Nov 8, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Biden's spoils: A hot American mess

Joe Biden

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Never before has a president-elect inherited a complex set of urgent — and epic — emergencies like the ones confronting Joe Biden and America. 

Why it matters: FDR, no doubt, inherited a hot American, Depression-era mess in 1932. President-elect Biden's spoils, in some respects, are similarly rotten: a spreading pandemic, sky-high long-term unemployment, stratospheric federal debt, an outgoing president claiming the Democrat stole the election, a nation bitterly divided, and misinformation and lies spreading at scale on platforms available to every citizen for free. 

Any one of these crises would take a presidential term to tame. Six, at once, seem almost incomprehensible in their scale and complexity. 

  • Biden plans to focus first on the coronavirus and the economic devastation it continues to wreak. Getting the nation to feel secure about its physical and economic health will determine whether Biden is a success or failure. 

But the messes are many:

  1. An average of 100,000+ people are getting the virus daily — a number expected to keep rising through the holidays. Biden has zero authority to attack it until late January. He'll get a head start Monday by appointing his own COVID task force. In his victory speech last night, he promised a plan "built on a bedrock of science ... to turn this pandemic around."
  2. Real unemployment is much worse than the headline figures and shows the true depth of the recession Biden will inherit. Modeling we unveiled in October on "Axios on HBO" shows that if you define an unemployed person as someone "looking for a full-time job that pays a living wage who can't find one," the effective unemployment rate in the U.S. is 26.1%.
  3. The federal deficit topped $3 trillion in the year that ended Sept. 30, and it will haunt Washington next year, despite the bipartisan decision to ignore it. By some measures, it's the biggest budget gap since 1945 — a reminder that the U.S. is confronting crises on a scale it has encountered only a couple of times in 230 years.
  4. Trump will torment Biden from outside the White House, and he could dominate Republican politics and media for years to come. Trump retains a psychic hold on a huge swath of America, making quick healing look out of reach.
  5. Social media, which has connected the world and enabled so much creativity and so many new businesses, creates a distortion field that amplifies the worst in us, and it's an accelerant for lies and nonsense. This makes the White House's bully pulpit, once the most formidable communications platform in the world, just one more voice in the feed.

The bottom line: Biden confidants say he knows this weekend's halo is an aberration. His reality is a rising left in the Democratic Party that will constantly pressure him, a Republican majority in the Senate that will constantly constrain him, and a reality of a rattled world that will constantly haunt him.

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