US President Joe Biden is struggling with America's decaying democracy as Donald Trump still holds Republicans under his spell – Henry McLeish
Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States one year ago today, with the removal of Donald Trump ending a nightmare for America.
Expectations were high that the new President would restore respect abroad and seek more unity of purpose at home, replacing chaos and crisis with competent leadership. This has not happened.
Voters are now questioning Biden’s leadership as the impact of the pandemic continues to take its toll on a country riven by historic divisions, still consumed by the legacy of Trump and a Republican party rejecting bipartisanship and determined to stall or destroy any progressive legislation in Congress.
Differences within the Democratic Party are also impacting the Biden presidency and have contributed to his failure to push through key policies on voting rights, changing the filibuster rules, ‘Build Back Better’ legislation, and the climate and social policy bill.
After half a century of experience as a Washington insider, it was hoped he would have more success in winning over Capitol Hill. But Washington politics is complex and unforgiving as political wars rage between Republicans and Democrats and progressives and conservatives within his party.
The inquiry into the storming of Capitol Hill continues to dominate much of the debate, as Trump’s shadow hangs over the Republican Party and inspires their continuing efforts to undermine democracy and promote his claim the election was “stolen”.
Biden is faced with the real prospect of the Republican Party winning control of the Senate and the House of Representatives in November’s elections, and the reframing of the Republican Party in the image of Trump who is busy destroying “never Trumpers” by influencing candidate selection and threatening to stand as the Republican candidate in 2024 or become the puppet-master of another.
Of more immediate significance to Biden and Democrats are his poll ratings. The FiveThirtyEight polling organisation recently found Biden, after a year in office, has the lowest approval rating of any US President since 1945, with one exception, Trump, with 52.2 per cent disapproving and 42.4 approving.
Recognised as one of the most disappointing presidents, Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings stood at 55 per cent at the end of his first year in office.
Setbacks for the President have piled up. Inflation hit a 40-year high last year; the Supreme Court, increasingly an arm of the political right, blocked his vaccine-or-test mandate for employees of large companies and meddled dangerously with abortion rights, possibly paving the way to reform the Roe vs Wade legislation that led to abortion rights in all 50 states.
Biden has also met resistance from Republican governors and state legislatures in enforcing mask mandates and other measures to limit the spread of Covid. Despite their destructive efforts, Biden implemented a successful early vaccine programme.
On foreign policy, there have been setbacks and hesitancy. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the ongoing issue of Russian aggression in Ukraine, the question of support for and leadership of Nato, continuing trade and political skirmishes with China, the behaviour of North Korea, and the extent of US commitment to tackling climate change.
Migration from South and Central America remains a sensitive and highly political issue. Europe is unsure of whether a Biden presidency means a more outgoing America leading on global issues or an America becoming more isolationist.
However, despite the poisonous legacy Biden inherited from Trump, noteworthy progress has been made on key commitments to infrastructure and the economy. Biden secured a $2 trillion stimulus package and $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.
One year need not make or break a four-year presidency. But the loss of popular support, as measured by approval ratings, is a cause of concern as future elections loom and the onward march of the near-Neanderthal Republican opposition gains momentum.
It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “a house divided against itself can not stand”. America today is a crumbling, chaotic and corrupt democracy, with a near civil war-like mentality where trust, tolerance, respect, truth, and shared aspirations have collapsed.
While the US has always been a complex, often contradictory and competitive country, with an archaic two-party, first-past-the-post voting system, there may be worse to come as the polarisation of politics is reinforced by the spectacle of a country at war with itself.
Biden’s victory in 2020 helped America step back from the brink. But it is still a democracy in which a bitterly divided and disunited country struggles within an incendiary atmosphere, where deep-seated cultural wars risk becoming more sinister and violent.
Trumpism and the slow death of a once-great Republican party are fanning the flames of civil unrest and widening a deep racial divide.
Biden is also fighting America’s obsession with conspiracy theories, a kind of voodoo politics which is frightening, dangerous, and gaining traction. QAnon figures prominently in this scary world and now has supporters elected to the House of Representatives.
A week was once described as being “a long time in politics”, so another three years of the Biden presidency could seem like an eternity. Americans, like much of the world, are tired of the pandemic and weary and worried about the ability of their politicians to solve the bewildering array of problems and challenges besetting everyday life.
Biden may be able to turn around the fortunes of his presidency and those of the Democratic party, but how does he turnaround the fortunes of a country that is losing faith in democracy, governance, and politics? Put more controversially, is the US ungovernable?
Henry McLeish is a former First Minister of Scotland
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