21 January 2021

Bridging a divided US: the challenge for President Biden

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"Today, my whole soul is in this. Bringing America together. Uniting our people. Uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause." President Joe Biden's inauguration speech focused on the need to bridge divides and rebuild unity in a polarised US. Sunder Katwala examines the challenges facing the Biden-Harris administration in this piece, originally published in Eastern Eye.

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Joe Biden’s route to the White House has been the most unusual for decades. He seldom ventured far from his Delaware home as the rituals of the campaign trail were replaced by a virtual campaign during Covid. The three-month transition period traditionally sees the President-elect’s agenda and appointments as the centre of attention, while the incumbent quietly tidies up loose ends and begins to fade quietly into the post-presidential background.  That was never going to be Donald Trump’s style.

Nothing in the Trump Presidency has disgraced him quite so much as the leaving of it.  Presidential candidates have contested the outcome before: Al Gore pursued his legal options before publicly conceding, with some grace, once the Supreme Court decided the knife-edge Bush v Gore election against him. Trump’s team rarely concentrated on their legal remedies. Indeed, they were highly reticent about alleging fraud before the Courts, even while the President proclaimed it noisily in every other public forum. So amid a blizzard of dismissed lawsuits, Trump endlessly amplified conspiracies and misinformation. A minority of Americans – but two-thirds of Trump voters – were persuaded that the election result was dodgy, with too many Republicans playing along with a story they did not believe to appease Trump’s base. And so the  “Stop the Steal” campaign brought murder and mayhem to the heart of Washington in the futile effort to prevent Congress certifying the Electoral College victory of President elect Biden.

Trump has been damaged by his post-election conduct while Biden’s reputation has been quietly rising. A Pew survey found that Americans approve of President-elect Biden’s conduct since the vote by 57% to 15%. That’s a strong score among the two-thirds of Americans who believe that he was the legitimate electoral victor, but it also illuminates the significant challenges of political legitimacy and violent extremism.

Seven out of ten Americans now want Trump to leave politics. Judged by conventional political standards, he is damaged goods. But a 29% approval rating is alarmingly high for an impeached President who has promoted an insurrection. Initially, one in five Americans went so far as to express support for the uprising in Washington – though this halved within days. Images of the insurrection shifted from those who resembled day-trippers and souvenir hunters to those who came equipped to kidnap and assassinate members of Congress.

The events and aftermath of January 6th show how online conspiracy theories – including QAnon, so absurd that it has often been treated as a joke – can have serious real world consequences. The heightened excitement that Biden’s inauguration could still be blocked by a surprise Trump coup bears all of the hallmarks of online radicalisation. While the threat from Islamist groups remains, the armed and radicalised right in America has become the biggest domestic terrorism threat in any major democracy.

President Biden inherits a deadly pandemic that has disrupted the US economy, as well as a challenge to the foundations of American democracy, before he gets to his own policy agenda. Day One of his Presidency sees high-profile changes – including America rejoining the global climate talks and the end of Trump’s “Muslim ban” and his family separation policies. These are important symbolic issues for the Democrat base – but, crucially, also ones where Trump’s so-called ‘populist’ position was less popular than Biden’s. Biden has a clear mandate on climate change which, amid a deep partisan divide, two-thirds of Americans prioritise. Even on the highly contentious issue of immigration, the Fox News exit poll finds 7 out of 10 Americans believe in legal status for the undocumented.

On the global stage, Biden’s inauguration will be greeted initially with relief, especially by governments that value America’s voice in multilateral institutions. The Modi administration in India, having done little to disguise its preference for Trump, faces a trickier transition. But it is likely to be pragmatic about where power now lies and will seek to further deepen the US-India democratic partnership.

The Indian press has been as interested in the Indian-American contingent in the Biden administration, already 20-strong in the initial appointments, Vice-President Kamala Harris will not be the only American of Indian heritage at the top table. Neera Tanden has been nominated to lead the Office of Management and Budget, a key Cabinet role with influence on government spending. Tanden’s high profile on Twitter has seen her criticised as too partisan by the Republicans and too centrist by the Democrats’ left flank. It is perhaps a sign of integration that the controversy has become partisan and factional, seldom about ethnic background.

The Biden administration will look rather more like America than the Trump administration did. The new President’s challenge is to reach across America’s social rifts. More than at any time since Watergate, the job of the incoming President is not just to govern but to seek to heal the soul of a deeply divided nation.

This article originally appeared in Eastern Eye