When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, The Onion, a satirical newspaper, had this headline: “Black man given nation’s worst job.”
Joe Biden, who appears likely to be declared the winner of this year’s election, knew what he was getting into when he decided to try to unseat Donald Trump. But Obama is probably telling his vice president, “Dude, I had it easy compared with you.”
Obama had to work to pull the economy out of a serious recession brought on by a financial panic. Biden will also take over a battered economy. Unemployment currently stands at 6.9%, with more than 12 million people out of work.
But he’ll have to confront an even graver problem: a relentless pandemic that has already killed 235,000 people in this country. As yet, there is no cure; there is no vaccine; and we are nowhere near achieving herd immunity.
Infections, hospitalizations and deaths are all on the rise. On Thursday alone, 1,108 people died of the disease — the equivalent of three jumbo jets crashing. It’s an immense catastrophe that is still unfolding.
Life has been disrupted on a scale not seen since World War II. Many restaurants have closed, temporarily or permanently, and in-person classes have been suspended for most public school students. City downtowns have been desolated as millions of Americans work from home. Restrictions that had been lifted have been restored in some places, portending more economic damage.
Many industries that usually rebound when the economy recovers may stay depressed for years — including airlines, hotels, tourism, oil and gas and commercial real estate.
Worse, every effort to contain the epidemic has been subverted by the person who should be doing the most to help: the incumbent president. He has encouraged his followers to resist measures recommended by public health experts, and many of them have done so.
Their noncompliance will outlive his presidency.
The Trump administration brings to mind the Buchanans in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Cleaning up will be the task of the next administration.
Biden might like to emulate Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who entered the White House during the Great Depression and embarked on an ambitious effort to rescue Americans from hardship, keep banks functioning, create jobs, boost farm income and revive the economy. He signed 15 major bills in his first 100 days. The result was a monumental reshaping of the federal government’s mission.
But it came about only because Roosevelt had a Congress heavily dominated by his party. In seeking legislation, he was pushing an open door. Many of the measures FDR signed originated not in the White House but on Capitol Hill.
Biden, however, will most likely have to work with a Senate controlled by Republicans, who have rarely showed a willingness to work with Democrats on compromise solutions. Not a single Republican senator voted for Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and only three voted for his 2009 stimulus package. And let’s not even talk about Merrick Garland.
It’s not likely the Senate would give Biden what he would want in the way of federal stimulus and relief. McConnell has said that Congress should pass a “rescue package” before the end of the year, but it would, undoubtedly, fall well short of what Democrats favor — and, once passed, it would give McConnell a pretext to say nothing more would be needed next year.
Biden thinks he can persuade some Republicans to cooperate, but recent history suggests it will be a tough sell. GOP lawmakers will have the luxury of balking at Biden’s proposals and then faulting him for the problems they refused to ameliorate. Expect them to suddenly rediscover the aversion to budget deficits and big spending that they somehow lost as the federal debt soared under Trump.
There are many types of job stress, but one of the worst is having important responsibilities without adequate authority. Scientific research, according to the American Institute on Stress, finds “that workers who perceive they are subjected to high demands but have little control are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease.”
Should he win, it’s not easy to put out the fires of hell. Biden will be expected to do it with a bucket of water.