Joe Biden can get plenty done, even if Congress is divided

If there is one thing Donald Trump excelled at as US president, it was finding ways to get things done without needing to gain approval from a Democratically-controlled House of Representatives.

Once confirmed and in office, President-elect Joe Biden will face a similar problem. The Senate looks likely to remain in Republican hands. After yet another contentious and close election, the country is deeply divided. Still, being president holds many privileges. If Mr Biden can leverage them, he’ll be able to achieve significant parts of his agenda, even without Democratic control of Congress.

First, he has the power of the federal government at his disposal. Mr Trump found all sorts of ways to govern by executive order; Mr Biden can do the same. He has already announced plans to name his own task force to deal with the coronavirus pandemic on Monday and is likely to rejoin the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization, and to repeal travel bans from some Muslim-majority countries.

He could start to clean up human rights violations that have become part of the immigration process, making sure all of the children detained alone at the US border with Mexico are united with their parents. He could also ensure that any federal contracts awarded are given to companies with high labour, safety and environmental standards.

The Covid-19 crisis could be used as a first chance for Mr Biden to start showing Americans what his Build Back Better campaign slogan looks like in real life. There are still hundreds of billions of dollars yet to be spent under the Cares Act, which was passed to help the country deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. That money would be under Mr Biden’s executive control.

In the short term, some of it should go to what Mr Biden calls “the caring economy”, bolstering the healthcare safety net for more Americans, and ensuring more high-speed Covid-19 testing. If every school, shopping mall, theatre, restaurant, office or other public space offered high-speed testing, that could limit the health and economic damage from the virus that is surging once again throughout the country.

Education spending runs a close second. Some of the recovery money could be spent on helping schools upgrade their online teaching while the pandemic continues or, better yet, their ability to ensure health and safety in physical schools. Research shows that 90 per cent of students from high-income backgrounds are regularly logging into online teaching, while only 60 per cent of those from families with low-incomes do. McKinsey & Company estimates that the average US student will lose between $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings from Covid-19 related learning gaps. The numbers are higher for black and Hispanic Americans.

Existing government funds are not necessarily enough to fix all this, of course, but any such spending is also an opportunity to start an important debate about why it is that public goods often require public financing.

Investing in public health, education, infrastructure and broadband aren’t high-margin projects that are going to attract a lot of private money. Public goods need public support. Helping Americans understand that would be a key part of shifting away from neoliberal policies that have exacerbated inequality. Such public investment would have the effect of bolstering gross domestic product and, ultimately, cutting the public debt that the pandemic (not to mention Mr Trump’s tax cuts that came before) has run up.

Unlikely as it may seem, there could also be some overlap in Democratic and Republican agendas in areas like trade and national security that Mr Biden could leverage. Economic nationalists such as Republican senators Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio and Rob Portman have supported the idea of a national investment strategy to help the US compete with China. One can imagine a bipartisan group supporting the Build Back Better agenda, which aims to decarbonise the economy, if it can also be presented as a way to secure supply chains and create good jobs at home. Putting a Republican in a key cabinet post to help make that happen would be wise. 

Improving relations with Europe would be another smart move. One of the reasons that your average coal miner or steelworker might have voted for Trump rather than Biden is that, while clean technology jobs pay a bit more than the average American job, some fossil-fuel-based jobs pay 40 per cent over the median. That’s ironic, since a lot of the leaders in clean tech are European companies, which tend to talk a good game about the corporate social compact at home, but often do not live it abroad.

If and when a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available, the first thing a President Biden should do is get on a plane and re-establish better foreign relations with Europe, so that US and EU officials can work to set common rules around trade, labour and environmental standards, taxation and the digital economy. Creating a transatlantic alliance around clean tech and linking any green stimulus to good jobs will be crucial to rebalancing power between capital and workers.

There is so much low-hanging fruit to be plucked right now by improving relations with allies in Europe and elsewhere, from setting common standards for digital taxation and 5G, to cutting a new US-EU privacy deal, to coming up with a common approach to deal with Chinese state-run capitalism, to working together to curb Big Tech’s power and rethink competition policy.

Diplomacy is an area where Mr Biden may well shine. And he won’t need Republican support for that.

Follow Rana Foroohar with myFT and on Twitter

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