Donald Trump hands over a country to his successor that is in poor shape. Seldom has a new U.S. president faced such a concentration of domestic and international crises. That’s why Joe Biden has to rely primarily on his team.
It is the second time in a row that a Democratic president has taken over from his Republican predecessor at a time of deep crisis. In 2008, Barack Obama inherited a global financial crisis from his predecessor, George W. Bush, which started in the U.S. and sent America and the rest of the world into an economic depression. In Biden’s case, one can speak instead of an entire crisis cluster that Trump left behind.
The economy is sluggish again due to COVID-19; the national deficit has reached an unprecedented level, and the medical crisis continues. COVID-19 has killed 400,000 people in the U.S. so far, every day brings new highs in the death rate, and the infection rate also remains high. Biden has put together a respected panel of experts that should be able to fight the pandemic more effectively. And it is high time that scientific reason was heard again in the White House.
However, Biden will find it difficult to enforce tougher containment measures nationwide. Not just because much of it falls under state jurisdiction, but also because Trump’s persistent downplaying of COVID-19 has meant that the country is now also divided on this issue. Many conservatives neither recognize the gravity of the situation, nor are they prepared to accept lockdowns or social distancing rules.
Biden Has To Recall Insane Officials
But these are by no means the only serious problems Biden will face from day one of his term. Trump has politicized and shaken trust in institutions, and weakened the government apparatus by placing unqualified yes-men in many positions and chasing away highly qualified career officials. Biden must now restore confidence in the independence of central government agencies such as the Justice Department and the intelligence community, and resuscitate a demoralized administration so that it feels a sense of patriotic purpose that goes beyond merely doing a job.
Filling the approximately 4,000 political leadership positions that are vacated when there is a change of administration in the U.S. is difficult enough — but a good many of them must be confirmed by the Senate. In addition, Biden must try to bring back frustrated and skilled career officials who were dismissed under the Trump administration.
Add to this a worrisome decline in the level of political culture. Even before Trump, the U.S. was a highly polarized country, politically. After four years, this polarization has now transformed into an explosive mixture. Trump’s lies about alleged election fraud that is purportedly to blame for Biden’s victory will poison America’s political culture for years to come and likely lead to the fact that a good number of steadfast Trump fans will believe Biden to be an illegitimate president. That will not make Biden’s job of reaching a compromise with the political opposition any easier, something which will be necessary in view of the extremely narrow majority the Democrats hold in the Senate.
One of the greatest challenges, however, will be coming to terms with the Trump years. They were so full of violated norms that the Democrats will need to clear up the alleged malfeasance for the sake of political hygiene and to deter future presidents from doing something similar. Corruption, abuse of power, influencing the courts, pressuring electoral officials, calling on people to overthrow the government — all of this has to be legally prosecuted, something the Justice Department has jurisdiction over. People will suspect Biden using the judiciary for political reasons, no matter how justified the investigation into the matter becomes.
But the legislative process of coming to terms with the Trump years also comes with risk. This is particularly evident with respect to the question of when the Senate should hold Trump’s impeachment trial. It is in Biden’s interest to have key posts in his government confirmed by the Senate as quickly as possible. But that will not be feasible from a purely logistical point of view if the senators’ time is occupied with the impeachment proceedings.
And aggressive investigation by congressional committees will further deepen polarization and make it harder for Biden to compromise with Republicans in Congress, something he will find difficult to avoid in the Senate. This might require democratic enlightenment, but it will noticeably restrict Biden’s political freedom to proceed.
Biden also faces major tasks in foreign policy. He needs to regain a great deal of trust among allies and dispel doubts about America’s ability to resume the traditional leadership that Trump diminished. Trump has given the Chinese too many opportunities to expand their influence in the world. His amateurish management of the COVID-19 crisis has also meant that America continued to lose ground economically compared to the huge Asian empire. Biden must now contain America’s loss of power and prestige over the past four years and try to turn it around.
Mastering any one of these crises would be difficult, but all of them together could bring one a step closer to a nervous breakdown. This is especially so, given that Biden, at 78, is no longer in his physical and mental prime. The new president must therefore depend on a good team. His future Cabinet is a step in the right direction. Biden has nominated many respected experts, some with long government experience.
This is also in clear contrast to his predecessor. Trump constantly ridiculed expertise and knowledge; the more his administration continued, the more people left or were kicked out, and the lower the quality of the staff Trump put in their place. With Biden, the experts are back. He will have his hands full fighting the aftermath of Trump’s tenure and his disdain for the elite.
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