QUERIES: Can Biden Lift America Out Of Its Fearsome Problems?

US President Joe Biden speaks about the Covid-19 response before signing executive orders for economic relief to Covid-hit families and businesses in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 22, 2021

By Salim Lone

WASHINGTON|SHIFTMEDIA| When the Democratic party’s 2020 primaries began, I was sure Joe Biden stood no chance of being the nominee: he was visibly past his prime and would be crushed by the brutish Donald Trump.

In addition, as a rooted centrist, a number of Mr Biden’s positions in his long political career had been out of tune with the rising newer Democrats who were going to be the key to defeating President Trump in November.

Biden in fact famously assured his donors during the current campaign that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he was elected President.

But Joe Biden has also always been a genuinely decent person whose compassion and empathy stood out. This humanity however was not matched by his Senate policy positions, some which exacerbated the country’s gross inequality and African-American incarceration.

So even the thoroughly pro-establishment New York Times opposed his nomination.

How wrong I was! Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination with powerful Democratic establishment as well as African-American support. During the campaign, his graciousness and civility were the perfect foil to the loutish Donald Trump.

Propelled also by the President’s disastrous handling of the pandemic, and by overwhelming and sometimes rule-breaking mainstream media support, Joe Biden narrowly won a nail-biting election whose outcome took many tension-filled days to determine.

Post-election chaos

President-elect Biden immediately proved his mettle and the temperament needed to govern America in the tumultuous Trump-induced post-election chaos. The sitting President outrageously claimed that he had won by a landslide.

The media, some Democratic leaders and liberal activists were screaming condemnation 24/7 at him, but they were also goading Joe Biden to confront Trump’s lies.

But Joe Biden knew what was needed, and showing confidence that took even many supporters by surprise, responded to furious media demands to condemn Trump at his first press conference by simply saying that Trump’s claims were merely “an embarrassment”.

A lot more virulence was thrown at Joe Biden by Trump in the next two months, but finally on Wednesday this week, much of America and the world breathed a vast sigh of collective relief as Joe Biden was sworn in as President, and Donald Trump got onto Air Force One for the last time, to his Mar-A-Lago Florida estate. Hopefully forever.

The fundamental challenge facing America now (as for the last few years) is captured in an abhorrent Donald Trump outsize support. Almost 75 million Americans voted for him! Most are mainstream, law-abiding citizens, but they are still passionately drawn to a leader with known fascist leanings because he did offer to concretely improve their lives — and, before the pandemic hit, he did.

Fascism is the most virulent totalitarian ideology as it is popularly supported by the people, while dictatorship is easier to take on and remove.

This enormous and complex challenge posed by the masses of the disaffected bestrides President Biden’s more immediate pandemic, immigration and anti-racist priorities.

Pursuing change

How will he and the Democrats, who now wield near-absolute power with control of the presidency and both the House and the Senate, address this challenge of the potential “disunion”, as President Biden boldly called it in his inaugural address?

The progressives can now hold Mr Biden and the Democratic leadership fully accountable for lack of will in pursuing change.

On the issue of tackling the now-departed Mr Trump, Mr Biden is taking a much more nuanced position than Democratic leaders and activists who want to take further punitive action, barring Trump from political office permanently.

Lawfully punishing Mr Trump is perfectly acceptable, but its impact on the nation must be carefully assessed. Many, including me, fear that banishing him from politics could deepen the sharp cleavages eating away at America from within.

As Toynbee wrote, “great civilisations are not murdered. They commit suicide.”

The presence of this deep-rooted “time bomb” of the disaffected erupted into the open and has transfixed America since the storming into the United Sates Capitol on January 6 by militant Trump supporters.

This was followed by reports of supportive extremists within the security forces and allegations that elected Congressional Republicans had assisted in the rioters’ easy entry into the Capitol.

Inaugural address

Soon, 25,000 National Guard troops were deployed to help thousands of local security forces seal off central Washington for Wednesday’s audience-free inauguration.

The “time bomb” of US fragmentation first reared its ugly head in 2016, when Donald Trump shocked the world by winning the 2016 election despite his racist, hate-spewing and misogynistic statements. Tens of millions were disaffected enough to vote for such an abhorrent character, along, of course, with millions of better-off conservative Republicans and gun-toting extremists.

But the American establishment, including the media, self-servingly chose to see Trump as an aberration rather than a reflection of mass discontent and disempowerment. Vast numbers of Americans have seen their incomes, job security and once almost-free public services in health and higher education erode for decades now.

As President, Mr Biden finally has the freedom to fashion his own national policies and his legacy. He rightly focused in his inaugural address on unity, but soothing words do not mean much without the concrete, pro-people policies that can bring it about.

Indeed, unity can be the cover for moderate policies that enshrine the status quo. So will President Biden have the stomach to take on these powerful forces to address inequality?

The other worrying area is foreign policy, where Mr Biden chose an interventionist team. In Senate testimony, incoming Secretary of State Anthony Blinken “gave the Trump administration credit for several pillars of its foreign policy,” and indicated that he “could take a harder line on China, Iran and Venezuela” than did Barack Obama. He would also keep the US Embassy in Jerusalem, where Mr Trump moved it in 2018.

The new Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines was more blunt: “China is a challenge to our security, to our prosperity, to our values across a range of issues.”

New Constitutional plans

On Iran, both said that reviving the Obama Nuclear Accord would require looking at Tehran’s efforts to “destabilise” the Middle East and its ballistic missile development, areas President Obama had agreed not to link to the nuclear accord.

Mr Blinken also said he would not negotiate with President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, whom the Trump administration tried hard to remove.

One hopes that President Biden will give much freer rein to his human side and engage with the multitudes who feel the terrible sting of acute marginalisation and deprivation that saw Mr Trump elected and then almost re-elected president.

Even if he disappears from the political scene, a cleverer and less narcissistic extremist could yet emerge to destroy democracy.

Finally, a word about Kenya and President Biden, who visited us in 2010 and supported our new Constitutional plans. He also knows a number of our leaders well. Raila Odinga is one of them, and he told me — after a lengthy 2012 meeting he and our former Ambassador to the US Elkanah Odembo had with Vice President Biden and his advisors — that he had met few leaders who seemed so genuinely sympathetic to African and Kenyan aspirations.

Luckily also, Mr Biden’s close ally and confidante, Delaware’s US Senator Chris Coons, has known Kenya since his youth and is also one of the finest human beings one could expect to meet. The two will be looking out for us — a bit at least.

The writer, a former spokesperson for the UN and Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, lives in New Jersey.

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