Donald Trump dominates discussion about this year’s US election. But what of his opponent? John Kampfner asks what a Biden presidency would look like.
Imagine the inauguration of Joe Biden. For most people the joy will be unconfined, not because of the man who is about to assume power but because of the removal of the man who has abused it for the past four years.
This will be the new president’s great moment, even at a time of unparalleled pessimism.
It is rare for someone to take office with the bar set so low, expectations so limited, dangers so considerable and national morale so low.
It might therefore be perverse to say that Biden could become a great president. But he just could. And this is how.
His first set of tasks will be crisis management, demonstrating that he can deal with Covid better than his predecessor.
That won’t be hard, and yet the challenges, building from a poisoned political culture, a sinking economy and atrophied infrastructure, will be enormous.
As David Brooks recently wrote in the New York Times, just not being Donald Trump will come as a blessing to far more people than will currently admit it.
All but a small cohort will have deserted Trump long before he is prised from the Oval Office in January 2021. ‘Republicans will pretend they never heard his name,’ Brooks suggests.
Some Democrats will be discomfited by the arrival of Biden. At first glance, he does not exude radicalism. At the age of 77, and a senator for nearly half a century, he does not suggest modernity either.
His decisions in the coming weeks and months will help determine the extent to which he will take risks to change America.
Soon he will announce his running mate. He has already committed to ensuring that it will be a woman. Pressure is increasing on him to opt for a woman of colour.
A host of names are being banded around, from the familiar (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren), to less well-known rising stars such as Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, or Michelle Lujan Grisham, governor of New Mexico.
This choice is of manifest importance. Given his age and rumours about his health, it is almost certain that Biden will be a one-term president. He might not even run the full term.
The role of vice president may be more crucial than in any previous presidency. When the partnership works, as it did with Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, and notably with Barack Obama and Biden himself, it significantly strengthens the offer – and the office.
The first female Veep will come under unprecedented scrutiny. She will be subjected to a new level of vitriol from those on the unreconstructed right who will continue to fight the culture war long after Trump has returned to his real estate business.
There will be other tensions too. Biden will be seen in the minds of some voters as keeping the seat warm for his deputy. If that perception gains currency quickly, his authority will drain away as the rival factions fight it out.
Yet even in the past few weeks, many of the millions of young and more radical voters who dreamed of a Bernie Sanders presidency seem to be warming to Biden, both in terms of his policy proposals, and the way he has arrived at them.
He has, without any doubt, moved to the left. Is that out of conviction? Or, with his team poring over the polls, is it more about moving in lockstep with public opinion?
His economic pitch is based on two grand bargains.
The Made in America blueprint aims at using $400 billion in federal procurement to buy US-made products, as well as revitalising manufacturing, investing in innovation and increasing the minimum wage.
The second plan proposes a staggering $2 trillion, invested over four years, to fight the climate emergency, increasing the use of clean energy to achieve carbon-free power generation by 2035.
‘When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, the only word he can muster is ‘hoax’,’ declared Biden. ‘When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs’.’
These two mega-proposals are set around more than 40 policy agendas aimed at boosting small businesses, education, healthcare, infrastructure, marginalised communities and more.
Some of the time, Biden pares down the rhetoric. Other times he does not. He has promised to create the world’s cleanest, safest and fastest railway system. In America, where train speeds are barely faster than they were a century ago? Compared with so many European and Asian countries? Really?
The sheer volume of initiatives borrows from the ‘she’s got a plan for that’ mantra that Warren used during the primaries.
That is not plagiarism; the Biden and Warren camps have collaborated. Indeed, his willingness to work with others has won plaudits. He has consulted closely with Sanders on the green agenda. He has worked with a group led by former vice president John Kerry and the influential New York congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the same issue.
Biden is reported to have sought the advice of more than 100 left-leaning economists and researchers. His agenda is far more progressive than Obama’s was. But that does not mean it will stay that way.
Obama’s trimming was often reminiscent of Tony Blair and other social democratic leaders across Europe, keen to cement their credentials in favour of globalisation and wealth creation.
Will Biden really increase taxes on the rich, in order to spend heavily on social programmes for the poor? Will he go after the banks and Silicon Valley, and their tax avoidance practices? Will he build on his popularity among African Americans and give practical expression to the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement? Will he force through radical reform of the police, whose dysfunctionality is, according to a recent Pew survey, a matter of growing concern among many voters. Will he soften or reverse Trump’s assault on immigration? Will be ban fracking? Will he make America respected around the world again?
The most likely answer is that he will do some of the above. He will disappoint more than he pleases. Such is the nature of politics. In any case, events will intervene and he, like his predecessors, will be judged on the way he responds.
It is important to prepare for Biden, to set the success criteria; but it is highly dangerous to assume victory.
As I have written here before, Trump will use the next few months to foment chaos, both in terms of the pandemic and racial discord. He cannot postpone or cancel the November elections, but he can produce a hostile environment in which the vulnerable will be scared to vote.
He is already doing so, sending in Federal forces to a number of swing states, against the wishes of the local governments.
As much as he has tried, it has been hard for Trump to demonise Biden as a Trojan horse for the radical left.
Similarly, the incumbent has struggled to portray the challenger as a member of the much-derided liberal coastal elite in the mould of Hillary Clinton. Biden’s support may be growing.
Goodwill may be increasing, both among the left and floating voters. Disenchantment with the mayhem of Trump is on the rise. But, as the recent history of many authoritarian leaders attests, they don’t quit office lightly.
Trump will use all means at his disposal, fair means and foul, to ensure that it is will be he, not the pretender, who will be sworn in on January 20, 2021.