By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
The current ultimate photo opportunity for world leaders is being inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine live on TV. It was one of Joe Biden’s first acts as US president-elect, signalling to the American people not only that it was safe, but also that containing and defeating the coronavirus pandemic is his priority.
US presidents traditionally enjoy a 100-day political honeymoon when they enter the White House, but in light of the deep crisis the US is experiencing it is doubtful that Biden will have any such luxury. It is more about rolling up the sleeve for his jab and then starting a difficult task that has no precedent in recent American history.
There is no escape from the pressing need to rectify the divisive legacy left by Donald Trump. Nor does it help Biden and his new team that, in a departure from the convention of a peaceful and constructive transfer of presidential power from one administration to the next, Trump is refusing to cooperate.
The Biden-Harris partnership is acutely aware that it needs to hit the ground running with an honest, daring and restorative domestic and international agenda before the US is able to embark on the long process of healing its social and political divisions, reviving its economy, and becoming capable once again of playing the role it could and should play in world affairs.
The new administration needs also to courageously review the presidential election figures, as much as those for both houses of Congress, with a critical and forensic eye. Trump will soon become an anecdote in American history, but for Biden there are more than 74 million reasons why he has to take into account those who didn’t vote for him, didn’t grant the Democrats a majority in the Senate and reduced their majority in the House of Representatives, despite four years of a presidency that pushed the US toward a mortal decline.
A number of issues at the top of the agenda are not a matter of choice but of urgent necessity. Laying out his plans for his first 100 days, in a speech delivered from his adopted home town of Wilmington, Delaware, Biden as expected presented an uncompromising plan to defeat the coronavirus pandemic, one that is diametrically opposite to that of his predecessor, by assembling a team of scientists and doctors to provide the guidelines on how to proceed.
He sent a clear message that right from his inauguration on Jan. 20, decision making will be governed by science and fact, rather than presidential caprice. In “The Prince,” Machiavelli presents two concepts necessary for a leader to succeed: “Virtù” and “Fortuna,” meaning personal qualities coupled with the ability to exploit outside influences, including chance events. Biden will have time to demonstrate his range of virtues as a leader, but fortune has already presented him with a vaccine; when it is administered to the population, it will allow his administration to kickstart the economic and social recovery.
If a respect for science is one indication of how this new administration will differ from its predecessor, Biden’s nominees for key positions, with their experience, relevant expertise and diversity, is another important and clear declaration of intent, and proof of his “virtù.” Several of his selections for key positions will be making history when they assume office, representing America’s diversity either by being the first female or first person of color in their respective roles.
What’s more, a number of appointments are not only coming to their new jobs with vast experience in their respective fields, but have also served in Barack Obama’s administration, reflecting a wish to introduce an element of continuity from where things were left four years ago. As Secretary of Defense, retired army general Lloyd Austin will be the first African-American to lead the Pentagon, one who also served as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army and commanding general of US forces in Iraq during Biden’s time as vice president.
Similarly Xavier Becerra, designated Secretary of Health and Human Services, will be the first Latino in this position; Deb Haaland, expected to become Secretary of the Interior, will be the first Native American cabinet secretary; and Pete Buttigieg will be the first openly LGBTQ cabinet secretary, as Secretary of Transportation. All demonstrate a genuine intention to embrace an inclusive liberal agenda, albeit not in a manner that would threaten America’s social mosaic.
Stopping the pandemic, reigniting the economy and restoring social cohesion are top priorities. The current health crisis, which has demonstrated the crucial importance of having a functioning health system affordable by everyone, will be addressed by a revival of the Affordable Health Care Act with the necessary amendments to make it workable. Moreover, inequalities in American society, which in terms of income are the greatest of the G7 nations, were acknowledged by Biden during the election campaign as a priority for his administration, and these inequalities also affect black–white relations as the income gap between the two groups is persistent and has grown substantially in the past half century.
Finally, the new administration in Washington will be obliged to set itself a busy international agenda, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will bring his vast experience in the field, and the trust of Biden, whom he served as national security adviser during the latter’s time as vice-president. Two issues that might upset diehard Trump supporters are Biden’s intention to as quickly as possible re-join the Paris climate agreement and the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran. Both will have to be negotiated with attention to domestic and international sensitivities, as will redefining relations with China and Russia after a number of very difficult years. We may also see emergent plans on improving relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and on re-engaging with North Korea regarding its nuclear capabilities.
Faced with such a demanding agenda right from the start of his presidency, Biden may not have time for a honeymoon, but on the other hand he has an opportunity to take quick, bold, and inclusive action to resolutely address all of these issues.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg