Will Biden Become a Sisyphus?

No other American president has started his term under such dire circumstances.

On Tuesday, Nov. 3, I was part of a minority. I followed the results of the presidential election, but without any illusion that we would know the winner before midnight. I went to bed at the usual time, and I advised my teenage daughter to do the same. Particularly deaf to my arguments that counting votes could take a long time, she kept asking in terror about the chances we would be moving to Canada after Donald Trump’s victory.

A week after the election, the vote counting still continues, but it is becoming clear that we can put the suitcases back in the closet. According to The Associated Press, Joe Biden has secured 290 electoral votes exceeding the required 270, if he wins Arizona (98% of the vote counted, 0.5% more than Trump), Georgia (over 99% of the vote counted, 0.2 % more than Trump) and Pennsylvania (more than 99% of the vote counted, 0.7% more than Trump).

The Blue Wave that Never Was

The world, which has been watching the tragicomedy of Trump’s term in disbelief over the last four years, is now breathing a sigh of relief. And it has its reasons. First, although he is an older man of influence given to treating women condescendingly, Biden seems to promise a return to “normalcy” — if normalcy means a certain level of propriety and professional experience, qualities which were typical for any American head of state irrespective of his political affiliation before the Trump era.

Second, Biden is a solid center-liberal, so we need not worry that he will be carried away by populist inclinations and give America another four years of rule by fire and wrath, which would result in further social and political division. He himself has vowed that his leadership will, in fact, prevent America from evolving into a state of warring hostile tribes, which could further undermine the stability and authority of vital state institutions and departments.

And last, Biden has placed Kamala Harris at his side, the first woman vice president in American history, and who has no Anglo-Saxon roots. No matter how politically calculated this step is, whether this is a nod to an increasingly ethnically diverse American electorate or to the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Harris is expected to introduce the kind of values in the White House that are present in politics whenever a woman takes a leadership position. That is, more dialogue and compromise, less banging on the table and propensity for military conflict.

But it would be naive to think that Biden’s presidency will be something of a Caribbean cruise. On the contrary, it looks like this will be one of the toughest presidencies in recent years.

First, Biden will not have the support of the entire Congress. Despite the Democrats’ huge and, as we now know, arrogant hopes of regaining the Senate, the undertaking has failed, and Biden will be the first president in 100 years without such a power base.

This may be important because if Democrats fail to pull themselves together, they might lose Congress completely in two years, and this will not help Biden win reelection four years from now. Apart from that, losing the White House in 2024 would automatically dismantle everything that Biden may rebuild or achieve. This kind of bouncing of the presidential ball back and forth every four years would mean, in fact, that the whole country would be sidelined. This situation would block any progress, and prevent any meaningful or long-term reform. That would mean catastrophe for the rest of the world.

Up until the congressional elections, Republicans had a Senate majority of 53 to 47. To regain the House, the Democrats would have to win at least 50 seats, with Vice President Harris acting as a tie-breaker to give them a majority vote. Unfortunately, the elections again ended up with Republicans gaining a majority (for now it is 49 to 48), and although there are still three vacant seats as the vote counting continues, experts, including Nate Silver of the renowned opinion poll site FiveThirtyEight, predict a victory for the Republicans.

It is not just about the numbers. It is noteworthy and surprising that the candidates who have lost their seats include those who come from the states that supported Biden. Something equally odd has happened in the House of Representatives. Democrats have not only failed to gain a majority there either (they have lost four seats), but they have also lost mandates in the states Biden has won (such as New Mexico). Two years ago, when Democrats were seeking a major blue wave, they dreamed about an ocean of blue in 2020. We can now see that the ocean evaporated before it had a chance to appear on the map. This is very bad news for Democrats; it is a signal from the voters that something bad is happening to the party.

Democrats in a Fratricidal Clinch

The first person to diagnose the gangrene in his own party just a day after the election was Kurt Schrader, a congressman from Oregon. “Democrats’ messaging is terrible; it doesn’t resonate,” Schrader said. “When [voters] see the far left that gets all the news media attention, they get scared. They’re very afraid that this will become a supernanny state, and their ability to do things on their own is going to be taken away,” he told The Washington Post.

Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat from Virginia, went even further. During the caucus call which has been leaked to the media, she openly called for the amputation of the radical wing of the party that features Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders arguing that their strategy of appealing to the tastes of big city, educated and super progressive elites puts off the average party supporter. “No one should say ‘defund the police’ ever again. We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” Spanberger ranted at her colleagues.

Conservatives did a fantastic job with their homework before the election, and they will reap the fruits of that work as long as the Democrats continue the infighting. I learned that when I spoke to my neighbor, Bill O’Brian, who put up a Trump sign in front of his house at the end of September. “Biden and Harris will do everything in their power to turn our country into the Socialist States of America. I do not really like Trump as a man, but I will not contribute to this catastrophe!” O’Brian said.* Asked whether he had ever heard Biden promise socialism to anyone, he replied, “He himself didn’t, but that is what the rest of his party are dreaming about!”

In addition, Biden will inherit a bundle of problems that bears an uncanny resemblance in both size and content to the problems Franklin D. Roosevelt had to bear. There is the pandemic, an enormous economic collapse, 12% unemployment (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 2020), and on top of that, a record-breaking federal deficit of $3 trillion with the largest budget hole since 1945. And there is the pressing problem of health care reform, something Obama’s health care law only timidly began.

Roosevelt responded to social ills with the New Deal program which created jobs for people as part of federal projects and, in 1935, set up a universal pension fund known as Social Security. Can Biden follow in his footsteps? He could, and moreover, it would be advisable that he did, although historians, including Allan M. Winkler of the University of Miami University, fear this might not be possible.

“Polarization has always existed, although whenever we have dealt with other standards, there has never been talk of the kind of distraction that today is taking place. Politicians would argue in a meeting room, but privately, they talked to each other, and this opened up a path to agreements and compromises. Can you imagine Mitch McConnell drinking tea with Nancy Pelosi today? No. This is why I find it hard to believe that anyone will be able to pull America out of the crisis with a new version of the New Deal,” Winker told me.*

Trumpism Is Like the Coronavirus

How do experts see Biden’s presidency in the light of all these challenges, divisions and the burden of the pandemic?

John Pitney Jr., a former Republican adviser and professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, predicts that the only area where Biden can succeed is in dialogue (though not necessarily agreement) with the Republicans, since as a Washington insider, he knows many of them personally.

But we should not expect any significant reforms since the Democrats and the Republicans treat each other like hostile packs of wolves, with suspicion but also with the conviction that they live in completely different countries. This is obviously the result of Trumpism, a trend that is spreading among Republicans like a coronavirus and which threatens to turn into an epidemic. Trump has shown there is a huge group of voters who like this virus. For now, there is no vaccine on the horizon, and this is why if Republicans are too moderate in their relations with the Democratic president, there is a risk of losing the presidency to a rival who acts and thinks even more like Trump.

Pitney adds that legislative moderation, no matter how motivated, might prove to be beneficial for America. “We are so much in debt, and we cannot afford any greater spending at the moment,” he explains.*

Peter Wehner, a former presidential speechwriter and currently a vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., predicts that certain destructive attitudes and sentiments like racism, nationalism and a renaissance of white supremacist ideology that have gained strength during Trump’s presidency will not go away. Instead, we should get ready to see how ruthlessly they will test their limits and how much we are ready to tolerate.

When he leaves office, Trump will take a great deal with him, but unfortunately, he will also leave much behind, things that we would prefer never to see again: a populism at its worst, which preys on our weaknesses and fears and feeds on conspiracy theories. Trump will watch this circus personally. After all, he announced that in the worst-case scenario, he will return to the White House in four years, according to Wehner.

And let us not forget that before leaving office, Trump has effectively and probably quite ingeniously laid out an obstacle course for Biden in the form of the courts. He has appointed nearly 30% of the federal appellate judges, a record considering the fact that this happened during just one term. The appointment of ultraconservative Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court pushed through the Senate at the last possible moment just six days before the election, was, of course, the icing on the cake.

That way, for the first time in 80 years, conservatives have gained a clear majority of six to three on the Supreme Court, which may or may not mean a certain bonanza in the ideological and cultural wars, a conservative majority which right-wing populism relies on and from which it draws strength. It’s conceivable that there will be dramatic changes to historic cases during Biden’s presidency, which made America a world leader in human rights and the movement for equality, in the last century, and included the right to abortion.

Trump 2.0 Is Already in the Starting Gate

Which leads us to the last point and a question: Will Biden’s presidency turn out to be only a desperate attempt to defend America against Trump 2.0.? According to some, this is possible since the candidates for the next election (unless it is Trump himself) are already waiting in line. In her article under a telling title “America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent,” Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish sociologist at the University of North Carolina, lists specific names.

Her favorite is a Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, author of a book on Big Tech that is soon to be published. The fact that a lawyer has delved into the area of technology would seem strange, unless it is a part of some larger scheme. Hawley “knows that (Big Tech) will be the next chapter in the culture wars, with social-media companies joining ‘fake news’ as the enemy,” writes Tufekci.

Besides, she is also betting on Tom Cotton, a populist and racist senator from Arkansas who is prophesying the end of America at the hands of the Black Lives Matter movement, and celebrities such as Tucker Carlson from Fox News, and the king of political podcast, Joe Rogan, as well as a newly minted Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a lover of firearms and a QAnon conspiracy theorist (who believes that the world is run by an egalitarian pedophile group trafficking children and that President Trump has a secret plan to bring them to justice).

Tufekci concludes her essay by saying something that we may not agree with, but which certainly makes one think. “A political nap for a few years probably looks appealing to many who opposed Trump, but the real message of this election is not that Trump lost and Democrats triumphed. It’s that a weak and untalented politician lost, while the rest of his party has completely entrenched its power over every other branch of government: the perfect setup for a talented right-wing populist to sweep into office in 2024.”

We can be sure of one thing. In the coming years, American politics will give many emotional moments and even more surprises. We will not be bored. Let us only hope we will not have too much to fear.

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted remark could not be independently verified.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply