In August 2020 the Biden campaign released an ad showing the then presidential candidate in a green Corvette sports car, made by the Chevrolet division of General Motors. In the video Biden talked about how much he loved the 1967 model, which had been a wedding gift from his father. With Biden filmed driving an iconic American car produced by a quintessential American automaker, the ad amounted to a pledge to promote domestic industry, of which that sports car remains a symbol. But it was more than that. With his classic sunglasses in his classic car, Biden was also promising a return to Americana, and to a version of American normality that, for many, never existed, but was the story we told ourselves all the same.
The problem with such a promise is that what counts as “normal” is always evolving. After four years of Donald Trump, the meaning of “normal” has changed. It will take more than a presidential election or a campaign ad featuring a Corvette to reverse the status quo ante and inaugurate a yet newer normal.
In some cases, this is because global circumstances have themselves changed, and with them commonplaces of US policy. To take one example, when Biden was vice-president, Barack Obama spoke warmly of Xi Jinping and China and of the potential future Sino-American relationship. In 2021, however, China is more powerful, more economically and technologically competitive, and arguably more territorially aggressive, while its human rights abuses have become more egregious.
Biden is thus taking a different geopolitical approach to China, one that arguably hews closer to Trump’s than to Obama’s. While the Biden administration wants to work with allies to counter China’s influence – though it’s still unclear whether major European partners are interested in joining the US in this endeavour – Biden has also seemed to pursue the more combative stance adopted by Trump. He has not, for example, removed the trade tariffs the former president imposed.
In the negotiation of new trade deals, Biden is likely to try to incorporate concerns in ways he wouldn’t have had Hillary Clinton been elected in 2016. Trump is not the only politician with a devoted following to speak about trade practices that haven’t served ordinary Americans well. Senators and former Democratic primary candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders did, too, though their emphasis was on reining in major corporations and enforcing basic labour standards.
There appears to have been a shift in American politics: globalisation is no longer hailed as an inevitable, and inevitably progressive, force, but as something that should be interrogated and challenged, and that must be made to work for American workers. (Globalisation has, of course, enriched the US in many ways, and that this wealth has not been distributed evenly arguably has far more to do with the country’s ruling class and internal economic regime than it does with, say, a trade deal with Japan – a fact that belated critiques of globalisation tend to omit.)
But there are some areas in which change, if it happens, will not be radical – though these areas of relative stasis proceed at least as much from inertia as ideological continuity. On immigration, for example, although Biden has directed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to make fewer arrests and deport fewer people, his early immigration orders involved reviewing Trump policy, not undoing it. Biden officials say they are still trying to untie the knot that is Trump’s collection of executive orders and administrative rules.
Biden has established a task force for separated families, but a commitment has not been made to connect those who were separated when one party was removed from the country. A Biden official, speaking on a press call, reportedly said that the situation would not “transform overnight”. And ICE continues to deport hundreds of people from the country, while immigration cases remain backlogged.
[See also: Emily Tamkin: Can Joe Biden restore America?]
There is perhaps no clearer illustration of the power of inertia to maintain Trump’s version of normality than the pandemic. Had Trump not been president, perhaps Americans would have taken the virus seriously from the start, and reactions to it would not have diverged along party lines, with the pandemic becoming another front in the partisan warfare Trump’s presidency did so much to intensify. But Trump was president, and so we are left with the legislature and governor in the state of Wisconsin still fighting over whether people have to wear masks.
Yet the election of a president who does take the virus seriously, who wears a mask and encourages mask-wearing in others, does not overnight transform the American people into responsible stewards of public health. The Super Bowl – the biggest American football event of the year – took place on 6 February, despite the warnings of Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, that celebrations could turn into super-spreader events. The president and first lady even offered a video for broadcasting before the game. That Biden asked for a moment of silence for all of the lives lost to Covid-19 during the video does not alter the fact that the event’s going ahead may well have increased transmission and added to the death toll.
There are, of course, crucial differences between the current and former presidents. Biden has lifted Trump’s notorious ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries and rejoined the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organisation. In contrast to the attitude of his predecessor, who suggested that Covid-19 would go away on its own, Biden has also made mask use mandatory on federal property, and vowed that 100 million will have been vaccinated by the middle of spring.
But elections have consequences long after the elected individual has left office. Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, to cite a notable example, informed mainstream American drug policy for decades: specifically, treating drug use as a criminal, rather than a medical problem – an approach that has only begun to be questioned at the national level by major political parties in the past few years.
We do not yet know how deep and lasting the consequences of Biden’s own presidency will be. He cannot take us back to four years ago, nor to the world of his beloved 1967 Corvette: his challenge is to forge a new normal in these changed circumstances, rather than restore the old. To do so, he will need to not only use the full force of his office to undo the damage that Trump has done, but to tackle the forces, some decades in the making, that brought Trump to power.
[See also: Emily Tamkins on Biden’s day-one promises]