It will be hard, as an observer of the US (let alone a liberal-minded citizen of the country) not to breathe a sigh of relief when Joe Biden takes the oath of office later today. Once more, the world’s most powerful country will be led by a person of maturity, decency and emotional depth. But more than that: Biden is also utterly familiar. He joined the Senate in 1973, first ran for president in 1988 and first led the Senate foreign affairs committee in 2001. He became a global political figure as long ago as 2008, when Barack Obama chose him as his running mate. In personal style, Biden is every bit the recognisable archetype of a 20th-century American politician, with particular echoes of the Kennedys. You may or may not be enthused by Biden, but you know where you stand with him.
And yet to equate his presidency with a return to normality is a total misreading. In appearance and style it may feel like a restoration; a reset taking the US back to where it was in 2016 or before. But the challenges Biden faces, and the decisions before him, mean that his presidency is anything but.
Domestically, the effects of Donald Trump’s administration will live on. American politics is polarised far beyond anything imaginable four years ago. A new Pew poll shows that 64 per cent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters incorrectly think that Trump definitely or probably won the election last November and that 57 per cent think that he should remain a major political figure. A recent YouGov survey suggests that 45 per cent of Republicans supported the storming of the Capitol on 6 January. The scenes from Washington, DC, which today looks more like a foreign city under American occupation than a happy and confident capital, are a reminder of the riots. However well the inauguration goes, it cannot be said to have been a “peaceful” transfer of power.
That the US has reached this point does at least defy some of the darkest fears that swirled in the immediate run-up to the election. And that the Democrats control both houses of Congress is good for the incoming administration’s ability to start healing the country. But it is not hard to imagine a narrower presidential election result ending much more chaotically. Nor is it hard to imagine a world without the Covid-19 pandemic in which Trump won a second term. In a gloomy article for the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote that even with a Senate majority, “president-elect Joe Biden will need luck and skill to push through even relatively unambitious legislation”, and that reforms that would really improve US democracy (such as modernising the electoral college system) are likely to remain out of reach. It is far too easy to imagine a more competent and ruthless authoritarian than Trump winning the presidency in 2024 or 2028 – a fact that will loom over the Biden presidency.
The US’s racial divides, appalling economic inequality, the capture of politics by big money, disputes over the basic truth of events, the impossibility of cross-party consensus for reform – none of these issues is new in US politics. But they are now, thanks variously to Trump, the pandemic and other technological and economic factors, so severe as to make any talk of “normality” grimly laughable.
And then there is the international picture. Here, any notion of a stable normality existing even before Trump took office is misplaced. Many of the shifts during his presidency – a lacklustre transatlantic relationship, an uncertain pivot to Asia, American withdrawal from the Middle East, growing tensions with a rising China – were in train before the “America First” president. But again, trends already underway before Trump have advanced far in the past four years. Global institutions are weaker, crises such as the climate emergency are more urgent and, following a year in which a pandemic has ravaged a world without leadership, humanitarian disasters are likely.
Europeans and other allies have lastingly shed their illusions about their alliances with the US. New polling by the European Council on Foreign Relations shows that even in light of the incoming Biden presidency, only 49 per cent of Europeans surveyed expected the country to resolve its internal problems and invest in solving global ones. Such thinking is reflected in concrete policy decisions. The EU’s new investment agreement with China, sealed against the objections of Biden’s transition team, was driven by a sense in Europe (including at the highest levels of government) that it can no longer rely on the US and must hedge its long-term bets.
In the US and elsewhere, the Trump years have greatly emboldened nationalists and authoritarians. The outgoing president’s legacy will continue to do so under the mantra that what goes in the US, the democratic superpower, surely goes in other countries too. Witness Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, who has already started to ape Trump’s protests about fixed ballots ahead of his own country’s election in 2022. Those who wonder how Trump’s attempts to overturn the result would have played out in a country with weaker institutions may want to pay attention to what happens in Brazil.
Then there is China. Beijing does not offer a rival pole of leadership to the US’s old one, but it has filled the gap left by America’s turn away from multilateralist structures: becoming a dominant voice in the World Health Organisation, making its vaccines available to partner governments and increasing its diplomatic reach in places such as Africa and the Middle East, where the leaderless West has been absent or incoherent.
Most of all, China has grown. Its strong recovery from the pandemic means that its economy is now forecast by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) to overtake the US’s and become the world’s largest by 2028, five years earlier than anticipated, and to pull ahead rapidly afterwards. By 2035, the CEBR estimates, China’s annual GDP will reach $49 trillion, making it around a third larger than the US economy at $36 trillion. It is for this world that the Biden administration must prepare the US – at precisely the moment in which many of its allies and sometime partners are questioning its fundamental reliability.
At this point it is de rigueur to note that, yes, the US has a phenomenal capacity for change and progress. Its very character as a young, immigrant nation militates against writing it off. It has been through periods of crisis and decline-ism before (the Civil War, the Great Depression, the 1970s) and come out the other side. Past world superpowers, from the Roman Empire onwards, have often failed when they stopped attracting and integrating newcomers; when they became rigid, closed and decadent. By contrast, the US’s enduring ability to attract the talented and to generate many or most of the newest and most exciting breakthroughs in technology and science remains formidable and will surely be strengthened by the incoming administration. Curiously the Black Lives Matter protests, speaking to searing inequalities within the US but also sparking international protests, were proof of the country’s soft power. Only when China’s domestic protests resonate so powerfully around the world that they inspire copycat moments, targeting global and local injustices, will America’s global soft-superpower status have a serious rival.
And yet the picture is indeed grim. Biden’s difficult inheritance might be compared to those of Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, or Lyndon B Johnson. But all those presidents took office at a time when the US was still the unquestioned leading economic power, a status it has held since the 1880s and will almost certainly cede to China in the next ten years. One has to go back as far as the time of the Civil War, to the noble precedent of Abraham Lincoln and the dismal one of Andrew Johnson, to find presidents confronted with challenges of such magnitude.
In many ways Biden’s challenge is unique in American history. The US is a country defined and fuelled by new frontiers; by the quest to go onwards, upwards and outwards. That story began with values (no taxation without representation), became geographic (the push westwards), then national (free-market capitalism), planetary (the Cold War) and digital (the internet). Now, for the first time arguably since its creation, the forces of history are pushing it backwards and downwards and inwards.
That is not a return to normal, or even a new normal. It is something quite new in American history, albeit with roots in longstanding trends and traits. Biden is safe, recognisable and familiar. But he will be judged by his ability to deal with everything that he is not.