Today is a hugely important day for the United States. Much will be written and debated over the coming weeks on what a Joe Biden presidency means for a wide range of domestic and international political and policy issues.
Suppressing Covid-19, getting Americans back to work, addressing climate change, and healing the huge divisions in American society along a range of fault lines—race, age, social class, urban vs. rural—are all key challenges for the new president.
These issues have created or deepened huge divisions within American society, but they also have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world. America’s role as the counterbalance to other superpowers such as Russia, and more lately China, has long been an important one.
Without America unified and together at the helm, there is the risk of a global leadership vacuum in which the bigger picture issues, such as global security and environmental reforms, are not addressed.
So long, Donald
Before one can assess what should and must be Biden’s immediate priorities, a look back to the man he succeeds is necessary. The stereotypical tendency to portray the Trump presidency as an unmitigated disaster does not tell the full story.
It fails to recognise some of the successes he achieved, such as helping to foster strong economic growth through changes to internal US taxation and regulatory policies (at least till Covid-19 struck), his strong support for the Ukraine in the face of Russian expansionism, and the beginning of the normalisation of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours (albeit while making no progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues).
However, these wins were overshadowed by the schisms that worsened or first appeared during his presidency, the attack on the Capitol being the final and most visible manifestation.
Trump’s abiding legacy is a country that is both hugely divided and traumatised by these schisms. Of course, it would be unfair to fully allocate all blame and responsibility to him, but they certainly coalesced and found an outlet under his presidency.
Biden today takes office facing the dual challenges of healing these divisions and living up to the expectation of millions of Americans that he can actually accomplish this.
The family together
Biden’s first task is perhaps the biggest: change the rhetoric. He needs to move the national conversation away from vindictiveness, vitriol, toxic language, and extremism on all sides and restore trust in democracy, the rule of law, and American institutions.
With disagreement among citizens on what the country’s democratic values are, or arguably, even more complex and difficult, what actually constitutes truth itself, the job of winning back the hearts and minds of his fellow Americans will be a daunting one.
And yet the very characteristics that Biden has often been criticised for might actually be the ones that support him in the monumental tasks of reuniting and healing a divided country.
First, his age. At 78, he will soon be the oldest US president ever to take office. Even before he begins his role, he will be older than former President Ronald Reagan, who ended his presidency aged 77 having served two full terms.
Yet to focus solely on Biden’s age discounts his wealth of experience, including over 40 years in American political life at the highest levels. This life experience, both professional and personal, means that he has been party to many crises and emergencies, and is wise to both the different needs and demands of immediate priorities and longer-term systemic change.
Perhaps Biden, as an actual and metaphorical grandfather figure, can hold the warring American family together and work to resolve disputes within it? Perhaps his considered, “father of the nation” persona is exactly what the country needs at this critical moment in its history?
Red versus blue
Biden’s long-standing political modus operandi is also another key strength. He has a strong tradition of working in a bipartisan way across both sides of the Democrat/Republican divide. He is often described as a man who knows how to do a deal, and these skills of persuasion will be critical to his ultimate success or failure in the period ahead.
Further, Biden’s values and his real-life embodiment of them will also play well with supporters and opponents alike. Biden has been described as decent and hardworking and possessed of a love of country and humanity.
While these values may seem old school and folksy, they are also the values that once successfully built and held America together, even as its society became more diverse.
In a post-Covid world where a shell-shocked population crave a sense of security and reassurance, there may be a window for Biden to provide both and use them constructively for the greater good.
The peace process
Much has been said about the Biden presidency being the most Irish one since Kennedy; as we face our own recovery struggle in the year ahead, this can only be a good thing for us.
And yet now it may be time for Ireland to give back to the US, a country that has always been good to us. We have our own history and experience of reconciliation and unification through our peace process; it may be time for Ireland’s leaders and politicians, past and present, to return the favour and help Biden in America’s healing.
Soon the clock will begin on Biden’s four years as president. It is a small window of time in which to achieve big things. At the very least, he has an opportunity to turn America away from the destructive path it is currently on, put in place the foundations for a more unified country, and pass it on to his successor in a better position than he inherited it.
“Sleepy Joe”, to re-appropriate one of Trump’s pejorative nicknames, may not have youth on his side like Kennedy or Obama in their time. He may not manage to get by on the purported four hours sleep of Margaret Thatcher or indeed take to the hockey rink like Russia’s Vladimir Putin. However, with integrity, experience, pragmatism, and a steady and seasoned hand, he may just succeed in bringing much-needed civility and stability to the US. For now, that may be enough.
About the author
Amanda leads 360’s policy and campaign teams. She has almost two decades of experience in policy formulation, public affairs, and reputation management. Before 360, Amanda worked with Taoiseach Enda Kenny as an advisor to the Fine Gael frontbench. She is also a qualified solicitor, having practised at Matheson and Arthur Cox, two of Ireland’s largest law firms.
Cover photo credit: Amr Alfiky