatedly dismissing expert medical advice and attacking critics.
It’s not that they didn’t know better. The Bush and Obama administrations had foreseen the threat of a global pandemic, and literally prepared a detailed handbook outlining the necessary step-by-step response. This was ignored. The Trump administration never deployed a coordinated national effort to deal with the pathogen.
Instead it passed the buck to the states, which were ill-equipped to act alone. The predictable result has been catastrophic.
Biden has announced a program to arrest the disaster. He has mandated the wearing of masks on all federal property, and urged all Americans to wear masks elsewhere, particularly indoors, in accordance with best practice guidelines.
He will invest in a broad national testing program, and create the contact tracing system necessary to implement a proper isolation regimen. At present all of this is managed haphazardly, with variable access and minimal enforcement.
Trump touted vaccines as the silver bullet for COVID-19. Never one for detail, this glossed over the unprecedented logistical barriers to making vaccines available universally. Biden has already signed into effect a coordinated federal government plan to accelerate vaccine production and delivery. He will mobilise the Federal Emergency Management Agency to establish thousands of vaccination centres nationwide, staffed by an army of personnel including retired medical technicians and National Guard members.
He will also launch a public education blitz to explain these actions and counter scepticism to the measures. With thousands of people dying every day, Biden has warned that worse days are ahead before relief arrives. Another 100,000 people are expected to die in the coming month. But he predicts 100 million people will be vaccinated in his first 100 days, and the tide will soon turn.
Biden has maintained that the economy can’t be repaired until the virus is under control. With significant sectors of the economy reliant upon in-person connections, life won’t return to normal until everyone is confident that their health is secure. This is why corralling COVID-19 is his highest priority.
But halting the disease isn’t enough. The disruption and dislocation has cleaved the economy in two, between those who were able to adapt, however imperfectly, to a remote work environment, and those who were stranded without a safety net. Prior analysis had concluded that 40% of Americans had less than $400 in savings, and would be slammed in an emergency — and that’s before the pandemic struck.
Last March Congress passed the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion relief bill to provide temporary aid to affected businesses and employees. While that yielded necessary support over the following months, the money was eventually exhausted with no further assistance forthcoming until the end of 2020.
As fate would have it, this is the second time Joe Biden enters the White House amid an economic crisis. In 2009, as Barack Obama’s vice-president, he played a crucial role in securing an economic stimulus package to prevent a meltdown following the global financial crisis.
While that effort was successful, Republican opposition to more robust government investment contributed to a slower recovery than could otherwise have been achieved. Biden has learned from this lesson.
This time Biden has drafted a $1.9 trillion relief package, titled the American Rescue Plan, which he will send to Congress as a down payment towards economic recovery. In addition to the money necessary for the pandemic response, the plan includes $350 billion to shore up state and local government budgets, particularly for frontline workers such as police, fire fighters, nurses and teachers.
Biden has been adamant that this will not be enough and that more investment must follow. We can expect this to be tied to broader initiatives in education, health care, infrastructure and climate change.
As if a raging pandemic and economic calamity weren’t enough, it comes as no surprise that NASA scientists have concluded that 2020 was the hottest year on record.
Tied with 2016 for this disturbing development, it marks the 44th consecutive year of global temperatures above the 20th century planetary average. NASA reports that the Earth’s overall temperature has risen 1.1 degrees since measurements began in 1880, with 0.8 degrees occurring in the past 50 years.
After years of denial and delay by many agitators, Biden has declared that climate change is an existential threat and insists that the time for inaction is over. Among his first presidential acts, he signed an executive order to rejoin the Paris Agreement, after Trump withdrew America from the accord last November.
The agreement, which all but seven other countries have endorsed, aims to limit Earth’s temperature increase to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and preferably 1.5 degrees. Time is running out.
Biden has also immediately terminated the Keystone XL pipeline, a multi-billion dollar project to carry oil from Alberta, Canada and downstream US states to refineries on the gulf coast. New drilling on public lands will be halted.
He intends to convene a climate summit of world leaders in his first 100 days to bolster global cooperation and coordination. He plans to put America on a sustainable path to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. He has proposed a Civilian Climate Corps to tackle wildfires and floods, and improve clean water supply.
Further innovations in public transport, building construction and upgrades, power generation and storage, agriculture, and conservation will constitute the largest investment ever committed to turn the tide on global warming. They will also create millions of new jobs, underwriting Biden’s renewal of America’s economy.
From coast to coast across America, in large cities and small towns, citizens poured into the streets to demand justice and an end to systemic racism following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. They were joined around the world by a uniform explosion of grief, anger, and solidarity.
Not since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s has America been confronted so nakedly by the chasm between its professed ideals and the lived reality of its non-white citizens.
Now Joe Biden must pick up where Lyndon B Johnson left off. He carries the extra burden of having embraced Bill Clinton’s 1994 Violent Crime Act, which introduced protections for women against violence and banned assault weapons, but also came to be seen as a major factor in the disproportionate and excessive incarceration of black men.
This was encapsulated by the infamous “three strikes, you’re out” provision that imposed mandatory life sentences for even trivial offences.
Biden has declared that advancing racial equity will be a cornerstone of his presidency, As vice-president to America’s first Black president, he brings credibility to this claim. By choosing a Black woman, Kamala Harris, to serve as his vice- president, he reaffirmed his commitment.
He has highlighted the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans, both on their personal health and their employment.
This morning he launched a whole-of-government initiative to advance racial equity.
Beyond this, Biden plans to extend racial equality by spurring investment in new businesses and affordable housing, boosting incomes and retirement security, and using the power of federal procurement to compel equal access to employment and education opportunities for all workers.
No one expected an insurrection at the US Capitol, but here we are. A full reckoning of that fascist attack will take time. However the basic outlines are clear.
In the immediate moment, the assault was fomented and instigated by a failed president and his allies, blinded by rage at having lost the election last November. Both before and after that ballot, Trump spewed lies nonstop that the election was rigged, the result was fraudulent, and that officials should reject the will of the voters.
That tens of millions of his voters swallowed this bile speaks to the damage that plagues American democracy.
Several critical failures leap out. First is a media landscape that enabled propaganda to masquerade as news, effectively weaponising a digital ecosystem to parrot and promote the administration’s message.
Second is the deliberate, ongoing effort by one party to stack the deck in its favour by erecting barriers and suppressing votes from those unlikely to support it. The creativity of these restrictions is matched only by the fervour of their enforcement.
Third is the deluge of dollars that have inundated America’s elections from president to school board. This torrent was compounded by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010, Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, which opened the floodgates to unlimited spending by undisclosed donors.
Fourth is the rise of far-right extremism, which has been festering long before Trump channelled its violence. From the Ku Klux Klan’s terror, to sieges and bombings and shootings too numerous to list, the heritage of hatred runs deep.
Biden has a battle plan for all this too. The first bill passed by the Democrats after they took control of the House of Representatives was to be named the For The People Act. It addressed campaign finance, ethics reform, and voting rights, including automatic voter registration, an end to gerrymandering, and making election day a federal holiday.
The bill never received a vote in the Senate, instead being left to die on Mitch McConnell’s desk.
Biden has made passage of the law a priority, together with the John R Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named in honour of the late civil rights leader and congressman. In the wake of the Capitol attack, expect both to be legislated swiftly.
Furthermore, we can expect the Department of Justice to vigorously prosecute all those who invaded the Capitol last week. This will be the first salvo in a campaign to disrupt and dismantle these terrorist networks and banish their threat to democracy.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. America’s greatest presidents have been forged by its sternest trials.
George Washington led a ragtag revolution to defeat the mightiest empire on Earth. Abraham Lincoln stared down secessionists and appeasers to preserve the Union. FDR overcame the Depression at home, then fascists abroad. Now Joe Biden faces his destiny.
Few were enthusiastic about Biden’s candidacy for president, and many doubted his will to lead boldly. Yet to a man who has spent his life confounding his detractors, all things are possible. All of a sudden, six terms in the Senate and two terms in the White House seem perfect preparation for our time.
Should Biden reach only halfway to these ambitions, he will have exceeded all expectations but his own. If so, the stonemasons may be called to Mount Rushmore once again.