new eras

Biden’s Lame Duck Presidency

Photo: JD Barnes for New York Magazine

On Wednesday, as vote totals grew slowly towards a likely Biden presidency, more than 100,000 new American coronavirus cases were reported—a new record for a country that has already experienced two devastating pandemic peaks. More than a thousand people died—an average toll, these days, equivalent to two 747 crashes, but which may soon come to seem “light” in retrospect. Those planes are going to keep taking off, and crashing, every day for months.

By the time Joe Biden takes office, in January, perhaps 100,000 more Americans will have died. And while the recent experience of once-admired Europe suggests no western governments are capable of truly suppressing the pandemic for long, any interventions implemented by the Biden administration, even on day one, will still take at least weeks, and likely months, to roll out—arriving only in the spring, when vaccines will be rolling out, too, and when warmer weather will mean the disease was likely abating, anyway. Especially in the rollout of vaccines and mass testing, better management will help us—indeed any management would help. But to a large degree the damage is already done.

It is not simply that his presidency will arrive too late to address the pandemic’s winter surge. The tragedy is bigger than that, with Biden hamstrung to act not just in the months before Inauguration Day but, maddeningly, in the months immediately after, as well. Faced with a likely Republican Senate, Biden has dim prospects for “democracy reform,” filibuster reform, criminal-justice reform or court reform, not to mention other meaningful legislative action like a public health-care option or the $2 trillion climate plan around which Biden — surprisingly, laudably — actually built a blitz of closing-message ads. Biden and the Democrats also face, now, a strong opposition on the Supreme Court, which threatens not just the Affordable Care Act and Roe v. Wade but the very legitimacy of the administrative state through which presidential action without Senate support would have to pass. (It is only by a 5-4 margin that the Supreme Court has empowered the EPA to regulate carbon emissions at all, for instance.) And the failure of Democrats down ballot from Biden means that the party whiffed on the once-in-a-decade opportunity to flip state legislatures and at least even out the gerrymandering playing-field that has tilted so many elections GOP-ward over the last decade. Democrats have won the presidency, but probably only the presidency, with nearly everything below broken or blocked or locked into cross-purposed dysfunction.

In March, as the coronavirus was first devastating New York, I wrote about the pandemic prospects for the country and what looked, already, like our deep incapacity to respond. Donald Trump was the last man you’d want presiding over such a crisis, but the problems didn’t stop with him; the dysfunction, it was apparent even on March 12, went much deeper. The CDC failed, developing a flawed test, and the FDA failed, refusing to let anyone else design one at first. And while these agencies had been damaged by federal interference, and would continue to be, the failures weren’t just those emanating from the White House. Instead, the failures were the sign of a country starving for social trust and overstuffed with social cruelty and ill-served by institutions damaged by a decades-long culture war against not just the government,  but informed authority in general.

There were heroes, of course—doctors and nurses and medical researchers, not to mention governors and mayors who hustled to scale up testing and procure necessary equipment, and all of us who did our best to honor what seemed to be the prevailing public health advice.  And even when and where there was agreement about what was needed, by and large those needs went unfulfilled. The Senate failed to deliver meaningful pandemic aid in the form of funding testing, tracing, and PPE—only producing economic aid, which then ran out. Many local school systems failed to find ways to stay safely open, as even those in hard-hit countries have managed. We still don’t have sufficient testing to catch asymptomatic cases, which represent almost half of the problem, and are far behind where we’d hope to be on rapid testing, which could easily and affordably suppress that asymptomatic spread. Contact tracing, the great hope of American technocrats, has failed utterly, with response rates, in some places, as low as fifteen percent; in the UK, which has probably mounted the worst coronavirus response in all of Europe, they are counting rates between 50% and 70% as a catastrophic failure.

For most of the last nine months, American liberals distressed about the state of the country could look at the polls and comfort themselves with the thought that the man presiding over all of this suffering, torturing the nation and its tattered self-image with his narcissistic indifference, had merely hijacked American politics and its arc of history for the length of one presidential term, now set to expire. On the campaign trail, mostly virtually, Biden spoke of his hopes of an FDR-sized presidency. Many of his voters reminisced about Obama’s historic margin in 2008, though that victory opened a window of aggressive progressive governance that lasted only 18 months. And some on the left fantasized about a Trojan horse presidency—fuddy-duddy Biden, the Democrats’ Gipper, letting the Warren and Bernie wings of the party at least into the room, if not handing them full control. But while Biden’s national margin is in some ways heartening, what he seems to have won with it is less like any of those transformational models and more like the lame-duck presidency we expected for Hillary Clinton, four years ago. Given the historic stakes of the present, it also raises the possibility of a bleaker medium- or even long-term future: a lame-duck nation, in which neither real reform nor real political progress appears all that possible anywhere on the federal horizon.

To the many millions of Americans radicalized by Trump, his four years in office amounted to a kind of unmasking of America—the sequential revelation of a basic national ugliness previously acknowledged primarily by the sorts of radicals who are typically dismissed by our civic religion and its high priests as naive or rageful or both. But the election of Biden represents an unmasking, too: a showcase of just how poorly divided government functions even in times of screaming need, and how frustratingly little will change, in concrete policy terms, through the replacement of one presidential hood ornament with another. For decades now, political insiders have mocked those disengaged outsiders and third-party voters who insisted there was no real difference between the two parties. Of course, they were right to: as anyone with eyes should be able to see, the two parties stand for very different things, with factions inside them even more divergent. But when structural roadblocks and divided government mean nothing much can actually get done, in a time of great and protracted suffering simply standing for something different and more humane is cold comfort.

America is not alone in its suffering—in Europe, some countries (Belgium, the Czech Republic) have surpassed the U.S. in per capita cases and others (the U.K., Italy, France, Spain) have registered as many or more deaths per million as here. But with only one state in fifty, Vermont, “trending better” on Election Day, according to Covid Exit Strategy, and 47 either “trending poorly” or in “uncontrolled spread,” there is simply nowhere in the U.S. to point to as any kind of coronavirus success story. There are no Angela Merkels or Justin Trudeaus here, let alone Jacinda Arderns or even Scott Morrisons. Given the state of the disease today, and where it is likely heading in the months ahead, even a response modeled on New Zealand or Australia would fail to defeat the pandemic, only curtail it somewhat.

Of course, the suffering is far more numerous than the death. Millions have been sick, many of them ailing months later, from after-effects doctors call “sequelae.” We are dealing with sequelae socially, too. Anxiety and depression have by some accounts tripled during the pandemic, and the number of overdoses have grown, too. American GDP rebounded dramatically in the third quarter, but hundreds of thousands of Americans are still filing new unemployment claims each week—higher numbers, every week, than for any previous week before the pandemic in the history of the statistic. Millions have lost health insurance, in the midst of the pandemic. Forty percent of restaurants are expected to shutter, and, according to some estimates, as many as 50 million Americans are “food insecure.” Four million jobs in the travel industry have already been lost during the pandemic, and as many as a million more are expected to disappear by the end of the year. Millions of people collecting unemployment will see that support expire in mid December. Protections for renters and those carrying student loans will expire, too, without an additional aid from congress, which has, to this point, refused aid to state and local governments, as well. New York State alone is facing a $59 billion shortfall. These are just the very short term challenges, leaving entirely aside the howling need to address injustices far more longstanding (race, inequalities of income and opportunity) and more lastingly consequential (climate, anti-democratic political and economic structures). If ever the country needed a mandate election, this was it. And even with a national margin that could grow to six percent, and support from a larger share of the American electorate than Obama or Reagan achieved in their landslides, Biden has won, instead, a sort of stalemate, if one that comes wrapped in a blue bow.

Will Joe be able to do some things? Well, yes, of course, maybe even some quite consequential things. Biden’s own center of gravity has long been on international affairs, where he can now act more or less unencumbered. His pandemic policy will be immediately better, as will his environmental policy. But government through executive action — monitored by a 6-3 Supreme Court that has already signaled its skepticism about the powers of the federal bureaucracy — is not the same thing as a public option or a Green New Deal, both of which felt morally necessary for many progressives all through the campaign. And unless the upcoming Georgia runoffs give Senate control to Democrats, an optimistic projection for progressive policy under the new president looks a lot more like Obama’s last six years than his first two. Those first two disappointed the left, then, of course, and the party has moved dramatically leftward since. The crises the country faces have been made more urgent, too: racial and criminal justice by the largest protests in half a century; health care by an onrushing and ongoing pandemic; climate change by the worst wildfire seasons in history, catastrophic flooding and storms across the country’s agricultural heartland, and so many hurricanes through the Carribean they had to move onto the Greek alphabet to name them.

The impediments loom almost as large, unfortunately. They are structural (the Supreme Court, the filibuster, the disproportionate power of rural states in the Senate and the Electoral College, though that last one can shift a bit); temperamental (the new president swearing he can persuade Republicans who didn’t cooperate on anything when he was vice president and the country was less intensely polarized than it is today); political (Mitch McConnell still in charge of the senate and Joe Manchin still a key Democratic vote); media-driven (Fox News and OANN, not to mention Facebook’s outrage algorithms); and social (a Republican electorate that is distressingly militia-like in parts, featuring both QAnon truthers and suburban moms chanting outside county clerk offices to stop the vote). And though you can imagine your way to theoretical solutions to each, a fair distribution of political power seems only possible through structural reforms that won’t be even available to Democrats, let alone enacted, without the kinds of electoral victories that, today at least, seem difficult to achieve without structural reform—a sort of progressive doom-loop it’s hard to see one’s way out of.

Can these dynamics change? Yes, and likely will. But for now, we are experiencing what the Portuguese author Bruno Macaes has described as a peculiarly American kind of culture-war cosplay, performed on top of an inactive government, in which figureheads representing very different visions of the country and its values compete less over the right to implement those visions , than the right to simply project them. Of course, the stakes in this election were much higher than that, but its resolution in a Biden presidency probably feels to most liberals less like a victory that points forward than a reprieve from what might have been.

Still, it is a reprieve—from particular Trump policies now discontinued, and from more extreme possibilities contemplated for the second term; from a further decline of American standing in the world. Personally, I have to admit, it is also a psychological balm: evicting Donald Trump from our collective brainspace does seem to have motivated a lot of Biden supporters and indeed the president-elect himself, with his campaign mission — both grand and insubstantial — to heal the soul of the nation. But if the most we can hope for from political victory in a time of crisis is psychological comfort, rather than policy transformation, we are in for some very bleak times indeed. In other news, shrooms are now legal.

Biden’s Lame Duck Presidency