Opinion: There's more to a presidency than unifying a country

7:59 pm on 21 January 2021

By Dan Zirker *

Opinion - Joseph R Biden's inaugural address was a call to return to political normality (or 'normalcy', as the Americans say).

US President Joe Biden delivers his Inauguration speech after being sworn in as the 46th US President.

US President Joe Biden. Photo: Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Coming after a protracted period of administrative incompetence, polarization, anger, scapegoats and implied support for white supremacy, this was a perfectly appropriate message.

It is easy to point to the omissions and lacunae in this speech, although this is not necessarily a very helpful enterprise. Nevertheless, as a student of politics, I feel constrained to do exactly that.

In Biden's call for an end to the 'uncivil war', a clever and yet very apposite phrase, he pointed the way to the future, an encompassing way.

Live and let live, embrace one's neighbours, respect their differences, open hearts to acceptance and love, relegate hatred to the rubbish bin. All of these are noble and, if you will, 'normal' calls, repeated in the past in one way or another in the 59 inaugural addresses across 46 presidents over 220+ years.

There were a couple of concerns missing from President Biden's speech that might require some serious attention in the immediate future, however.

The first of these, the explosive growth in income inequality, had but one brief mention. Dramatic income disparity has meant that a handful of Americans now have more resources than over 90 percent of the country's population, and that the middle class in the US is rapidly disappearing, as the Pew Research Center's reports of 2016 and 2018 have demonstrated.

Income concentration has meant growing poverty, or the likelihood of poverty, threatening most American families. Even those families which are doing relatively well are all too often afraid for the futures of their children or grandchildren.

This suffering, or implied suffering, and fear explain much of the public susceptibility to exclusionary populist appeals such as those emanating from the White House over the past four years.

Shutting out the world, building border and trade walls, promising to 'bring back the jobs' (a difficult task at best, and one in which no progress was achieved), these are geared to a population which is increasingly vulnerable to fear, depression, hatred, big lies, opioid addiction, extremism and populist appeals, and all of these are related in some way to the growth of severe income disparities.

The new fear, of Covid-19, is easily denied but at great peril as we have seen. Overcoming the pandemic will require a rational and disciplined approach, something that has been an impossible task for the White House in the last four years.

US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One before departing Harlingen, Texas on January 12, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

Former US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP

A second missing element in Biden's forceful and compelling message, one that is directly linked to income inequality, was some emphasis upon Americans' limited access to health care. This limitation is directly related to income disparities.

In a country where health care is among the most expensive of such services in the world, the omission of a reference to reforming this frankly elitist system is problematic, although understandable.

Biden, after all, has struggled with this political football for decades. His promise to address the pandemic implies bringing all Americans to some security in this area. Nevertheless, it is a problem which must be addressed, and soon, and was only lightly covered in his inaugural vision.

We should note President Biden's courageous and early tackling of an intractable problem, the rise of, as he put it, nativism. The largest nativistic movement in American history is, arguably, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

In a number of ways, Biden addressed the resurgence of white supremacy in the US with his call for unity and his call to end the 'uncivil war'. This problem related as I have argued to widespread income disparities is truly intractable, however.

The US is a country of regions, and the Civil War is still very much alive in the collective conscious of the American South where it is still commonly referred to as the 'War of Northern Aggression'. An enduring theme of the region is the link between the Confederacy and white supremacy.

However, racial biases are evident throughout the US. Most recently, a defence spending bill crept through Congress, almost lost because of its provision for renaming military bases identified with Confederate Civil War officers.

Statues have been removed from courthouse lawns, the Confederate flag banned from public buildings in some Southern states, and growing interregional support has been expressed for the 'Black Lives Matter' movement. There is much yet to be done, however.

Reforms in police culture are really only the tips of icebergs. Biden's speech and his organisation of the Inaugural Day celebrations may point the way, however tenuous, to a new day in the struggle against racism.

Sam Rayburn (1882-1961), the longest serving Speaker of the US House of Representatives, once said 'there's no education in the second kick of a mule'.

The people of the US and indeed of the world have experienced a terrible populist kick over the past four years. Let's hope that they (and we) have learned something.

*Dan Zirker is a US political scientist from the University of Waikato. He's got a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta, and taught at universities in Minnesota, Idaho and Montana.

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