Joe Biden’s challenge is to reunite America, redefine its global role

Taking charge of the United States, amidst what he called a “winter of peril and promise”, Joe Biden celebrated the restoration of American democracy and issued a stirring call for unity in the deeply divided nation. Referring indirectly to the questioning of the election results by the outgoing president, Donald Trump, who skipped the swearing in of Biden, and his incitement of a mob attack on the US capitol earlier this month, Biden declared that American democracy has been tested, but prevailed in the end. Biden pointed to the multiple challenges confronting the nation —the COVID-19 pandemic whose toll is approaching nearly half a million, deepening domestic inequality, entrenched racism, climate change and new questions about the American role in the world. Dealing with these simultaneous challenges, Biden argued, demands an end to the “uncivil war” that has enveloped America.

Biden’s soaring sentiment on reuniting the nation was rightly rooted in realism. More than 70 million voters chose Trump and a large section of them continue to believe the election was unfair. Biden’s call for unity was not only directed at Trump’s supporters, but also his own party, many of whom are itching for political revenge. It will not be easy, however, for him to translate the soaring sentiment to reunite the nation into concrete outcomes. Many of his first steps at reversing Trump’s policies — on immigration, climate change, and American participation in multilateral institutions — touch deeply contested domestic political terrain. Biden’s economic agenda on minimum wages and raising taxes runs into intense opposition from the business groups, including the big tech companies of Silicon Valley, that rallied round him in the election. He also has to deal with a Congress that is so evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and is not amenable to productive legislative action.

Four years ago at his inaugural, Trump set the dark tone for his presidency by talking about an “American carnage” that was devastating the nation. Biden, in contrast, has chosen to raise hope by reminding America that its “better angels” had prevailed in the crises that came before. With his nearly five decades-long political career in Washington, he is probably better placed than his peers in navigating dangerous political waters. A record of ideological flexibility and the ability to reach across the political aisle gives Biden the opportunity to rebuild a bipartisan political centre that can produce long overdue economic, political and social change that is so essential for American unity and renewal.

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