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Biden braces for big bold changes as President

Let’s never do that again. Soon, the worst president in modern American history will resume private life. Everyone who favours the rule of law, decency and truth is exhaling a long-deferred sigh of relief.

Biden braces for big bold changes as President
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Chennai

Millions are upset that the election was as close as it was. Still, however narrowly, Americans have snatched our republic from the jaws of an encroaching autocracy. We deserve the catharsis — whether dancing in the streets or joy-scrolling in quarantine.

Gone from the White House will be an administration whose gaslighting operation was matched only by its hostility and deadly incompetence. Gone will be the necessity for, and our stupid hope in, saviours: Robert Mueller, state attorneys general, Anonymous, “concerned” Senators Susan Collins and Mitt Romney. Gone will be the Muslim bans, the human-rights violations at the southern border, the photo-op Bible shaken like a martini after federal police gassed non-violent protesters. The parade of dishevelled presidential associates under indictment, the Jared and Ivanka leaks, MSNBC’s nightly seminars on Russian oligarchs, the presidential retweets of literal white supremacists — gone.

Given the collective frenzy of these years, President-elect Joe Biden intuited that legions of Americans wanted a return to normal — a restoration, a reversion. The earnest hope in his promise “to restore the soul of America” was that the same country that uplifted Donald Trump and let itself be consumed by internet-fuelled culture wars could heed its better angels again, as it did when it elected the nation’s first Black president on a hope-and-change mandate not so long ago.

But if this election is to have lasting meaning, we cannot see a Biden campaign victory as license to cast away politics as a presence in our daily lives. We cannot succumb to the liberal temptation parodied by the comedian Kylie Brakeman to “vote for Biden so we can all get back to brunch.” However effective it might have been at closing this race, this restorationist fantasy would be a terrible governing philosophy. Because the pre-Trump world — in which voting rights were being gutted and 40 per cent of Americans couldn’t afford a $400 emergency bill — is no kind of place to go back to. Biden himself seemed to concede this point by tempering his restoration message with the slogan “Build Back Better.”

On Election Day eve, I spoke with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York — the minority leader, who could, by a razor’s edge, become the majority leader in 2021 if the results of two presumptive run-offs for Senate seats in Georgia go the Democrats’ way. Because, like Biden, Schumer is an institutionalist and a moderate, I asked him about this idea of restoration versus transformation. Almost as soon as he heard me say the word “normalcy,” he began, for lack of a better term, to filibuster: “No, no, I don’t buy that.”

“My view,” he told me, “is if we don’t do bold change, we could end up with someone worse than Donald Trump in four years.” What passed for change in the past two decades (including during the Obama years) had not, he acknowledged, been “big enough or bold enough.” When I asked if Democrats bore some responsibility for that, he deflected: “There’s plenty of blame to go around.”

Even if, improbably, the Senate is on Biden’s side in 2021, he and his advisers will have to pull off a gruelling balancing act: pushing federal policy to reflect popular will so that people’s lives can measurably improve, while making fundamental changes to the workings of American democracy and managing to heal rather than inflame the cultural resentments, racial hatred and party polarization that still imperil the Republic (and that the Republican Party thrives on).

Biden may take the oath of office facing a lattice of crises that make some other tough-times inaugurations look enviable: a health crisis, an economic crisis, a racial-justice crisis, a climate crisis and a crisis of representative democracy revealed and exacerbated by his predecessor. These are problems that snicker at incrementalism. In one favourable scenario, come January, two Democratic runoff victories in Georgia leave a President Biden facing a 50-50 Senate, with his vice president, Kamala Harris, possessing the crucial tie-breaking vote. Even then, the scope of available policy reforms would still be substantially limited unless Biden sought to eliminate the filibuster that requires 60 Senate votes to get major legislation enacted. Doing away with this rule would, of course, immediately doom any chance of a constructive working relationship with Republicans.

But it could still be a risk worth taking. If Democrats win the two presumed Georgia run-offs, Senate Democrats will represent roughly 41 million more people than the Republican half of the chamber. If Biden is to meet this moment, he can’t let his cautious temperament and deep hankering for civic comity stop him from making the policy changes families need.

The most immediate problem is the plague. Trump was so inept at containing it that he couldn’t even keep it from infecting him. But the sanity and science-based competence that Biden has promised will go only so far. Suppressing the virus and executing a vaccine rollout, while boosting an economic recovery that will have slowed over the winter, would require trillions of dollars in investment and a font of bureaucratic creativity.

For tens of millions, the economic traumas of the pandemic have come on top of decades of stagnation and precariousness. Since 1989, the wealth of the bottom 50 per cent of Americans has fallen by $900 billion. Before Covid-19, 44 per cent of American workers were being paid median annual wages of $18,000. And the evictions now surging are coming in the wake of a housing market that has long been unaffordable. Even if high unemployment were reversed, it would hardly repair our increasingly classist and Uber-ised labour market.

And if Democrats do win the Senate? Senator Schumer told me he envisions a first 100 days filled with a raft of measures on the virus and economic relief, mixed in with policies that address inequality, climate change, student debt, immigration and more. A Biden administration’s early days “ought to look like FDR’s,” he said. “We need big, bold change. America demands it, and we’re going to fight for it.”

Much, however, could still get in the way. First, Biden’s own instinct toward caution — which can easily end up enabling paralysis at a time when Democrats’ window for proving the promise of an active government could be closing. Any measure of success is likely to be determined by how seriously a Biden administration takes the inevitable calls for fiscal conservatism and austerity (despite historically low interest rates).

Despite our divisions, Biden could use the bully pulpit to bring the country together. He could promote local projects of dialogue and reconciliation, and continue to hold genuinely bipartisan town halls throughout his term.

Joe Biden — simply by being himself and not Donald Trump — can make a monumental difference. His evident basic goodness and empathy being of real use. And yet the Biden way — the smiles, the giving out of his phone number, the backslapping of political foes — tends to elevate personal kindness over systemic justice. In the end, a basic choice may stalk Biden: What matters more, the radiation of personal decency or the pursuit of structural fairness?

Anand Giridharadas is the author of Winners Take All. NYT©2020

The New York Times

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