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Joe Biden faces multiple domestic crises

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When Joe Biden takes office as US president in about a month he will face an almost unprecedented number of domestic challenges. Allies say he will face five distinct separate crises, any one of which would probably have defined the era of any of his recent predecessors, but which he must tackle all at once. Together, they’re likely to decide his place in history.

Top of the agenda for Mr Biden, of course, will be curbing the coronavirus pandemic. Though with cases and hospitalisations having continued to spread during December and deaths now over 300,000 that won’t be an easy task. In fact, with the disease so rife there will be little that Mr Biden can do to bring down the numbers in any immediate fashion. Although he has said that he will mandate the wearing of masks in federal buildings.

Instead, Mr Biden’s first and possibly most important job will be to oversee the rollout of the vaccine, a politically and logistically fraught task involving not only getting the vaccine to even the most remote parts of rural America, but also making sure that enough people take it to guarantee what’s known as herd immunity. Now Mr Biden’s allies say he’s already decided to change some aspects of the distribution plan as it stands. He wants the federal government to play a greater role, for example. And he wants to do more to ensure that black and minority communities get priority access given they’ve been hit so hard by the disease.

But if there is a stumble, if deliveries start failing, or if some people feel that others are unfairly jumping the queue, that could go down as his first and possibly most significant failure as president.

Politics in Washington right now might be about the virus, stupid. But the economy still matters too. Parts of the US have already begun to go back into something akin to lockdown given the rapid spread of the disease across the country. And it is unclear how much economic damage this will do in a country which has just begun to return to something resembling normal. Joe Biden arrives at the White House with a reputation as a congressional dealmaker. Well, the first test of that will be whether he can persuade reluctant Republicans, in the Senate in particular, to do yet another stimulus package early in the new year.

Some of Mr Biden’s most ambitious campaign promises were to do with climate change. He promised to help US electricity production get carbon-free by 2035, for example, and the country as a whole reach net zero emissions by 2050. Some of this will be achieved by building new infrastructure to allow for more widespread use of electric vehicles or for updating buildings to make them more energy efficient. He’s also likely to bring in tougher standards for oil and gas plants and for vehicle emissions, which were rolled back by outgoing President Donald Trump.

But this is the low-hanging fruit. Far harder will be persuading Republicans in Congress to agree to a major spending bill to incentivise green energy. And what will Mr Biden do about the fracking industry? The fracking industry is huge in the US. And of course while it contributes to climate change it also employs a lot of blue-collar workers in swing states such as Pennsylvania. If Mr Biden does decide to clamp down on that industry he stands to lose votes. But if he doesn’t he’s likely to be accused of not being serious about meeting those ambitious goals he set.

It seems unlikely that a white 78-year-old man should prove to be the great hope of black and ethnic minority Americans demanding racial justice after a turbulent year which saw the police killing of George Floyd followed by the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement. But Joe Biden has always enjoyed great support among parts of black America. His primary campaign looked doomed, for example, until black Democrats turned out for him in force in South Carolina, urged on by the veteran Congressman Jim Clyburn. And Mr Biden’s pick of Kamala Harris as vice-president helped further cement his support among minority communities.

But how will Mr Biden cater to the demands of an increasingly emboldened racial justice movement while also keeping others on board? He has already said he does not agree with the Black Lives Matter demand to, quote, “defund the police.” But will he back meaningful reform? And what will he say if and when there is an incidence of police violence against an innocent black person? That could end up being an early test.

Even if Mr Biden is generally regarded to have been a failure in four years’ time, he will achieve something if the vast majority of Americans believe that the next election was fairly won. Outgoing president Donald Trump has not made it any more likely that he will stay in power. But he has managed to persuade nearly a third of voters that the election was stolen from him. Mr Trump came into power promising to take on what he called the deep state. And while he hasn’t managed to upend the US government in quite the way he promised, he has managed to create widespread distrust of US institutions. No wonder so few Americans trust government scientists when told to wear a mask, for example.

If Mr Biden manages to achieve one thing, he will want to restore faith in the people and organisations that underpin US democracy. And if he fails, who knows what will come next.

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