Joe Biden, the US president-elect inherits a sobering reality: An incompetent, megalomaniacal, corrupt, racist, misogynist, unprincipled and pathological liar is still favoured by 71 million Americans. Another way of interpreting the US elections is that you can put up a folksy, grandfatherly, white guy — a “healer-in-chief” — against the aforementioned unmentionable and you still end up with a nail-biter. Here is a third take: 2,30,000 American lives and 1.2 million worldwide had to be sacrificed to shove Donald Trump out of office; with a margin this close, it is hard to see how Trump wouldn’t have come roaring back without COVID and a collapsed economy. To make matters worse, Trump refuses to be shoved out.
Nonetheless, a win is a win. Boston, where I live, is a Democratic stronghold and this time of the year, the trees are on fire with autumn colours. The streets around Boston Common were on fire on November 7 with young people of all colours dancing, chanting and climbing streetlights. But Boston isn’t America. Joe Biden will need healing superpowers to get through his first hundred days. Here are some wounds in need of urgent care and what the healer-in-chief might do.
Biden will have to stick a band-aid across the divided government that reflects a divided nation. If the Senate remains in Republican hands, it will do everything to undermine him. Getting anything done will require horse-trading, manipulation and shoulder-massaging. Having spent 36 years in the Senate, Biden is ideally cast for this role. It also helps that he has got that shoulder-massaging thing down to an art form. Okay, he may not be doing much of that anymore, but Biden’s past is an asset. He should consider naming a Republican or two to his cabinet to win some bipartisan love.
Biden’s band-aids will be needed within his own fractured coalition. The progressive wing of the Democratic party, particularly the younger activists, led by the electrifying Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have held their noses while Biden gets past Election Day. They don’t see eye-to-eye with his centrist policies. Given the close election, it is likely that the progressives will have less clout, but it will be a mistake to sideline the party’s high-energy wing. VP-elect, Kamala Harris — who has been somewhat of a Chameleon Harris with her ability to adopt both progressive and moderate positions — could help in bridging the two sides. More substantially, Biden should name a cabinet modeled on the “Biden-Sanders unity task forces” set up earlier this year to coalesce on a progressive-centrist compromise platform.
Biden’s healing will be in demand after the summer of protests over the wretched state of racial justice in America. The black vote may have been critical in putting him over the top in the battleground states and black America will be eager for tangible action and payback. Sadly, racism is systemic and Joe Biden is not the man to overturn a system. Having a woman of colour as VP is his boldest play, but he must go further. Kamala Harris’s presence on the stage and the lingering shadow of Biden’s former boss, the first black president, will only heighten the expectations. Influential black leaders, such as Stacey Abrams, who worked tirelessly for the vote in the Republican stronghold of Georgia, ought to be elevated to key roles.
Biden will have to heal a battered economy. A potential solution will involve boosting aggregate demand, which means reaching for that bitter pill of tax-and-spend, dreaded by politicians. Here, the divided government will stand in the way. Biden must cajole Senate Republicans to come along and permit fiscal spending; otherwise, we can expect to see more financial instability in US and global markets. He must also develop a coherent stance on Big Tech, but will need to be schooled in technology issues first; so far, Biden has shown only superficial interest in this sector, key to US competitiveness.
Biden’s most immediate healing act would be to fix America’s shoddy response to the pandemic. He has appointed a task force, but the devil lurks in the details. In 2021, the logistics of vaccination will bring fresh challenges. Biden’s designated medical experts must engage not just with details, logic and data, but with empathy and win over a sceptical and pandemic-fatigued citizenry. It would even help if they appeared on stage alongside the experts on the economy to signal to the public that the response strategy balances concerns for both lives and livelihoods.
On foreign policy, Biden will, no doubt, send out curative smoke signals. A committed committee-man, he’ll abandon the “America First” stance and will let the world know that America is back on committee projects, from the Paris climate accord or the World Health Organisation to coalitions against adversaries. But such messaging will eventually need real follow-up. For example, Biden must start cajoling Republican senators to fund alternative energy projects to deliver on the Paris accord. With adversaries, Biden has been blunt (On Putin: “I am looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” On Xi: “This is a guy, who is a thug.”). As a potential one-term president, I think — and fear — he will be speaking his mind often. The Biden team had better get the teleprompters geared up to balance scripted messaging with plain Bidenspeak to America’s strategic advantage.
As far as India goes, it is clear that walking arm-in-arm with Modi in packed stadiums will not be on the cards, for now. Given her ties to India, Kamala Harris will wield influence. She will charm India, but may be less charmed by Modi policies, particularly regarding Kashmir; so, expect some blunt Kamalaspeak leavened with genuine affection for her mother’s homeland. That said, this is an administration likely to take a geopolitically aware and strategic view of its India relationship.
These are not just American concerns, they matter to the world, because America still matters. While we exhale today, plan on some deep breaths in the months ahead. If Biden-Harris run the gauntlet of the first hundred days successfully, we can all breathe a bit more easily and begin a process of genuine healing from the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and Donald Trump.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 13, 2020 under the title ‘ Healer-in-Chief’. The writer is Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, and founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context.
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