President of the United States since last Wednesday, Joe Biden is a Democrat by name and also by democratic mandate, winning last November by over seven million votes (whatever his predecessor Donald Trump might say), but he aspires beyond his majority electorate “to govern for all Americans,” as he insisted in his inauguration speech. Mere words thus far and every reason to see them as nothing more. Firstly, this idea of “governing for all who voted for me and also for all those who didn’t” is voiced by virtually every election winner worldwide – even by such an anti-pluralistic politician as our current veep Cristina Fernández de Kirchner after her two presidential victories. But rather more importantly, Biden faces many genuinely urgent challenges (as clearly listed in his inauguration speech) which potentially eclipse even such a fundamental task as reuniting a divided country.
Seemingly impossible yet it might well be now or never for outreach to the 74 million Trump voters, building on the momentum from the self-destructive frenzy of the Congress invasion and the Georgia senatorial victories earlier this month to address their frustrations and restore them to the mainstream. Uphill but not impossible because Biden has already accomplished this feat in miniature with the 79,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin giving Trump his electoral college majority in 2016 – the elderly Biden based his claim to the Democratic presidential candidacy on being the man to bring those three Rust Belt states back home and he delivered. If he can multiply that feat 1,000 times, reconciliation is within his grasp.
But how can he do that while remaining true to the Democratic campaign platform? Strangely enough, the most credible way of appealing to Trump voters would also be the best way of keeping the Bernie Sanders radicals within his own party on board – by being far less cosy with the elites, that political, economic and cultural establishment which has been much of the problem by placing millions on the wrong side of the technological gap while transforming values, thus handing Trump his ammunition. How such an egomaniac libertine billionaire as Trump became the hero of the humble man and Christian conservatives is utterly mystifying but Biden’s profile is much closer to them should he choose to build on it. The tech multi-billionaires might fancy that opportunistically banishing Trump from the social media on the eve of his departure (at the expense of freedom of expression) would win favour with Biden who as an old Washington hand would then slide comfortably back into the old politics while they continue rewiring the world undisturbed, but the new president would be strongly recommended to make them think again by embracing anti-trust initiatives. Trump might then be gone never to return, contrary to what he and almost everybody thinks.
Whether Biden will seize these opportunities remains unclear. His strongly centrist Cabinet choices suggest that he is looking back more than ahead and even beyond the Barack Obama years (2009-2017) to Bill Clinton (1993-2001) – the latter a puzzling model as one of the most successful administrations in US history which also left one of the tiniest footprints. Nor does Biden really need Trump’s predominantly white voters because demographically they are on the wane – outreach to them would be more statesmanship than political calculation.
A tiny window of opportunity for reconciliation thus opens for Biden but he is fully excused should he confront his other titanic challenges instead. First and foremost, of course, Covid-19 which daily kills off some 3,000 US citizens (another 9/11 or a dozen air crashes, day in, day out, horrific). After four years of reckless fiscal policies and tax cuts along the lines of Ronald Reagan’s: “I never worry about the budget deficit, it’s big enough to look after itself,” the pandemic has left the new Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen an ocean of red ink amounting to 16 percent of Gross Domestic Product, the highest since World War II. Climate change is a global challenge once the pandemic ends. And, neither last nor least, black lives do matter and racism must be eradicated (while perhaps also trying to avoid situations where the politically correct becomes a self-parody).
Four years ago the late Buenos Aires Herald greeted the Trump presidency with the headline: “Good luck America,” on the strong hunch that his leadership would prove as disruptive and destructive as it was. Today we could repeat the same headline – not out of any disrespect for Biden but awe at the challenges facing him.