The limits of Biden

On January 20, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the U.S., heading an administration brimming with Obama era appointees. However, unlike Barack Obama, and contrary to his aspiration to renew American leadership internationally, Mr. Biden’s political energies will be consumed by challenges at home. The Democrats’ razor-thin majority in Congress is just the tip of the iceberg.

Mr. Biden enjoyed a massive seven million popular vote margin of victory over President Donald Trump, but Mr. Trump would still be sitting in the Oval Office today had a mere 42,918 votes of the seven million popular votes changed hands in the battleground States of Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia. This would also have been the case had an equally small 2,57,025 ballots (of the 15.5 million cast) across the Rust Belt States of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin gone in favour of Mr. Trump.

Blue-collar votes

The skewed vote count is an artifact of the rural and Republican Party-leaning bias of the American electoral college system. Indeed, no Republican candidate has secured a majority or plurality of the presidential vote over the past three decades with the exception of George W. Bush in 2004, yet Republicans have held the White House for almost as long as the Democrats have over this period. Regardless, as Mr. Biden gets down to business, the upshot of his razor-thin margin and the Democrats’ electoral college disadvantage is that the blue-collar vote will again be on the ballot in 2024. Like Mr. Trump who eked out a narrow 77,736 combined vote edge in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016, Mr. Biden’s path to the White House will have to run through these Rust Belt States.

The ferment in blue-collar America can be traced to the nation’s sputtering economic engine and rank inequality in its midst. During the last six decades of the 20th century, the U.S. averaged GDP growth of 3.9% a year; in each of the first two decades this century, the economy has failed to break through the 2% mark – even as the federal government’s debt-to-GDP ratio has tripled in just 15 years and breached the problematic 100% threshold. As globalisation and digitalisation have accentuated social divisions, roughly one in seven prime-age men – mostly white, working-class, and lacking a college degree – have exited the labour market altogether. If anything, these trends will only worsen as the one-off structural forces that propelled America’s late 20th century ‘golden economic age’ – favourable ‘baby boomer’ demographics; rise in women’s labour market participation; expansion of tertiary education; huge increase in household debt – move into reversal over the next quarter century.


So from an international perspective, what does this all amount to? First, on international trade, Mr. Biden’s margin for manoeuvre will be narrow and his approach will more resemble Mr. Trump’s populism and protectionism (minus the premeditated rule-breaking) than Mr. Obama’s liberalising tendencies. This comes at an inopportune moment too. China is currently stitching-up trade and investment agreements with European and Asian counterparts, and it is only a matter of time before it accedes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement championed ironically by then-Vice President Biden to contain China’s influence in setting tomorrow’s trade rules for Asia. Second, Mr. Biden will lack the purpose, and deep pockets, to marshal a coalition and mount a sustained challenge to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Expect a mishmash of American equipment deals and sweetheart financing that presses on the BRI’s neuralgic points in select countries to discomfit China but without achieving any permanent gains. The most consequential ramification, however, concerns not Mr. Biden but the Republican Party. Should it continue its reversion to the economically populist, socially conservative, and geopolitically isolationist party of yore on the back of illiberal white nativist grievance, the implications for the international system could be profound.

Sourabh Gupta is a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Printable version | Mar 1, 2021 4:36:44 AM |

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