The Big Read: A fractious America and a few urgent matters of global proportions await Joe Biden
Joe Biden may have emerged a clear victor in one of the most bruising US presidential elections ever, but it could take some doing to shake off the ghost of Trumpism, say experts.
SINGAPORE: At the South Carolina funeral of the racial segregationist and Republican senator Strom Thurmond in 2003, there was one name in the guest list that no one expected: Joseph R Biden Jr.
Mr Biden, then the Democratic senator from the blue state of Delaware, had been handpicked by a dying Mr Thurmond to deliver an eulogy as the only Democrat in the grieving room.
“I think this is his last laugh,” said Mr Biden at the church wake. “For what else would explain a Northeast liberal’s presence here as the only outsider speaking today?”
Despite seemingly irreconcilable political views, the now president-elect of the United States and Thurmond were long-time friends whose Senate offices in Washington were once side by side.
Thurmond was an icon of Southern white supremacy who advocated for discriminatory laws against African-Americans, while Mr Biden entered politics at age 29 because of the civil rights movement and ultimately served alongside America’s first black president as his vice president.
It was Thurmond who stood by his side when Mr Biden’s first presidential bid flopped spectacularly in 1987, after a New York Times report exposed him for plagiarising a speech by a British politician without attribution.
Facing a barrage of criticism, Mr Biden had also wanted to drop out of an important Senate committee hearing, but was stopped by Thurmond.
As Mr Biden recounted in his eulogy: “Strom Thurmond was the first man on his feet - (he) did not seek a single explanation for what I had been accused of. And clearly, when partisanship was a winning option, he chose friendship.”
In today’s deeply divided America, where Democrats and Republicans cannot see eye-to-eye and ideologues on both sides have become mainstream, such a display of nonpartisanship appears to be inconceivable in the current zeitgeist.
In the race for the White House, Mr Biden had faced criticism from other progressive Democratic presidential contenders, and will likely have to continue navigating the power struggle between centrists and the left-wing forces in his party in his term ahead.
He may also have to contend with a Republican-led Senate, depending on how the two Jan 5 run-off elections for Georgia go. The conservative party already controls half the Senate so far.
And while many may regard the US presidential and congressional elections as a referendum on incumbent President Donald Trump or about which politician has the right to govern, political watchers say the polls are really a litmus test for what America is.
At the time of writing (Nov 14), Mr Biden had received 50.8 per cent of the popular vote and secured 306 electors - more than the 270 he needed to clinch the presidency - compared with Mr Trump’s 47.4 per cent and 232 electors respectively. All electors have been accounted for, but recounts could be triggered in some states, such as Georgia, due to their narrow margins.
Renowned US pollster John Zogby said in his analysis with global journalists earlier this month: “Because this race is so close, no matter who wins, we can draw the conclusion that Donald Trump was not repudiated by the public.”
“We can also draw the conclusion that Joe Biden ... did not get a ringing endorsement from the voting public,” he added.
Mr Trump has refused to concede the election, spending the past week tweeting claims of mass voter fraud without substantiating his allegations with evidence.
Despite this, on Nov 7, Mr Biden, along with his running mate Kamala Harris, declared victory in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, even as he attempted to reach out across America’s ideological divide with a message of unity.
He said: “It's time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again. And to make progress we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans.”
Although the sound and fury of the US polls has not ceased, all eyes are now on the president-elect, who turns 78 later this month, as he and his transition team translate election pledges into actual policies.
Given the state of America that he will inherit, a long list of tasks will await Mr Biden when he assumes office on Jan 20.
An urgent response to the COVID-19 crisis and the deepening economic recession is needed, other domestic policies in healthcare, education and immigration require his attention, as do the complex web of foreign affairs that call for more US engagement in a post-Trump world.
But one of his biggest challenges will be to bridge the yawning partisan divide in America, which the elections have laid bare.
Conservatives believe in economic individualism, limited taxes and government, and self-sufficiency, while liberals strive for civil liberty, equality, and social justice. Recent studies have shown both sides believe their views are mutually exclusive of the other.
Dr Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said: “The immediate priorities for the Biden administration will likely be domestic to try to unify a fractured, deeply polarised country.”
Questions abound on Mr Biden’s plans for America: Will he take a progressive view of the world that completely strips away his immediate predecessor’s policies?
Or will he straddle the line between conservatives and liberals, and pursue a “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” path similar to Mr Barack Obama’s two terms as president?
If anything, Thurmond’s funeral may offer some clues about Mr Biden himself.
As Washington Post political columnist David von Drehle who had covered the funeral said, Mr Biden was the “win-win” kind of guy, whose view of politics was “a two-way street, a marketplace of needs and favours in which participants can all benefit from the free exchange of chits”.
As a person who has devoted his political career to building relationships in the Senate regardless of the other person’s political stripes, a Biden-led administration could be more about pragmatism than ideologies, some commentators said.
As Mr Biden, speaking over his dead friend’s casket in that summer of 2003, had said: “Our differences were profound.
“But I came to understand that, as (the American poet) Archibald MacLeish wrote: ‘It is not in the world of ideas that life is lived: Life is lived for better or worse in life.’”
DEALING WITH COVID-19
Top of the agenda for the new administration is tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is an immediate priority for Mr Biden that will happen before day one of his presidency, said Mr Steven Okun, a Singapore-based senior adviser for McLarty Associates who once served in the Bill Clinton administration.
Mr Frank Lavin, former US ambassador to Singapore from 2001 to 2005, added in an interview: “Get the pandemic and the economy right, and Biden will have a strong foundation to carry out his other policy goals.”
On Monday, the president-elect named 13 health experts to head a transition task force that will shape his approach to managing the coronavirus situation, including former surgeon general Vivek Murthy, who is a contender for a position in Mr Biden’s Cabinet.
The team has a seven-point plan on the medical front, which includes regular and free COVID-19 testing for all Americans, resolving supply problems of personal protective equipment and implementing nationwide “mask mandates” to urge the compulsory wearing of face masks, which will be enforced by the individual states.
Also noteworthy in the COVID-19 plan is the stated goal to rely on science and evidence, a departure from Mr Trump’s handling of the pandemic, in which he contradicted his scientists at several turns and downplayed the severity of the coronavirus.
Mr Trump had also previously indicated that if he were re-elected, he may sack Dr Anthony Fauci, a renowned medical expert who is also one of the leading members of the White House coronavirus task force, but whose grim assessments of the pandemic were often at odds with the administration’s.
Mr David Adelman, who was the US ambassador to Singapore from 2010 to 2013, said that in contrast, Mr Biden “will rely on science to drive the policies”.
Other experts interviewed said that the plan could put America back on track to controlling its tragic pandemic figures, as opposed to past statements made by President Trump that the country had turned the corner.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has predicted that by Nov 28, more than 250,000 Americans will have died from COVID-19. More than 120,000 new cases are being reported in the US each day, which is among the highest daily case counts in the world.
But when viewed politically, Mr Trump’s arguments against lockdowns and in favour of keeping the economy chugging along cannot be ignored too, said experts.
US exit polls by Zogby Strategies showed that the economy was one of the biggest concerns in the 2020 elections. Out of those who said the economy was the number one issue for them, eight in 10 voted for Mr Trump.
Mr Zogby said this is likely why Mr Trump did as well as he did. “He won (the votes) of those who identified with the economy, and also among those who felt that we should focus on rebuilding the economy more than handling and treating the coronavirus.”
Mr Biden, on the other hand, won handily among those who said the next president must deal with the coronavirus first, then the economy, said the pollster and senior fellow at the Institute of Policy Research at the Catholic University of America.
With support for pandemic response measures falling along party lines, experts noted that it is unclear how much support the incoming administration can garner for its COVID-19 plan.
And, due to the decentralised power structure of American politics, a federal Democratic government will not be able to impose much-needed mask-wearing laws if the states disagree. Most governors’ offices and state legislatures are Republican.
READ: Biden aide Murthy says no US-wide COVID-19 lockdown planned as West Coast states advise against travel
When it comes to a stimulus package to help American firms and some 22 million people who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, it is likely that the Democrats will also face political gridlock over the issue.
Explained Mr Okun: “The Biden administration can put forth what his priorities are, but he needs to go through Congress. Anything that has to do with spending, with a Republican-controlled Senate, we are not likely to have tax increases for corporates or high-income earners.
“To a non-American audience, what this means is that Congress has the power of the purse.”
With the elections over and a lame-duck session underway in Washington, pressure on President Trump and Senate Republicans to provide more relief before the year ends has dissipated. Instead, a stimulus bill would likely happen only after Mr Biden takes office.
Several news outlets noted how Mr Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader who was re-elected convincingly in Kentucky, changed his tune on a relief plan after the polls.
“I don’t think the current situation demands a multi-trillion-dollar package,” said Mr McConnell last week.
What these all means is Mr Biden’s Sep 16 remarks that a COVID-19 response “isn’t about politics”, but about saving lives, may not ring true in the end.
One aspect of Mr Biden’s plan that will not require congressional or state governors’ approval is his pledge to restore the US’ relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other global health agencies, noted Mr Adelman.
President Trump had formally moved to pull the US out of the WHO in July and directed the funds meant for it elsewhere, accusing the organisation of pandering to China in its handling of COVID-19.
RSIS’ Dr Koh said while Mr Biden’s first 100 days will likely take a domestic focus, issues such as COVID-19 and others have a strong linkage to external dimensions.
“Pandemic control will necessitate cooperation with other countries … I foresee the Biden administration to undertake steps to reassure US allies and partners around the world (on its pandemic control),” said the coordinator of the US programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.
MANAGING GLOBAL TRADE AND THE CHINA ISSUE
The president-elect has also resolved to boost the US economy beyond pre-pandemic levels, arguing that its growth has been hampered long before COVID-19 hit.
“It’s why Kamala Harris and I won’t just build back to the way things were. We’ll build back better,” said Mr Biden during his campaign.
But his transition team has yet to spell out the specifics of his foreign economic policy, even as the world is still in the midst of an unconcluded trade war between the US and other countries, including China.
Mr Adelman said: “Biden historically has favoured free trade and we can expect a more nuanced trade policy than Trump’s, who has turned to broad-based tariffs as the answer to most questions.”
One question mark would be whether the US would put an end to the US-China trade war, which President Trump had begun as a means to ratchet up pressure on China over what he saw as unfair trade practices at the expense of the American economy.
In an op-ed for Foreign Affairs magazine in April, Mr Biden signalled his intention to remove trade barriers that penalise Americans and resist “a dangerous global slide towards protectionism”.
“The wrong thing to do is to put our heads in the sand and say no more trade deals. Countries will trade with or without the United States. The question is, who writes the rules that govern trade? Who will make sure they protect workers, the environment, transparency and middle-class wages? The United States, not China, should be leading that effort,” said Mr Biden.
But experts said it remains to be seen whether Mr Biden would want the US to return to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), given other urgent priorities.
In one of his first acts as President, Mr Trump had withdrawn the US from the free trade pact - whose members include Canada, Australia, Japan and Singapore - because he believed that other countries would steal American jobs.
Mr Okun said the tide has shifted, as many people now recognise that the CPTPP was not just a trade agreement, but also a way for the US to address China’s ascendancy and alleged unfair trade practices.
“It’s not going to be at the top of the trade agenda. There’s too much to do on the pandemic, too much to do on building up the multilateral institutions. But there will be a different debate if the US comes back to the CPTPP, and a desire to renegotiate certain elements of the deal,” he said.
Mr Lavin noted that Mr Biden’s foreign policy positions had not been fully fleshed out during the election campaign, as the election had mostly been about domestic matters.
“(Biden) comes from the perspective of a traditionalist, who believes that the US has an obligation for global leadership and needs to work through the global institutions and with its partners,” said Mr Lavin.
Elsewhere, the president-elect has also said that he would force China to play by international rules regarding trade, market access and regional security. Although he stopped short of mentioning the World Trade Organization (WTO), many believe that Mr Biden may look to reform the institution and its rules such that the US can prosecute cases against China on trade matters.
The WTO has attracted bipartisan flak from the US over judicial overreach and a perception that China has not played by its rules since its entry in 2001.
Said Mr Adelman: “Biden’s approach in international relations will closely resemble that of President Obama, with important adjustments for changes that have occurred in the last four years.”
With China, on the other hand, it will probably be a “muscular” policy, considering the American public’s decidedly anti-China sentiment in the past few years, he added.
According to a Pew Research Center poll of Americans in July, anti-China sentiment in the US had hit a new high, with 73 per cent of adult respondents saying they had an unfavourable view of the country, up by 26 percentage points since 2018.
Consequently, the tariffs on China are likely to stay put for a while as a form of leverage, even though the trade war has hardly addressed Mr Trump’s original complaints of intellectual property theft by the Chinese or fair market access, nor has it benefited the US manufacturing sector.
Trade aside, what has fundamentally altered US-China relations is Beijing’s build-up of its military outposts on South China Sea islands, which happened during the tail end of President Obama’s second term, said Dr Michael Jonathan Green, senior vice-president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Mr Obama, who was pursuing a US pivot to Asia and was holding dialogues with China to convince it to be a responsible stakeholder, was unwilling to put military pressure on China over the South China Sea issue.
“The US think tanks and the Obama administration were divided, and about half of them thought it was a misunderstanding … Today, I would say 95 per cent of experts all agree that China is engaging in grey zone coercion to expand its footprint and push the US out of Asia,” said Dr Green.
There is no going back to the great power relations of 2013, when Mr Obama hosted China’s President Xi Jinping at a “shirt-sleeves summit” in California, he added.
Senior Obama White House officials such as Michele Flournoy and Antony Blinken, who are now in contention for key positions in the Biden Cabinet, have also reflected on the new developments during the Trump administration and are unlikely to revert to Mr Obama’s softer touch towards China.
Ms Flournoy, who is in line to be the next defence secretary, is also known for her hawkish views on the South China Sea and Taiwan issues, and has proposed that the US should be able to “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours” in order to deter China.
An assertive stance towards China is now baked into any assumption of US foreign policy, no matter who is president, said Dr Green.
The difference with Mr Trump is that instead of doing so unilaterally, the Biden administration could adopt a more consultative approach with US allies and partners in approaching China, said Dr Koh of RSIS.
Mr Biden has said that he intends to organise a global “Summit for Democracy” for its like-minded allies to push back against authoritarianism soon after taking office.
Beyond that, the US also has several multinational groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes Australia, India and Japan, as well as its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy.
“On the whole, the Biden administration’s approach to Asia may seek to draw a balance between Obama and Trump’s approaches,” said Dr Koh.
TACKLING CLIMATE CHANGE
Despite the growing geopolitical rivalry, there are also areas where the US and China will find common interests, such as climate change, the fight against COVID-19 and even their dealings with North Korea.
This will require a more conciliatory tone by the Biden administration which will compete and collaborate with China based on international rules and order rather than unilateral action, said analysts.
There is also no question that Mr Biden, with his decades of working in the Senate and experience in chairing its Foreign Relations Committee, is better equipped than his predecessor to find a balance between confronting China over economic and security differences, and working with it on their mutual interests.
Mr Biden has pledged to recommit America to the Paris Agreement on climate change, another international treaty that the US suddenly exited from under the Trump administration.
Dr Green said: “There is a strong robust bipartisanship consensus that the US will compete with China by working through multilateral institutions, by working with allies and by cooperating with China where you can.”
But analysts said the real challenge to Mr Biden’s environmental plans will come from the domestic front, especially since the Republicans have narrowed down the Democrats’ lead in the House, and may continue to hold the Senate majority.
Still, coming up with a viable modus operandi to tackle climate change is a must-do for Mr Biden, who had made it a key part of his campaign. The former vice president also faces pressures from more progressive factions within the Democratic Party to do more for the environment.
“Climate change is the existential threat to humanity,” said Mr Biden last month. “Unchecked, it is going to actually bake this planet. This is not hyperbole. It’s real. And we have a moral obligation.”
Featuring heavily among the various aspects of his US$2 trillion climate plan are its economic prospects of creating millions of jobs arising from investments in smart infrastructure, green buildings and electric vehicles, likely designed to help him secure support from rival Republicans.
But it is his clean energy goals of getting the country to reach net-zero carbon emissions, as well as to scale back the US reliance on fossil fuels, that could receive a pushback from Congress.
If the Republicans secure one of the two Senate run-offs in Georgia, Mr Biden will most likely have to carry out executive actions to meet his policy goals. And he will also have to seek compromises with Senator McConnell.
Beyond Congress, analysts point to how Mr Biden will also have to consider the political cost to himself as well. Mr Biden’s road to electoral victory had hinged on narrow victories in several Rust Belt states, including Pennsylvania, which has a growing natural gas industry.
COMING TO GRIPS WITH DOMESTIC QUAGMIRE
Several other key election pledges may also face partisan obstacles at the legislative level.
On healthcare, Mr Biden’s promise for universal healthcare with a public option - which he calls Bidencare - will require an expansion of the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have strongly resisted.
On criminal justice reform, Mr Biden has pledged to form a police oversight commission in the first 100 days of his presidency in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping America.
But other moves related to his promise to weed out systemic racism in America also require congressional approval, such as passing the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act to reform the prison system.
Because Congress controls the purse, Mr Biden’s plans that will involve sizeable tax increases and larger government spending could be hampered. To deliver his election promises, he may either need to rely on reshuffling funds from elsewhere, or on compromising his pledges.
“If you want big things out of this administration on taxes or immigration or climate change, if that's your agenda, you're going to be disappointed. Those things will be very hard with a divided government,” said Dr Green.
On the flip side, Mr Lavin argued that it is a good thing for Mr Biden that the Democrats may not be able to control the House and the Senate, as the political situation mirrors his own positioning as a moderate and conciliatory figure.
“It’s a theory, but I think having a ‘right of centre’ Congress can also be a check to the left wing in his Democratic Party, which could be a plus for Biden if he takes a centrist approach,” he added.
Nevertheless, Mr Biden has an advantage over his two predecessors, having spent a lion's share of his 48-year political career in the Senate. Mr Obama had a far shorter time in the legislative branch before heading to the Oval Office. Mr Trump had zero political experience.
Both did not know what they were doing in trying to get legislation passed, said Dr Green, adding that when President Obama got things done in Congress, it was actually thanks to Vice-President Biden working behind the scenes.
Mr Biden’s extensive knowledge in the workings of Congress means he is likely to prefer the pragmatic approach of reaching compromises and building relationships over time, rather than fighting to the bitter end due to ideological differences, said analysts.
In his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep, Mr Biden wrote: “Any day of the week you can read or hear about the lamentable state of our nation’s politics, about our bitter and partisan party divisions, about the regrettable coarseness of the discourse.
“I don’t deny it, but from inside the arena (of the Senate), none of it feels irreversible or fatal.”
Even then, Mr Biden may now be thinking about the next election in 2024, and what the electorate would think if he cannot achieve all that he promised.
Mr Biden will be the oldest US president to be inaugurated in January next year, when he will be 78. He has left open the possibility of seeking a second term in 2024, when he will be 82, and will leave office aged 86 if re-elected.
Mr Trump, in the meantime, is making plans for a return, even though he has yet to publicly admit defeat.
Days after major media outlets called the election for Mr Biden last week, the president formed a new fundraising vehicle known as a leadership political action committee, a move that could keep him highly visible in the Republican Party.
Given the sway he holds over millions of Republican voters, it could also mean Mr Trump, now 74, will stick around for the next election cycle when the party searches for its nominee.
US-based news website Axios reported on Monday that he had already told advisers he was thinking about another presidential bid in 2024.
Mr Biden may have emerged a clear victor in one of the most bruising US presidential elections ever, but it could take some doing to shake off the ghost of Trumpism as he embarks on his presidency and the monumental tasks at hand.
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