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Don’t expect systemic change under Joe Biden

The president-elect’s proposed reforms aren't enough to temper the military-industrial complex – but there’s reason for hope.    

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 November 2020, 5.09pm
Biden faces stark challenges: the US COVID death toll could surpass 300,000 by his inauguration.
PA Images

Joe Biden’s victory raises two questions: will his presidency make much difference and what will Donald Trump do now?

On the latter question, there are several routes open to Trump. After attempting (and failing) to challenge the election results in court, he could kick off a 2024 campaign, but whether or not the neoliberal elites will support him is another issue in itself. They probably won’t, but such is his ego and self-faith that he may go ahead anyway. He craves public acclamation and has a very large support base – not forgetting the 70 million-plus who voted for him. 

He could also move abroad. This might be the most sensible course given the multiple investigations into his finances that are currently on hold, although his ego may not let him recognise the danger he faces. Or he could seethe and sulk on the sidelines, slowly sliding into irrelevance. Whichever way he goes will depend on what happens in the weeks before Biden’s inauguration, but don’t rule out the first option; the ability to give narcissism a bad name takes some doing but he certainly has it in spades.

Rising death toll

Biden faces a catastrophically divided country but he has the right style for these times. He is also greatly aided by some grim facts. With ten weeks to go until he takes office, it is clear that the US is still in the early stages of a COVID-19 second wave, and Thanksgiving on 26 November has the makings of a national super-spreader event. 

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The way things are headed, by Biden’s inauguration day, 20 January 2021, the COVID-19 death toll could surpass the 300,000 mark. Already, more than 230,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. On 12 November, public health officials announced more than 160,000 new COVID-19 cases, the first day to surpass 150,000 since the pandemic began, and an alarming record that came just over a week after the country first experienced 100,000 cases in a single day.

Bidenomics is not about fundamental reforms of a failing system.

Furthermore, it is likely that local COVID surges will arise directly from Trump’s final days of frenetic campaigning that included mass rallies. If Biden devotes a substantial part of the transition period to planning for anti-COVID actions, even lockdowns may become more accepted, especially given his stance on the pandemic throughout his campaign. Perhaps I just want to be optimistic, but it might mean that Biden’s first 100 days, along with vaccines becoming available by the early summer, make for a good start to his administration.

What lies beyond all of this is whether Biden will make any substantive difference to the three overarching global crises – a failing neoliberal system producing a more marginalised and divided world, a security paradigm dominated by the military-industrial complex and the huge elephant in the room, climate breakdown.

On the former question, there will be some economic stimulus and green investment, but expect very little radical change. Bidenomics is not about fundamental reforms of a failing system. In any case, the system is so powerful and entrenched that it is unclear whether any world leader could evoke radical change by themselves. On the military issue, Biden’s rule should lead to some development. The shadow wars against ISIS and the rest will most likely continue but he will not want a crisis with North Korea and his administration may move cautiously to get the Iran deal back on track, a route that will be much favoured by EU leaders. Even so, as with the neoliberal system, the military-industrial complex is formidable and any serious rethinking of security outside a few think tanks and campaigners is unlikely.

If that sounds pessimistic on both economy and security, climate breakdown is slightly more positive; in global terms the choice between Trump and Biden is immensely significant. It is not that there will be massive action by the United States – but rather the biggest hindrance, Trump, has been removed.   

Moreover, Biden’s presence in the White House will be a boost for the climate science community, not just in the United States, but for activists worldwide. We have to get to grips with rapid decarbonisation in the 2020s, and four more years of Trump would have hugely damaged any chance of doing that. There will be substantial symbolism in seeing the US re-enter the Paris accords at the end of January. And that is one of the most significant outcomes of this election result. 

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