It’s over. Donald Trump is a private citizen, and Joe Biden is president. As Biden made clear in his inauguration address Wednesday, however, the United States is in deep trouble. “We face an attack on our democracy, and on truth, a raging virus, a stinging inequity, systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways,” he said. “It’s time for boldness, for there is so much to do.”
Yet in his first acts as president, Biden has so far not displayed the kind of aggressive action necessary to really tackle the problems he mentioned. He’s made a start, but he will have to go much, much further.
Before the inauguration, the Biden team released a series of executive orders that would be enacted immediately. Biden will order masks to be mandatory on all federal property, repair the U.S. relationship with the World Health Organization, and extend the pandemic moratorium on evictions and student loan payments. He will rejoin the Paris climate accords, reimpose protections for DREAMers, stop construction of the border wall, reverse Trump’s decision to not count unauthorized immigrants in the Census, end the Muslim ban, reconsider Trump’s shrinkage of several national monuments, and so on.
For the most part, Biden is just reversing many of Trump’s horrible decisions. And that is all to the good. The problem is what is not on the list. As The American Prospect‘s David Dayen details, he could be doing a great deal more — indeed, there is a whole host of ideas on the shelf ready to go:
That includes using compromise and settlement authority to cancel student debt. It includes initiating pilot programs on postal banking at the United States Postal Service (which they’re required to do under one of their union collective bargaining agreements). It includes lowering prescription drug prices by seizing patents and redistributing them to generic manufacturers who will sell them at an affordable price. It includes descheduling marijuana and making it effectively legal for use. It includes a host of actions on antitrust, financial regulation, the environment, tax policy, poverty, agricultural policy, the Federal Reserve, private equity, labor, immigration, federal contracting, foreign policy and national security, and much more. [The American Prospect]
I’ve also written about how Biden’s proposed pandemic recovery package, while pretty good, could stand to be upgraded. Similarly, his plan to fight the coronavirus pandemic hits most of the right notes, but successfully getting the vaccine distributed before more-contagious variants create another surge of cases will require an extraordinarily nimble government effort. The last Democratic administration’s record on, say, the ObamaCare rollout does not bode well in this department.
But probably the biggest question mark hovering over the new Biden administration is whether it will truly reckon with what happened the last four years. There will be strong pressure to let all the blatant criminality of the last four years slide in the name of “look forward not backward.” Former FBI Director James Comey — who is probably more responsible for the election of Trump than any single person outside of Hillary Clinton — argued this in his recent book. “I think it’s still the best thing for the country not to have Donald Trump on our television screens every day for the next three or four years as part of United States v. Trump in the District of Columbia,” he told NPR recently.
This perspective is equal parts cowardice and the deeply ingrained belief that rich and powerful people should not experience consequences for anything they do in this country. That’s what happened under President Obama to all the Bush-era torturers. Comey, who flagrantly violated FBI guidelines about meddling in politics in 2016, has a vested interest himself in avoiding accountability.
On one level, it seems like Biden is going to continue in that tradition of impunity; in his address, he repeatedly invoked the need for “unity” and healing the country. But he also noted the disturbing “rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, that we must confront and we will defeat.” He connected the Capitol putsch to the plague of lies and insanity in conservative media: “[W]e must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured,” which helped create the “riotous mob” who “thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people” when they sacked the Capitol. “There is truth and there are lies,” he noted. “Lies told for power and for profit.” Both ordinary Americans and the president have a duty to “protect our nation … to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
If Biden wants to defeat the lies and the mob, and make the U.S. a country where political disagreement doesn’t explode into violence and madness, prosecuting Trump and his cronies for the crimes they all seemingly committed in plain sight is among the best things he could do. As Jonathan M. Katz argues at The New Republic, letting them get away with it all is just a recipe for the same people to come back again and have another try at overthrowing the government. Another thing he could do is follow the example of President Ulysses S. Grant in the judicious use of law enforcement to break fascist organizing, instead of following the failed model of the war on terror of more erosions of civil liberties and more unaccountable power for law enforcement.
It’s time for an end to the culture of impunity, and for the most aggressive possible government to fix what ails this country. We’ll see whether Joe Biden is up to the challenge.