Biden's difficult bet

The depth of the crisis has been a glue for the Democratic Party. But Republicans will not resign to defeat. The first proof will be the mid-term elections in the autumn of 2022.

Joe Biden is eventually the new President of the United States. In effect  his victory had long been announced. The most important aspect is that Biden has won with the highest voter turnout in the last century, eventhough Trump has seen his ratings increase compared to 2016 when he first won. 

What matters is that the lever of American politics is in the hands of a Democratic president in the midst of America's most serious crisis since the Second World War and sometimes considered more severe than that of the early 1930s. The depth of the crisis has been a glue for the Democratic Party. The extraordinary number of votes obtained, compared to historical precedents, was the result of high voter turnout of Democratic voters who, in the primary for the selection of the Democratic candidate, had sided with Bernie Sanders, exponent of the party's left wing.

The recovery cannot begin with traditional interventions. The fight against recession and unemployment requires the use of massive public investments mainly in infrastructure, from roads to schools, to health infrastructures that, even though in difficult conditions, played an essential role in the face of the attack of the pandemic. It is not an easy task. Republicans with a strong presence in the Senate are able to block public expenses promoted by democrats.

Biden, 78-year-old with nearly fifty years of experience at the top of political life, will indicate a line of pacification hoping to obtain a moderate attitude from the Republican opposition. But it could turn out to be a vain hope. Republicans will not resign themselves to defeat. The first proof will be the mid-term elections in the autumn of 2022, when Biden will have to account for the results of the presidency in a context of great difficulties. The confidence placed in the democratic presidency is conditional on the implementation of a policy able to confront the deep crisis following the coronavirus pandemic. The strategy of the presidency will need to be decisive to keep alive the great popular participation that has allowed the victory of the Democratic party.

The first two years of the presidency are usually to be proof of fire. The history of democratic presidencies can serve as a lesson. Already in the past, relevant electoral victories have proved to be fragile. Over the past thirty years, this is the Democratic Party's third electoral victory. It has ruled for 16 years, and Biden's victory heralds at least twenty.

But so far, the Democratic Party has not been able to consolidate its victories on a popular level. Bill Clinton easily won against the first Bush, who was the apparent heir to Reagan, raising high hopes of change. Hopes were dashed. The economic policy centered on reducing the debt accumulated by Republicans led, under the Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen and the president of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, to a slowdown in growth and a strong increase in unemployment. At the same time, Hillary Clinton’s confusingly engineered health care reform had to be withdrawn. In the first mid-term elections, Clinton sadly saw his Democratic majority in the Senate and the House both vanish. Robert Reich, expression of the left and minister of Labor, abandoned the government after the first term.

Barack Obama's election in 2008, was still a great democratic success that fueled high hopes for change. Obama, in front of the most serious social crisis of the second postwar, decided on a financial public intervention of 800 billion dollars. Many economists on the democratic side, including the Nobel price Stiglitz and Krugman, considered insufficient this government intervention, destined to slowing down the recovery and the fight against unemployment.

Taking up the issue of health care reform, a democrats' workhorse since Johnson's presidency, and after Clinton’s failure, Obama was somewhere in between a major and a limited reform with the effect of facilitating the obstructionist task of the republicans. Finally, disappointing expectations of the left of the party that had sided with the objective of a healthcare regime based on the universalization of the insurance along the possible model of “Medicare for all”. The reform had to be heavily compromised leaving the cost of health care to grow and keeping its substantial social differences based on the private insurance. In the middle term elections, the vast majority of democrats in the Senate was heavily reduced, while the party faced at the House the gravest defeat in the last decades.

While the Conservative Party does not lack internal divisions, it finds unity on the most relevant issues of American politics, as well as the reduction of taxes and public spending, the full liberalization of the labor market, the privilege of white Americans, the fight against migration. On the contrary, the Democratic party has a centrist majority, with right-wing veins, collecting the electoral votes of the left generally not involved in the political choices of the administration.

In the recent elections, the participation in the vote and the success of the Democratic party is fundamentally due to the extraordinary participation of young people, woman and the leftwing  of the party who had been aligned with the candidature of Bernie Sanders.

Biden will face many hardships. The first test will be the healing of the deep wounds provoked by the pandemic that will affect the employment and the economic conditions of the middle and working classes along with the growing numbers of poor. If the value of the great voter turnout that has enabled democratic victory will be nullified, the democratic success will vanish again, as has often happened in past experiences. The deep impact of the crisis could be the occasion for a new popular policy strengthening the position of the democratic party and validating at mass level its victory.

The awareness of a difficult electoral victory balanced on a razor blade, the extraordinary nature of the situation, the pragmatic spirit of the new president who has fifty-years of political experience at the top of American politics, could be the recipe needed to avoid the mistakes that have marked other previous democratic victories. History should still serve as a teacher. But beyond the hope and the possibility of a renewal of old policies and the optimism resulting from the electoral success, past experience makes every prediction a hazardous gamble.

Antonio Lettieri

Antonio Lettieri is Editor of Insight and President of CISS – Center for International Social Studies (Roma). He was National Secretary of CGIL; Member of ILO Governing Body,and Advisor of Labor Minister for European Affairs.(

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