Biden’s presidency is an opportunity for democracies to find a new path toward political efficacy and inclusive capitalism.
The journey to the end of a long, dark night that the U.S. and the West suffered with Donald Trump at the helm has ended. Four years of democratic degeneration, of systematic lying, of encouraging the worst human instincts and of incompetent administration are ending. Trump leaves behind a legacy of division, suspicion and resentment. Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House as the 46th president heralds a new dawn, and there are abundant reasons to celebrate. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee this moment will last long or be bright. The Herculean task of pulling off a new day in a presidential term that appears to be the most complicated since World War II rests on the the shoulders of this 78-year-old politician, who is not particularly charismatic and whose instincts are pragmatic and moderate. The U.S. and the West need to succeed in neutralizing the threat of decline that they face.
Biden faces three orders of extraordinary challenge. The first and immediate challenge is the scourge of COVID-19 and its impact on health (there are already 400,000 recorded deaths) and the economy. (There are some 9 million fewer jobs than last February.) The second and underlying challenge is the disease besetting democracy in the U.S., with serious societal division and weakness that Trumpism has exposed (including the way the Republican Party’s resolve dissolved like sugar against the dictatorial nature of a populist businessman and the terrible role that social networks and certain media outlets played). The third and external challenge is the unstoppable ascent of China and the corresponding erosion of American and Western dominance.
The task is awful; success, if not improbable, at least will be exceedingly difficult. However, at the start of this administration, certain elements point in a hopeful direction. The president’s first words and gestures demonstrate that he has an acute understanding of the problems he faces, and of the fact his position does not allow a mediocre response. The new government team shows notable solidarity; the fact that the Democrats control of both chambers of Congress, albeit with a minimal advantage, will facilitate the legislative tasks ahead.
Three words stood out in Biden’s inaugural address: unity, truth and democracy. They were meant to mend the anguish Americans have suffered, to eliminate the virus of manipulated facts that impedes consensus and to restore the strength of a democracy under siege, as physically demonstrated by the fact that the transition of power was celebrated with exceptional security measures. Nevertheless, the discourse and Biden’s first gestures show a righteous willingness to seek extraordinary solutions for extraordinary times.
Moderation is a spiritual attitude that does not signify cowardice; pragmatism is not synonymous with hesitation or weakness; a lack of charisma does not equal an incapacity to build. In his first steps, Biden is initiating a wide offense as he dismantles the most brutal aspects of the Trump presidency through executive orders. Biden is advancing an enormous new plan of economic relief valued at $1.9 trillion, which adds to the previous relief packages in an overwhelming public presentation. He is preparing a vigorous ecological transition and plans to firmly reincorporate the United States into the international order, an order which it principally created and was possibly its principal beneficiary. All of this is headed in the right direction.
There is a promising team that will support Biden, including many accomplished and diverse figures (Janet Yellen as treasury secretary, John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate and Antony Blinken as secretary of state, and his own vice president, Kamala Harris). The team may lack freshness and novelty, but experience abounds. The conquest of the Senate under extreme circumstances opens a narrow path to passage of legislation, even though it will be necessary to maintain complete unity in the Democratic Party with its divided membership.
In key foreign issues, Biden’s administration will have to handle an emergent China, which is reducing the margin of economic, military and technological advantage that Washington enjoys every year. This rivalry has the risk of becoming a new cold war. On that note, Biden will have to search for balance between staying the course and avoiding conflict, and handling the responsibility as “primus inter pares” of promoting the realignment of liberal democracies that have been unraveled during the Trump years.* These democracies share values, but not necessarily interests. Each of these democracies should calculate the cost of being guided more by the latter than by the former. On this side of the Atlantic, the transition in Washington coincides with Angela Merkel’s departure as the next primary 21st century European leader.
The most fundamental thing to remember is that Trump is not a cancer that has been surgically removed from democracy. He is a symptom. The civil discontent that marked his rise; the information and digital media that allowed it, the sycophantic attitude of the political establishment all leads to him. Democracies are fragile, as Biden reminded us, and it is not only true with respect to the United States. With Trump’s departure, the Medusa still has her head. Thus, the monster is still capable of petrifying those who fix their gaze on her. “We will be back in some form,” Trump said yesterday when he left. The real estate magnate was only the most visible of the snakes in Medusa’s hair. The West should undertake to rebuild itself into a more effective body politic and a more inclusive kind of capitalism. Biden’s new day is an opportunity to do so.
*Editor’s note: “Primus inter pares” is a Latin phrase which means a first among equals, the senior or representative member of a group.