Will Biden have enough hours in the day to heal a divided America?

This year's ceremonies will be just one more demonstration of how far America has strayed from 'normal'

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How much bandwidth do you have? At the start of a new job or big project, how much headspace do you need to clear to get stuff done? There is not enough organic bandwidth in the human brain to cope with what President-elect Joe Biden will have to deal with after he takes the oath of office on Wednesday, January 20.

Mr Biden is being inaugurated facing the greatest crisis in American life since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932. And FDR had just the one: the collapse of the economy and, with it, the banking system. Unemployment would peak at 25 per cent shortly after he was sworn in.

Mr Biden faces an economy similarly in peril – at least 30 million are unemployed – but not because of a banking crisis (that was at the beginning of his term as Barack Obama's vice president). Rather, it's because of the Covid-19 pandemic which has been allowed to run wild since it arrived in America exactly one year – to the day – before his inauguration date.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on January 08, 2021 US President-elect Joe Biden speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware to announce key nominees for his economic and jobs team. Stock markets retreated January 11, 2021 after a sustained rise to successive records last week, against a backdrop of fast-rising coronavirus cases and US political turmoil.
And cryptocurrency bitcoin plunged, posting its biggest loss since the start of the pandemic.
Joe Biden will become the first president in a century to receive the reins of power without his predecessor present. AFP

But before he can begin to deploy the tools of government to deal with the pandemic and economic crisis, Mr Biden must deal with a country on the brink of violent political breakdown.

Last week’s assault on the Capitol Building does not herald a revolution, or even insurrection, but it showed how easy it is to turn out a mob to stop government action. It also demonstrated that many in the Republican congressional delegation have formed a faction determined to overthrow the constitutional processes they swore an oath to God to uphold. For them, politics is civil war by other means.

This was underscored by Wednesday’s second impeachment vote of President Donald Trump. Just 10 Republicans voted for impeachment, out of a delegation of 207. It is clear that Mr Trump will continue to exercise an outsized influence on American politics even as Mr Biden is sworn in.

The rituals of the peaceful transfer of power have already been shredded by Mr Trump and his followers. He has already stated that he will not even attend his successor's inauguration. He is the first out-going president since Woodrow Wilson, exactly a century ago, to miss his successor’s swearing-in (and Wilson had an excuse, given he was incapacitated by a stroke). Mr Trump’s absence is a symbol of how divided America is.

Since the Civil War, the handover rituals from one administration to the next have been a reminder of the fundamental unity of Americans, despite political differences. Next Wednesday’s ceremony will be one more demonstration of how many norms have been discarded over the last four years.

Consequently, Mr Biden will have no time to enjoy his ascension to the office he first sought three decades ago. The need for urgent action to contain the pandemic and roll out an economic package to help people through the continuing storm will be time-consuming.

And then there is the garden variety administrative stuff. For example, his cabinet and top officials – around 1400 in all – need to be confirmed in the Senate, the upper house of the American legislature.

That means hearings and votes in a Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, as presiding officer of the Senate, will get the tie-breaking vote. But she has other responsibilities as well, besides being on hand to break ties.

Just getting the administration up and running will be a Herculean task. If there is one thing working in Mr Biden's favour as he tries to organise these domestic tasks, it is experience. A year ago, as the Democratic primaries began, Mr Biden was seen as yesterday's man – emphasis on man. Then the pandemic struck. Now his 48 years of Senate experience is seen as a plus. He knows how to negotiate the tight corners on Capitol Hill.

The question is: will the pandemic and potential for anarchic violence leave him enough time to get his domestic programme through?

And while he is doing that, he must re-route American foreign policy back from Mr Trump’s uorthodox approach to its traditional path. Here again, Mr Biden has experience. He was a long-serving member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

The rituals of the peaceful transfer of power have already been shredded by Mr Trump

One of the biggest tasks he faces is whether to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. Back in September, he wrote, “ … if Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”

This week, an indication of the importance he places on re-engaging with Iran came when he nominated William J Burns to run the CIA. Burns was America’s lead negotiator on the nuclear deal.

Mr Burns, in his 33 year career in the State Department, the US foreign ministry, spent a lot of time in the Middle East, including a stint as Washington's ambassador to Jordan. He also helped negotiate a brief ceasefire between Palestinians and Israelis during the second intifada 20 years ago.

Mr Biden and Mr Burns will have to absorb and process the changing dynamics in relations between Israel and Arab countries.

But before the incoming president turns his attention to the Middle East, he has to mend the damage done by Mr Trump to America’s relationship with European allies. Nato, the trans-Atlantic military alliance, has been shaken to its core by the last four years. For the first time since the alliance was formed, the reliability of the US as the lead partner in the defence of Europe and global leader of democracies is under question.

Shortly before the election, Mr Burns told the New York Times, "One of the more insidious effects of polarisation is to make foreign policy a tool of partisan politics. It's done enduring damage to America's reputation in the world for being able to keep its word."

There is not a lot of time to address all of these foreign and domestic issues. The reality of American politics is that there is virtually no time to actually govern. Right now, the Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress by slim majorities but a new election cycle, with its non-stop fundraising, will begin soon. Members of the House of Representatives serve a two year term. Most, if they want to keep their jobs, will begin running in earnest in about 12 months. Things will grind to a complete halt in about 18 months. And, if recent history is anything to go by, in two years the Democrats will lose control of the House.

So President-elect Biden has that long to get his most important policies on track, and turn American society and its government down a different, better path. Does he have the bandwidth? Are there enough waking hours for any single person to accomplish this?

Michael Goldfarb is the host of the First Rough Draft of History podcast