Biden facing ‘competing crises’ as he takes office

WASHINGTON (AFP) – A raging pandemic. An economic crisis. A nation divided. Deep racial wounds.

Joe Biden has his work cut out for him as he prepares to be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States (US) today.

“What’s unique for Biden is not so much the fact of crisis, it’s the number of competing crises,” said Mary Stuckey, a communications professor at Penn State University.

Perhaps the biggest is the coronavirus pandemic, which has left some 400,000 Americans dead.

“We have 4,000 Americans dying of COVID every day,” said David Farber, a history professor at the University of Kansas. “And the federal rollout of the vaccine has been a disaster.

“So I think that’s front and centre, and he’s going to try to keep his mind focussed on that.”

Biden has outlined a multi-pronged plan to combat the pandemic that includes expanded testing and contact tracing and vaccinating 100 million Americans in his first 100 days in the White House.

The ‘Field of Flags’ on the National Mall as the US Capitol Building prepares for the inauguration ceremonies for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in Washington DC. PHOTOS: AFP
National Guard troops in downtown Washington DC

But the coronavirus pandemic cannot consume all of the attention of the 78-year-old Biden, the oldest man ever to take the oath as president.

Not many American presidents have been met with an economic situation such as Biden is inheriting, although a few of his predecessors faced even worse.

“In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt walked into the White House with 25 per cent unemployment, the stock market having dropped nearly 90 per cent and people not able to get their money out of the bank,” Farber said. “America has weathered worse,” he said, noting that Biden himself, as Barack Obama’s vice president, helped navigate the 2008 economic crisis “at a time when the world’s economy seemed to be tanking”.

Biden recently proposed a USD1.9-trillion rescue package, dubbed the American Rescue Plan, to revitalise the world’s largest economy.

It includes USD400 billion to fight COVID-19, USD440 billion for small businesses and others hard hit by the pandemic, and USD1 trillion in aid to Americans, including direct stimulus payments of USD1,400 to most Americans, on top of USD600 payments made in December.

Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political science professor at Gettysburg College, said the political polarisation in the US after four years under President Donald Trump presents an entirely different challenge.

“I’ve never seen us quite this divided,” Warshaw said of the chasm between Democrats and Republicans.

“It’s going to be very hard for President Biden to actually bring those people into the political fold,” she said, into the “normal realm of believing that government is working for them”.

Farber said Biden, after a failed insurrection by Trump supporters fuelled by two months of the president’s false claims that he won the election, faces a crisis of “political legitimacy”.

“It’s a crisis, to be frank, like nothing the US has seen maybe since Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration” on the eve of the 1861-1865 US Civil War, he said.

“There really is no other analogy to this,” Farber said, “where you have a sitting president not accepting the legitimacy of the transition of power. It’s just not happened in the US.”

Biden’s first days in the Oval Office may be complicated by what happens with Trump, who was impeached by the House of Representatives on January 13 and faces a potential trial in
the Senate.

“That’s going to just literally eat up time,” Farber said, “the time Biden needs to get his appointees in place, the time he could start some fundamental policy initiatives. It’s no way to start a new policy regime.”

And the outgoing president is unlikely to vanish from the political scene even if convicted by the Senate and barred from running for office again.

“He will be a boisterous, crisis-driving force on the right, perhaps for the entire Biden presidency, and there’s very little Biden can do about it,” Farber said.

Biden is also taking the helm of a nation that has been rocked by months of protests for racial justice following the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police.

“There’s going to be a very large effort by the Biden administration to try and deal with that,” Warshaw said. “It’s really been festering for years and years and years.”

Biden, with his Cabinet appointments, has shown a “willingness to create a diverse Cabinet like the US has never seen before”, Farber said.

“He’s demonstrating to his supporters that the US is trying to turn a new page on issues of racial justice,” he said. “This is a Cabinet that will address racial justice concerns.”

Biden will begin tackling COVID-19, the economy and racial equity issues in his first 10 days on the job, according to incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain.

But that’s not all, Klain said in a memo. Biden will also address another crisis – the global climate crisis – on Inauguration Day by taking steps to rejoin the Paris Agreement.