Common wisdom has it now that Joe Biden’s entire presidency will exist in the shadow his predecessor’s, given the impact that President Trump has had on voters in the U.S.
That situation may be just fine with Biden himself.
Trump has failed, first of all, to construct a tangible legacy. Biden won’t have to deal with a new and controversial Department of Homeland Security, for example, or a fresh breach in the Middle East that leaves the U.S. stuck like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.
Problems of that kind were what President Obama faced, of course. The quagmire in Iraq and the fallout of the financial crisis of 2008 consumed his administration from the outset.
And yet it was remarkable how quickly Obama reversed the zeitgeist of the Bush years, as permanent as that mood seemed at the time. Even after it was clear that Obama wasn’t going to close Guantanamo, much less exit Iraq, there was no doubt that his presence in the White House had dispelled a particular quality of fear and paranoia that had enabled the Bush Administration’s secret legal memoranda on interrogation techniques, among other dubious innovations.
Equally remarkable was the impermanence of Obama’s own achievements. Once Trump had managed to remove the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, then the Paris
Agreement, and then the Iran nuclear deal, then defund Obama’s (TTP) ambitious Clean Power Plan while putting into place various obstructions to the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), it seemed likely that Obama’s administration would be remembered mostly as an eight-year tour of goodwill.
Obama’s election simply wasn’t the revolution that so many had hoped it would be, back in 2008.
Revolution is what Trump’s election represented, in fact, even if he was incapable of managing such a thing himself.
True revolutions aren’t created, they’re enabled. They are expressions of mass discontent that erupt when it suddenly seems permissible to voice a sentiment widely shared and deeply felt.
The Bush presidency may have been revolutionary in the way that it exercised its authority, but no one was exactly demanding waterboarding. And Obama’s progressive reforms seemed to inspire mostly hostility and indifference, even though ironically they concerned areas of perennial complaint, such as the woeful U.S. health-insurance system.
What people really wished to complain about, evidently, was that thing popularly known as “globalism”.
A consensus throughout the mainstream political spectrum, meanwhile, held that NAFTA, the WTO, short-term financial instruments, and everything else that came with the hyper-acceleration of international trade in the 1990s was not only going to enrich the masses one day very soon, but was practically inevitable.
“You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer”, quipped Tony Blair, leader of what used to be Britain’s center-Left. In hindsight, it now seems that the excitement surrounding Trump’s run in 2016 was the euphoria of a group of individuals at the genesis of self-realization, of an ability to act collectively and effect consequences.
That isn’t something that can just be turned back.
It feels old-fashioned nowadays to mention the French Revolution, but it’s true that that crisis neatly illustrates what happens in the modern era when globalism, mass media, and an economic crisis coincide.
Then as now, the political class kept issuing bromides about economic liberalization while a large portion of the population struggled to afford basic necessities.
In a series of historic accidents, individuals from outside of the mainstream were suddenly able to propose the impossible, which was that the current system had to go.
That galvanized the lower classes, who through sheer threat of riot managed to sway leadership through successive changes in fragile government.
Once moderates finally had hold of the reins, they seemed genuinely reluctant to return to the old regime, anyway. A true revolution is after all the result of imbalances felt even at the highest levels of society.
Likewise, the “Obama veterans” that make up part of Biden’s team now seem to regard their previous tenure with a fresh sense of missed opportunity, according to The Wall Street Journal. They feel they weren’t strict enough on trade with China, for example.
And Biden himself doesn’t intend to immediately reverse the present state of world affairs created by Trump.
Discussing Iran recently in an interview with The New York Times, he repeated his desire to rejoin the nuclear pact but seemed satisfied to have also at his disposal a certain, newfound leverage.
“The U.S. always has the option to snap back sanctions if need be, and Iran knows that”, the Times wrote, paraphrasing Biden’s statements.
Regarding China, he said: “I want to make sure we’re going to fight like hell by investing in America first.”
Four years ago, that would’ve sounded like a provocation.