By Kumar David –
Indications are that the Biden Presidency does not resemble any other post-war American presidency. Though he was Obama’s Vice President, thankfully he is not imitating to that failed model. Post-war Democratic presidents (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton and Obama) followed a different agenda. FDR however comes to mind when searching for something similar; maybe because the crises now and during the Great Depression were both so daunting. Look at the parlous predicament now – a covid catastrophe, an economic slump, decline in global power, foreign policy setbacks, and Trump incited domestic terrorism. Except for the Great Depression there is no other period since the Civil War when conditions were so perilous. Maybe this is the reason why Biden’s actions so far are reminiscent of the FDR model.
At the same time duplicity is apparent; on Iran he refuses to lift sanctions until the latter comes into full compliance with a treaty that his predecessor Trump ripped up. The US as a superpower thinks it can eat its words and have them. Foreign policy hawks may be regaining ground they lost during the election campaign. When China, as expected, blocked a Security Council resolution to condemn the Burmese coup calling it “an internal affair” (no doubt akin to the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang!), US condemnation of Chinese duplicity was muted. But with protests spreading across Burma and against the backdrop of a US decision to renew links with the UN Human Rights Council, Biden finally made the right call and imposed tough sanctions on Burma’s military. This will hearten local and international observers of the upcoming UNHRC debate on Sri Lanka. Fifteen months ago I explicitly told my readers that the road to dictatorship in this country will be through the transformation of institutions (courts, constitution, state administration and the military).The Gotabaya Executive, now snarled in internal disarray and a Sino-Quad logjam is uncertain which way to turn. Weeks ago I said in this column (everyone says it now) that tension was rising between the Executive and the Parliamentary arms of government. The Wimal-Kariyawasam clash is symptomatic.
To return to my topic, what is distinctive about the Biden Administration so far is that it is not treading the beholden-to-Wall-Street path that the Obama Administration did from day one. He is also holding firm to a climate-change, racial equality and poor relief agenda despite hostility of powerful lobbies. There is a tussle right now about Biden’s refusal to back-down on his $1.9 trillion covid control, cum economic stimulus, cum income relief for low and middle earner, package, which has run into determined Republican opposition. In FDR style, Team Biden is using stimulus not to shower handouts to big business, as Obama did, but to target infrastructure development and job creation. I am in no hurry to hand out a good-conduct certificate yet, it’s too early for that, but it is necessary to take note of trends. This huge $1.9 trillion package scripts his presidency as an FDR-style New Deal initiative. He seems to be exploring new ground, but caution for a while more before any hagiography is wise.
The $15 per hour minimum wage is a contentious issue. Is it too expensive? Even its most vociferous champion curmudgeonly Bernie Sanders admits “It was never my intention to increase the minimum wage to $15 immediately and during the pandemic. My legislation gradually increases it to $15 an hour over a five-year period; that is what we have got to do.” This minimum wage would reduce poverty but cost jobs, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says. Doing so by 2025 would boost pay for 17 million people but cut 1.4 million jobs. Biden cannot backtrack on his oath to implement minimum wage legislation and Democrats will be able include the wage hike in a bill to be passed by Reconciliation (a complicated short-cut process in the Senate that can be used a few times a year without a super-majority, 60 votes). It would have a positive effect of $64.5 billion per year on the federal budget, the boost coming in part from increased payroll tax revenue.
Sri Lankan readers may find a few comments on some members of Biden’s Cabinet helpful – it is overall an able team. Some are known to be competent intellectuals, a few quite distinguished; Yellen (Treasury), Binken (State), Garland (AG, that is Justice) and Granholm (Energy). There are four other appointments which are interesting; Gen. Lloyd Austin the first black Defence Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas a Hispanic in charge of sensitive Homeland Security, Deb Haaland (Interior) the first native American to hold cabinet position, and Pete Buttigieg (Transport) of unconventional sexual orientation. Biden has made good on his promise that his choices would reflect America’s diversity.
Biden’s seven person science team (Office of Science and Technology Policy – OSTP), which the media describes as “Among the brightest, most dedicated people not only in the country but the world” is headed by a world-renowned biologist Eric Lander (Princeton Bachelors, Rhodes Scholar and Oxford DPhil) and includes America’s first woman Nobel Laureate (Frances Arnold). The other five too are world-class scientists. Gina McCarthy of environmental fame has been named Presidential Climate Advisor (“Climate Tsar” they call her, an appellation she will have to share with John Kerry named Climate Ambassador). One thing for sure, people of this calibre speak out and speak their minds; no dumb-cluck politician can intimidate them because they aren’t obliged to anybody for anything. A very refreshing thought, my scientist and engineer friends are sure to agree.
Having said so many nice things about Biden I am sure you are expecting a few stings in the tail and I am loath to disappoint you. The obvious one is to repeat that it is early days and while voicing approval it is necessary to express caution as well – how many politicians started off as everyone’s darling and wound up failures and miscarriages. The principal challenges facing the new administration are also a hurdles at which it may stumble; the uncertainty of Covid, class conflict over the economy, the large disgruntled mass which opted for Trump and will remain knotty for years more, race which won’t change colour and the complexity of international relations. I will speak of each in future columns, but let me say something upfront now. Because America is a country of top technological (still the leader I guess), scientific (a bigger concentration of the world’s best), economic (soon to be overtaken by China) and social potential (I will explore this carefully some other time), what happens in America in the next few decades is one of the cardinal matters that will shape the Twenty-first Century.
Rome did not decline to nothing in a day; from the start of the decline to eventual fall many moons elapsed. Gibbon begins his account of decline from the accession of Commodus (180 AD) and the fall of the Western Roman Empire is conventionally dated to 476 AD, when Flavius Odoacer a “barbarian” deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus and proclaimed himself ruler. Other historians prefer different chronologies and dating, but the point I am making is that when global powers metamorphose, it is a prolonged process. More important is that their influences persist long afterwards. The impact and influences of Rome persist to this day. Someone said that if you go on a journey in philosophy on any theme, soon you will meet an ancient Greek returning from the same voyage. Likewise with Roman physical infrastructure, Roman law and governance. This getting lyrical so let’s return to earth. What I am pointing to is that the impact of American mores and culture will persist for longer than its superpower status. The language, artifices and political practices of the blithering English are still around nearly a century after the blooming empire was laid to rest. The traditions of some empires persist for long others do not – where is Ozymandias king of kings? Persia’s eight-century Achaemenid Empire or the Mayas have evaporated without trace so far as latter-day cultures notice. Why some go one way and others the other is too long and complex to pursue here.
My case is that the influence of American society will persist for long after the American Empire. What will persist above all else is the robustness of its unique social comportment and its roughshod democracy. A socialist America will have to be a democratic America, nothing less can put down roots in this soil and clime. Last week I was glued to the Trump impeachment trial in the Senate. A lesson I took away is recognition of the boldness of its democracy – bourgeois liberal-democracy, if you want theoretical purity. Democracy survived but it was a close call; at certain moments the threat was deadly. One mishap in a court, one truant State refusing to certify results, one bunch of electoral officials cowed by Trump’s bullying, one bullet in Nancy Pelosi’s head, or one misstep by Mike Pence, and who knows, history may have had to be rewritten.
I am certain Trump’s trial will not gather the requisite majority in the Senate for conviction though the Constitution says he is commander-in-chief of the military but from the summer 2020 he has been commander-in-chief of mobs. He goaded the lawless to insurrection and prepared the way for rioters to storm the Capitol. In a desperate effort to cling to power he allowed his rowdies to go after his own Vice President Pence chanting “Hang Mike Pence”. It is an enigma that the citadel of American democracy was stormed by American neo-fascists, egged on by the nation’s sitting president. Yes, democracy prevailed this time, but is unrest just beginning? A surreal plague of illiberalism has infected a portion of the body politic? It can and must be defeated but how will future historians make sense of this bizarre episode? I have to leave that too for another time and sign off with a celebrated paradox: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”.