Haven’t we seen this movie before – a Democratic president having to clean up the mess of a previous (GOP) administration?
Millennials are likely to have little memory, or knowledge, of 2008 and the first months of the Great Recession. But anyone older than 30 may still recall John McCain — then-candidate for the presidency – sitting stunned in a cabinet meeting where the emerging financial weakness, incompetence and malfeasance (pick one, any one will do) was being outlined.
Never a financial wonk, McCain had no answers concerning the economic slide that was underway and would take many months to repair.
The causes were multiple: a burst housing bubble with prices plummeting; homeowners abandoning their mortgages in droves; those still afloat paying down debt rather than buying anything new; banks having engaged in risky loans and unable to provide more to businesses.
Banks especially had shown little discipline with their money and financial regulators had seemingly missed the risks they should have reined in. Whether or not George W. Bush, or his administration, or Republicans in general, were responsible for this, history will note that the collapse occurred on their watch.
The result was more than 20 months of financial pain that incoming president Barack Obama had to deal with and find a way to climb out of. In doing so he was up against Republicans who simply couldn’t stand a Black man in the White House, ham-stringing him and thus hindering what was best for the country.
Nevertheless, he scored a variety of successes. He steadied the financial ship and provided the foundation Trump could build on and take credit for. Most ground-breaking of all, he negotiated the expansion of healthcare insurance to millions (the single deciding Senate vote to approve, ironically and significantly, coming from McCain).
And now, like one of those Netflix series, we have another episode; call it “Déjà vu bailout, all over again,” featuring an incoming Democratic president in the role of street sweeper following behind a parade of Elephants.
But Biden has an even larger task than that faced by Obama, having to deal not with just one crisis but multiples of them:
• COVID-19 will continue to rage for several more months, killing thousands more because so many Americans still refuse to do the necessary mitigation. Since demands and mandates for behavior change are so often counter-productive, what persuasion is available to Biden to limit these unnecessary deaths?
• Viral spread will continue to require massive supplies of protective equipment for care givers. What is the administration’s role in doing this and, longer term, how will it restock the supplies needed for future – and inevitable — biological attacks?
• Unemployment continues to rise, businesses continue to close. What are Biden’s tools for reviving the nation’s economy given the frequent lack of compromise by congressional legislators?
• The country is sharply divided: right-wing and social media spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories; hate group violence continues on the rise; Trump’s base continuing to claim a “stolen” election. What are Biden’s strategies for healing these divisions?
• We now learn of major cyberattacks — by, well, most likely, Russia – launched nearly eight months ago, building on Russia’s previous interferences in national politics. What will be Biden’s response to Russia and the rising autocracy in other countries?
Given these issues, Biden may be faced with even greater intransigence than what Obama had to deal with: just to start, Trump’s inability to acknowledge his loss and his childish refusal to hand over the reins of power; Republicans linked to his delusions and refusing to acknowledge Biden as president; a U.S. congress often unwilling to provide the required level of economic support for Americans, whether blue, red or polka dot.
If Biden achieves any success at all, it will likely come first in overseeing an equitable and rational distribution of the vaccine, beyond first responders and healthcare workers, to the great majority of regular Americans – you and me — as quickly and as safely as possible.
But that may be only a first step in winning the trust and cooperation of Trumpers and red voters in general. Thus, Biden surely will have difficulty sleeping soundly at night, given the multiple challenges and the roadblocks of “no” that will be deployed against him.
We can only hope that this “vintage” white guy can even partly succeed in his campaign promises: a new presidential and administrative culture with the ability to build unity rather than division.