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Can Joe Biden Fix a Dystopian America?

CJ Werleman explores the scale of challenges facing the incoming US President – from the immediacy of the Coronavirus crisis to the structural evils of American life

The US Capitol on 17 January 2021. Photo: USA Today Network/SIPA USA/PA Images

Can Joe Biden Fix Dystopian America?

CJ Werleman explores the scale of challenges facing the incoming US President – from the immediacy of the Coronavirus crisis to the structural evils of American life

Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on Wednesday, inheriting the leadership of a country obliterated by a devastating pandemic, crippled by third world-level infrastructure and poverty, stalked by a domestic terrorism crisis, and undermined by the widespread belief and acceptance of baseless conspiracy theories – including one that posits that Donald Trump is being illegally removed from office by a ‘Deep State’ cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibals and paedophiles.

On the same day as 8,000 Trump-led insurrectionists stormed the Capitol in an effort to overthrow the federal Government on 6 January, with the intent to attack Vice President Mike Pence and other elected law-makers for certifying Biden’s election win, resulting in the deaths of five people, the number of daily COVID-19 deaths surpassed 4,000 people.

Thankfully for the United States, however, Biden has been here before. On the day he was sworn in as Barack Obama’s Vice President in 2009, the country was dealing with two costly foreign wars and its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with the entire financial system on the brink of collapse and 800,000 Americans filing for unemployment each month.

Twelve years on, he not only inherits the worst economy since the Great Depression but also one in which roughly 5,000 Americans are now dying each and every day from the Coronavirus – the end result of the Trump administration’s deliberate sabotaging of the national pandemic response.

But whereas in 2009 most Americans were calling for an end to foreign war, in 2021 prominent voices within the Republican Party and the right-wing media are warning of impending civil war over a desire to avenge Trump’s defeat. Conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh and Texas GOP chairman Alan West have both voiced this, as well as a member of the GOP’s central committee in California’s Santa Clara County who posted support for insurrectionists on Facebook: “The war has begun. Citizens take arms!”

Washington DC is under lockdown and curfew to keep Biden and members of the US Government safe from another attack by radicalised Trump supporters.

Tackling Growing Inequality

By almost every measure, Joe Biden will be inheriting the worst socio-political-economic conditions of any President since, and probably including, Franklin D. Roosevelt – thus continuing a trend of Democratic presidents inheriting an economic mess from their Republican predecessors.

Trump took control of an economy that had recorded 75 consecutive months of job growth under the Obama-Biden administration, translating to a halving of the unemployment rate it inherited in 2009. The US economy lost a further 140,000 jobs in December, leaving the unemployment rate unchanged at 6.7% – a rate that does not take into account the tens of millions of Americans currently underemployed because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

While hope has emerged on the horizon in the form of a vaccine, its disastrously slow roll-out has tempered hopes of a speedy end to the current level of death and economic malaise. Certainly, Biden’s announced plans to revamp the nation’s failing pandemic response are robust, given that they include a $415 billion effort to scale-up testing, contact-tracing, vaccination delivery and genomic surveillance, while also bolstering public health resources.

But even this best laid plan faces likely obstruction from congressional Republicans who reflexively blocked every Obama-Biden initiative to rebuild the post-housing crash economy, including bills that were first proposed by Republicans. Right-wing libertarian resistance is also standing in the way of anything interpreted as federal Government overreach, including a national face mask mandate to suppress the spread of the Coronavirus.

But successful delivery of the COVID vaccine will do nothing to change what have become the evils of American life: income inequality, wealth disparity, social immobility, poverty and racial inequality. These are crises made measurably worse by the policies of the Trump administration – particularly the 2017 tax cut, which transferred an unprecedented amount of wealth from the lower and middle-classes to the wealthy and super-wealthy.

A defining characteristic that distinguishes a developed country from a developing or under-developed country is having a majority middle-class. Whereas countries such as Australia, France and Germany have 70 to 75% of their respective populations occupying the middle-class income band, those in Africa and Asia tend to be characterised by a super-wealthy top 5% and super-poor bottom of 75%, leaving only 20% in the middle.

“The US middle-class, which once comprised the clear majority of Americans, is shrinking,” according to a recent Pew Research Center study into trends in income and inequality, which found that the share of American adults who live in middle-income households has decreased from 61% in 1971 to 51% in 2019.

Each year, an ever-greater number of Americans are falling out of the middle-class into poverty – a reality underscored by the fact that food insecurity in the US rivals that of developing countries such as Indonesia and Tanzania, rather than that of OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.

Biden’s plan to address these economic inequalities features a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package as a first step, which not only includes a $1,400 payment to individuals but an anti-poverty strategy built around preventing homelessness, providing child care support, food assistance, expansion of earned income and an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour.

Reversing or redistributing the benefits of the Trump tax cut downwards will be the next step, and then using subsequent increased corporate tax revenues to invest in public health and infrastructure the one after that.

To manage this uncertainty and crisis, Biden will do well to remember that, on issue after issue – from healthcare to taxes, gun control to immigration, climate change to the role of government – America is a centre-left country. And then he should govern exactly with that in mind.

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