The last time a Democratic president took over from a Republican, millions of Americans were soaring on the wings of Barack Obama’s vague but palpably hopeful rhetoric, believing that substantive transformations in American life were just around the corner. Nobody will have any illusions about such transformations when Joe Biden enters the White House tomorrow.
The last four years of Donald Trump have been horrifying and exhausting—and that was before he oversaw the worst Covid-19 response in the world, with deaths now topping an astounding 400,000. The absurd rightwing riot at the Capitol earlier this month was the perfect parting gift of his presidency, a temper tantrum on the way out the door that reminded Americans of the terrifying goofballs Trump has emboldened, and increased millions of Americans’ desperate desire for a return to something resembling normality.
With Trump gone and the Democrats gaining control of both houses of Congress, Biden has a rare opportunity to push through a bold agenda that could finally address the immense suffering that has engulfed the United States under Covid-19. The signs of interest he has shown in doing so, however, have been mixed.
Biden maddeningly downplayed any potential for economic relief during his campaign, despite the immense economic pain in the country. Immediately after winning control of the Senate, the Democrats began walking back some of their recent promises over the size of stimulus checks. The party made the absurd argument that the $2,000 they initially pledged actually meant $1,400 plus the recent $600 stimulus check that most Americans have already received — despite literally running on the promise of a $2,000 check in Georgia, complete with a mockup of a check that very clearly reads $2,000.
In his defence, the rest of Biden’s proposed relief bill is better than you’d expect from a man whose entire political career has been about embracing austerity. His proposals include a doubling of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, serious aid to state and local governments, expanding jobless benefits, money for coronavirus testing and vaccine distribution.
As president, Biden will be up against an increasingly rabid rightwing whose position in American politics post-Trump is currently up in the air. On the one hand, as leftists like Corey Robin have repeatedly argued, the Republican party is historically weak and unpopular, and can only exert its power in America through the country’s many undemocratic institutions. The Capitol riot was a reflection of this weakness: having lost at the ballot box despite the desiccated state of American democracy, they smashed up the halls of government in anger.
On the other hand, America’s minoritarian political institutions aren’t going to significantly change anytime soon, and the right has never needed to win majorities to wreak absolute havoc at home and abroad.
And what’s more, it’s impossible to imagine far-right forces like QAnon and the various other noxiously reactionary groups who were represented in the Capitol riot not feeling emboldened in its wake. Four of their supporters were killed during the protests, at least several dozen will go to jail and social media companies are cracking down on far-right activity online, starting with multiple platforms banning Trump himself.
But the entire country stood rapt at the images of QAnon supporters and white supremacists storming the Capitol — who could ask for better propaganda for recruitment to their deranged cause? This will likely mean more attacks of institutions like the Capitol and an emboldening of the right on the streets, including a willingness to use violence against progressives and leftists. It will also mean continued unhinged rightwing attacks on the Democrats, a party whose leadership’s track record gives us little hope for successfully resisting them without being yanked rightward.
The best way for the Democrats to disarm these attacks would be to abandon the neoliberal commitments that have governed the party for decades and instead use their control of the House, Senate, and White House to substantively improve average Americans’ lives — to follow through on Obama’s squandered promises of twelve years ago.
Without using their new power in Washington to offer something tangible to average Americans, the Democrats will blow this opportunity — and perhaps, in a few years’ time, hand the levers of government to a Republican far more destructive than Trump.