NOT long after being sworn in at midday local time today in Washington D.C. as the 46th president of the world’s most powerful country, Joe Biden is expected to issue a series of executive orders aimed at reversing some of his predecessor’s egregious excesses.
Reports suggest the ban on arrivals from a bunch of mainly Muslim countries will be rescinded, the US will realign itself with the Paris climate change agreement, mask-wearing will be made mandatory on federal property and during interstate travel, and restrictions on evictions and foreclosures will be extended. Reuniting immigrant children viciously separated from their families will also be a priority.
There is also a plan to step up Covid-19 vaccine delivery to inoculate a million people a day. One manifestation of ‘America First’ has been the highest coronavirus death toll in the world, now rapidly approaching 400,000 at the rate of around 4,000 fatalities a day.
That alone would have guaranteed a presidential inauguration day very different from the norm, but the incredible events of two weeks ago have completely changed the dynamic. In recent days, a larger contingent of forces has been deployed in the American capital than is currently present in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia. Veterans who have served in Baghdad and Kabul have spoken of a sense of déjà vu.
Unenviable tasks await the 46th US president.
Donald Trump has denied all responsibility for the disaster that unfolded at the Capitol on Jan 6, but several of those arrested for their participation in the onslaught claim they were just following the president’s orders. Evidence has emerged that some among the supposed forces of law and order colluded with the lawbreakers (as did some Republican members of Congress), and that the ranks of the latter included retired or serving military and security service personnel.
The FBI has belatedly been carrying out background checks on troops who are supposed to keep Washington safe on inauguration day. Hopefully, nothing will go awry, notwithstanding elements that have broadcast their determination to ensure that no Democrat enters the White House.
Trump, meanwhile, is on course to supplement his litany of misbehaviour by becoming the first president in over 150 years to boycott the swearing-in of his successor. Among those present there will nonetheless be some of those who bear varying degrees of responsibility for America’s current predicament, including Vice President Mike Pence and former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
The image of the US as the shining city on the hill and a beacon of democracy was never anything more than an illusion, but the recent rot set in with Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy in the 1980s and none of his successors seriously endeavoured to turn back the tide. The growing disparities of wealth and privilege under neoliberal capitalism have never been meaningfully challenged. They established the basis for the Tea Party once it became obvious that the Obama administration was determined to stick with Wall Street in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Should it be all that surprising, then, that a MAGA-mad hatter surfaced as a response?
Sure, there’s no getting away from the damage this individual has done, not least by stoking the kinds of divisions that have revived recollections of the 19th-century Civil War era and the retrogressive backlash. But returning to a pre-Trump ‘normal’, as Biden appears keen to do, will not get America far, given the conditions that preceded Trump are precisely what made his candidacy viable in 2016.
The trouble is, the kind of radical change that would be required to redress the damage of the past few decades is not Biden’s natural habitat. In his half century as senator and vice president, he has consistently prided himself on his penchant for bipartisanship. However, as Branko Marcetic documents in Yesterday’s Man, the compromises Biden made in establishing a legislative record all too frequently entailed rolling over to let the Republicans tickle his tummy.
As the Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole eloquently put it in an essay in The Guardian last weekend: “His skills as an operator, a fixer, a problem-solver, are finely honed — but they are redundant. He is a horse whisperer who has to deal with mad dogs. He is a nifty tango dancer with no possible partners.”
Yes, it does indeed take two to tango, and the Republican Party has been transformed into Trump’s creature — an instance, arguably, of Frankenstein’s monster enslaving its maker. But the Republicans were a disaster even before Trump, with the Democrats not very far behind.
The former presidents that will grace today’s inauguration all played their role in shaping America’s predicament. What are the chances Biden can break away from the neoliberal orthodoxy and remake America while binding its wounds? We can hope for the best, but don’t hold your breath.
Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2021