After Georgia, Biden has no excuses but it’s a long road ahead

While on paper Joe Biden has the power to force his agenda through Congress, the reality is a little different. He will need to take action on many fronts, not just the pandemic. A critical first task will be the dismantling and discrediting of Trumpism. 

President-elect Joe Biden might just have got the ultimate booby prize: a Democrat back in the White House, even if the current tenant has to be dragged out kicking and screaming that he was robbed. A fairly comfortable majority in the House of Representatives. And now, thanks to the voters of Georgia and two run-off elections, practical control of the Senate. On paper he has the power to force his agenda through Congress.

No doubt he would rather be in this position than as it looked in early November, where a stronger than expected performance by Donald Trump made it seem doubtful that Biden would be able to force his legislation, and his appointments, through the senate. It took days and days of counting before it became clear Biden had won — with a victory that might almost have been called a landslide. But even now, about a third of the electorate believes, against all evidence, that Trump was the real winner.

Biden now has no excuses. He has promised action in a host of areas, including on climate change and a much more focused and disciplined campaign against the coronavirus. It is one thing to say that almost anything he does should be better than what Trump achieved. But there are no clear paths for fulfilling his promises, and it is by no means clear that he will get great credit from the population if he does.

Trump, for one thing, sent practical management of the pandemic to the states, much as Scott Morrison did in Australia. But Australian state administrations, while making some mistakes, were tremendously successful in containing the spread of the virus, even if they are dealing with second and third waves of an infection that is not only mutating, but whose threat has broadened beyond the aged and the immune-compromised to younger and middle-aged Australians.

At the same time Biden has to take some charge of the economy, with new general stimulus measures and also with income protection. America is not ready to snap back, as Morrison seems to think Australia is, bar a few hiccoughs. Around the world, the pandemic has never been running so strongly as it is now. Incidence – new cases each day – has never been as high. Likewise with mortality and morbidity.

In a host of areas – including California – the number of people seriously ill has outstretched resources, with the inevitable consequence that poorer folk, black folk and Latino folk are being triaged for death. Even a Republican Senate overcame a last-minute Trump veto of a hard-negotiated Democrat measure, but Biden’s task in mobilising the resources he has just been given is still formidable, and able to start only after he takes power two weeks hence.

Trump will no doubt leave the White House claiming he solved the whole problem of Covid by delivering a vaccine that could bring the disease under control. He has hinted that the fact that the first production of apparently successful vaccines did not occur until a few days after the election was a part of the bag of dirty Democrat tricks that is depriving him of a second term.

But it already seems clear that a program of rushed vaccination may take the rest of the year, or more, to bring transmission of the disease, and deaths, to a halt. That would be so even if every American lined up with enthusiasm for the vaccines (it is expected that most people will have to take two, probably now months apart, to maximise the hit that even a single dose is expected to give.

Indeed, we have yet to see whether the vaccines “cure” the disease among those already infected,  reduce the severity of the effects, or will work as effectively with new forms and mutations of the virus. Most US states are under Republican control, and some may use resistance to any nationalisation of anti-pandemic measures as yet another opportunity for a last stand against the vaccines, microchips, socialism and One world Government that they think the Democrat triumph means.

The pandemic has demonstrated the ramshackle nature of the American national health system, as well as the virtual collapse of some of the institutions that once guarded Americans – and the world – against deadly epidemics. In normal times, one would have been looking for bodies such as the Centres for Disease Control to provide international leadership and expertise on dealing with the pandemic. It is not the fault of the sabotaged and defunded CDC that this was no longer possible, but it might serve as an illustration of how America’s standing and notional leadership of the Western world slipped under the isolationism and ignorance of the Trump administration.

Not that most of the rest of the Western world has much to boast about, with or without hollowed-out public health institutions. Other countries in a position to take a lead, such as Britain, France, Italy, Spain and, to a lesser extent Germany, suffered rates of disease, and containment failures, far worse than many developing countries. Just as we need an inquiry into how the disease passed from bat to man, we need an inquiry into how the rich and powerful economies lost control of it. Meanwhile other countries – by no means all authoritarian – were more successful.

Here’s some figures of death rates per million:

  • The Americas, north and south: 853 deaths for every million in the population; USA: 1045.
  • Europe overall: 631 deaths per million.
  • Britain: 1098 deaths for every million people. Italy: 1240.
  • Spain: 1079.
  • Belgium: 1699
  • Africa: 39 deaths per million. (South Africa 492).
  • Japan: 28.
  • Philippines: 84.
  • Australia: 36. Australia’s low rate was not only a factor of good regional and federal management, but of its geography and being an island.

Joe Biden sees action on all fronts as an urgent task – on the police and a justice system in chaos, a trade war with China, and to revive international trade and growth, seriously threatened by the return to shutdowns and fresh waves of infection.

A critical part of every task is the dismantling and discrediting of Trumpism. Trump and some of his supporters gave this campaign a big assist this week. But the goal is not for  pointscoring or virtue signalling. It’s a necessary step towards a return to proper politics,  by which citizens holding different opinions argue about what to do with respect to each other and acceptance of the ultimate verdict. For Biden it’s an action issue, as much as a communications one. Of course he must not talk about disarming them.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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