20 December 2021 — Indian Punchline
US President Joe Biden boards Marine One as he returns to White House after spending weekend in Delaware, Dec. 20, 2021
American politics took a dramatic turn on Sunday with the announcement by the West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin that he “cannot vote” for the Build Back Better Act, President Joe Biden’s signature $2.2 trillion bill to overhaul the country’s health care, education, climate, immigration and tax laws.
This deals a potentially insurmountable political blow to the core of Biden’s economic agenda on which the fate of his entire presidency is heavily predicated. The bill aims to provide a slew of new financial support to help low-income Americans by expanding Medicare benefits, lowering prescription drug prices, authorising prekindergarten for all American children, investing heavily to combat climate change and so on.
The US Senate is an evenly divided chamber and Manchin’s stance tilts the balance against the bill — that is, unless the the size and scope of the spending package is drastically pruned, which would then threaten the ability of Democrats to deliver on many of the promises they made on the 2020 campaign trail and in turn have serious negative implications for their prospects in the 2022 midterm elections.
Manchin’s rejection of the the Build Back Better Act has been on the ground that the proposed bill lacks transparency. He accused the White House of trying to “camouflage the real cost of the intent behind this bill,” citing that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has determined that the “cost is upwards of $4.5 trillion which is more than double what the bill’s ardent supporters have claimed.”
Manchin flagged that the US national debt is way beyond the danger mark at present (US$28.9 trillion and rising) and underscored that “as the pandemic surges on, inflation rises and geopolitical uncertainty increases around the world,” the national debt has become a political Albatross for the US. Manchin’s devastating critique highlights that the superpower has been punching way above its weight and the country cannot afford it.
The immediate economic consequences of Manchin’s dissent are going to be very damaging to the Biden presidency since a part of the bill aims to extend a soon-expiring federal program that provides payments to more than 35 million American families with children. The limits of Biden’s own much-vaunted prowess as a negotiator stands exposed.
Manchin has pointedly targeted the climate and clean-energy provisions in the bill, saying they “risk the reliability of our electric grid and increase our dependence on foreign supply chains.” It will be virtually impossible now to achieve Biden’s climate agenda. This is, again, a massive setback for Biden personally. Biden had boasted that the legislation would create thousands of jobs in the clean-energy sector and auto manufacturing, and help America compete with China and the European Union.
Only one year after Biden was elected president, the voters recently turned against him in Virginia where the Democrats had been winning almost every election in the last 10 years. It was a sign that something bigger was going on in the country, reflecting the voters’ disillusionment at the national level. A number of factors are in play.
Second, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan once again went to the heart of Biden’s appeal as president — that of competence. A third factor is the inflation and price rise (food prices and gas prices in particular) and the shortages in the wake of the pandemic, which drive down Biden’s popularity. Indeed, the public is deeply angry about lots of things — wearing masks, legitimate concern over vaccines for smaller children, lack of social activity of children, etc.
Over and above, the American society has been caught up in a “cultural war” since the invention of the contraceptive pill in 1961 and the women’s rights movement that followed, personal autonomy, gay rights, etc. and it has gone on with ever newer issues such as the complicated transgender question, the so-called “critical race theory”.
This has become a deeply problematic challenge for the Democratic Party, as they touch on what it is to be a “liberal” in America, what it is to be a “democrat”, and they are wrenching issues for the Left, in particular.
The battle within the Democratic Party coupled with the voters’ disenchantment with Biden comes at a time when the Democrats’ hold over the Senate is wafer thin. Vice-President Kamala Harris’ casting vote in the Senate is the only salvation. And this is also where the real malaise lies: negativity and tribalism are driving American politics in the recent years.
The general perception is that Biden and his administration are seriously underperforming at the moment. Biden came in with the great promise to reunite America. He presented himself as a grandfatherly figure after a period of Donald Trump’s abrasive politics.
At first, Biden seemed to be delivering. But as weeks and months passed, doubts have arisen whether Biden is really in control of events. Afghanistan, Covid, education, inflation — Biden’s competence has come under close scrutiny on all these fronts.
Plus, every mistake Biden makes is being attributed to his advanced age. At the COP26 at Glasgow, he was pictured with his eyes shut. A younger man might have got away with it, but not Biden who left the impression of an old man who couldn’t stay awake.
The debate has seriously begun whether it is wise for Biden to run for a second term. The Washington Post recently listed the “top 10 non-Biden Democrats” for president in 2024, “ranked in order of most likely to be nominated.”
Meanwhile, most analysts predict that the Democrats are going to lose control of the Congress in the 2022 mid-term elections. That means the show is over for Biden’s domestic agenda in many ways and the Republicans will be in a position to block him every way.
Suffice to say, the high probability is that in 2024, America will once again be going to the poll angry and divided as it was in 2016, which of course will be a most worrying scenario for the future of democracy. The accelerating radicalisation between the two major political tribes, and between and within blue and red states, could easily erupt into political violence, militia activism and the delegitimisation of central authority and government.
All this of course has serious implications for the US foreign policies and world politics, especially the US-Russia-China triangle. Belying hopes that the pandemic might be a chastening influence, it is clear by now that the world’s three big powers have failed to cooperate.
As the US gets seriously destabilised on the domestic front, the reverberations will be felt well into Europe, West Asia and the Asia-Pacific. The spectre of a return of Trump or someone of his ilk in 2024 should be already weighing on the minds of some of the US’ European allies.
The US, China or Russia would be unlikely to consciously target one another in any frontal form. Proxy war is more likely than direct war, and growing cyber warfare more likely still.
However, all bets are off in the event of an existential political threat to any of the three leaders. History bears witness. Indeed, direct war can only be total war, causing near-total destruction.
The greater likelihood, though, lies in accidental entanglement in war, either in false anticipation of an attack or through a miscalculation of the already tangled nature of the conflicts and tensions in Eastern Europe or the Far East and South China Sea.