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Rebuilding the Western world

Joe Biden’s presidency offers a chance for democracies to seek a new path to more effective politics and inclusive capitalism

US President Joe Biden swears in appointees in a virtual ceremony at the White House after his inauguration.
US President Joe Biden swears in appointees in a virtual ceremony at the White House after his inauguration.TOM BRENNER / Reuters

The journey to the end of the night endured by the United States and the Western world while Donald Trump served as the great helmsman has ended. Four years of democratic degeneration, of systematic lies, of fueling the worst human instincts and of incompetent administration are now over. The legacy they leave behind is division, mistrust, resentment. Joe Biden’s arrival at the White House as the 46th president of the United States heralds a new era, and there is reason to celebrate.

Yet there is no guarantee that this period will be long and sunny. There is a herculean task on the shoulders of this 78-year-old man with moderate, pragmatic instincts and who is not particularly charismatic, and the presidential term ahead of him is shaping up to be the most complex since World War II. Yet the US and the Western world as a whole need him to be successful in order to neutralize the threat of decline looming over them.

Biden is up against three extraordinary types of challenge. The first and most immediate one is the scourge of the pandemic, both in terms of public health (registered deaths have reached 400,000) and the economy (there are around nine million fewer people in employment than in February). The second, underlying challenge is the poor state of American democracy, as illustrated by a deeply divided society and the weaknesses exposed by Trumpism (including the way the Republican Party’s backbone dissolved like a sugar cube in water under the dictates of the populist magnate, or the terrible role played by social media and some news organizations). The third, external challenge is the unstoppable rise of China and the subsequent erosion of America’s and the entire West’s prominence.

The US and the Western world as a whole need Biden to be successful in order to neutralize the threat of decline looming over them

The task is titanic, and success is, if not improbable, at least fraught with difficulty. But there a few early elements that point in a hopeful direction: the new leader’s first remarks and actions show a clear grasp of the problems and a realization that these cannot be dealt with in lukewarm fashion; the governing team seems notably solid; and the fact that Democrats are in control of both chambers, even if it is by a narrow margin, will make it easier to pass legislation.

Three words stood out from Biden’s inaugural speech: unity, truth, democracy. Their meaning: to stitch the wounds of American society, to eradicate the virus of fact-manipulation that prevents consensus-building, and ultimately, to restore vigor to a democracy that is under attack, as physically illustrated by the exceptionally tight security at the inauguration ceremony. Biden’s speech and his early acts show a bold desire to find extraordinary solutions in extraordinary times.

Moderation is an attitude of the spirit that is not synonymous with cowardice; pragmatism does not equal hesitation or weakness; a lack of charisma does not mean an inability to build. In his first hours in office, Biden has launched a full-scale offensive to undo the most brutal aspects of Trump’s presidency through executive orders; he is pushing forward a new ambitious support plan for the economy worth $1.9 billion (€1.56 billion), on top of the previous stimulus plans, in a staggering display of public action; he is preparing a vigorous ecological transition and the unhesitating return of the US to the international order that it was a leading creator of, and possibly also its main beneficiary. Everything is pointing in the right direction.

The team that will back him up is promising, and includes very able figures (Janet Yellen at the Treasury, John Kerry on climate affairs, Antony Blinken as secretary of state and Vice-President Kamala Harris herself) as well as showing a lot of diversity. While there may be a lack of new faces, there is a lot of collective experience. The last-minute victory at the Senate opens up a narrow space for the passage of legislative measures, although that will require keeping unity within a Democratic Party that has more than one soul.

Moderation is an attitude of the spirit that is not synonymous with cowardice

In terms of foreign affairs, the Biden administration will have to deal with the rapid rise of China, which is year after year reducing Washington’s economic, military and technological advantage. This rivalry runs the risk of turning into a new cold war. Against this backdrop, Biden will have to seek a balance between keeping up the pressure and triggering conflict; America will also have the responsibility, as first among equals, to promote a realignment of the group of liberal democracies, which has become frayed during the Trump years. These democracies have shared values, but not always shared interests. They must all properly calculate the costs of letting themselves be guided by the latter instead of the former. On this side of the Atlantic, the change in Washington coincides with the upcoming departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been the main European leader of the 21st century.

The important thing is not to forget that Trump is not just a tumor of democracy that has now been excised. He is a symptom. The citizen discontent that fueled his rise, the digital and news media who made it possible, the submissive attitude by part of the political class... it’s all still there. Democracies are fragile, as Biden recalled. And that’s not just true for the US. Trump’s departure does not mean that the monstrous Medusa has been decapitated. She still has the ability to turn to stone whoever stares into her eyes. “We will be back in some form,” warned Trump as he left the White House. The magnate was just the most visible of the snakes that Medusa has in place of hair. The West must rebuild towards more effective politics and a more inclusive form of capitalism. Biden’s new day is the opportunity for that.

English version by Susana Urra.

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