At the end of the last presidential debate Joe Biden warned that America was heading into a “dark winter” of rising coronavirus cases. Donald Trump insisted the virus “was turning the corner”. No prizes for guessing which of the two was right. Even if Biden wins in a landslide next Tuesday (which I doubt), the US will have to cope with a do-very-little federal government until early February at the best. That means America faces another three months of escalating infections without a national plan.
The best you can say about the interregnum between the US election and inauguration of the new president is that it has long ceased to make sense. That lengthy transition was prescribed by the framers during the age of the horse when it took days to travel from one American city to another. The last time the US really felt the pain of the transition was in 1933 during the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt had to wait five months before taking office. It took a constitutional amendment — the 20th — to change that (from a March 4 inauguration to January 20). If wishes were horses, I would gallop through a series of constitutional amendments tomorrow, one of which would be to shorten the transition to 72 hours. I would call it the “You’re fired amendment”.
I fear that the 11 weeks Biden will have to wait if he wins might in some ways mirror the agonising frustration of FDR’s transition. At the current rate of mortality, another 80,000 Americans will die during the transition and hundreds of thousands more will experience some kind of long-haul effects. That is not to say that Biden, or anyone else, could magically flatten the curve on taking office. The success of his coronavirus plan will partly depend on the co-operation of America’s governors, mayors and other elected officials — and the people they serve.
In another culture, or perhaps another stage of America’s history, a national mask mandate would make sense. In this climate such a measure could explode in Biden’s face even if it passed legal muster. A thousand Shays and Whisky rebellions are lying in wait for his administration. But there are plenty of things he plans to do that would not hinge on the co-operation of every American. Hiring 100,000 contact tracers, creating a national vaccine plan, restoring financial assistance to state and local governments and putting actual scientists in front of the White House camera will cumulatively make a large difference. So, too, would having a US president who took the pandemic seriously. The country cannot afford to sit around tapping its fingers. At times like this I do not blame America’s founding framers, whose words fit their times. I curse 21st century people who take their late 18th century meaning literally.
The other problem is what a defeated Trump would do during the transition. Leave aside the risk of a contested election and a Supreme Court role in the outcome, which I wrote about in this week’s column. Let’s assume Trump has unequivocally lost to Biden. I doubt Trump is planning to showcase how one administration should hand over to another — the record keeping, document-preserving, team-briefing spirit of co-operation that is mandated by law but pretty much unenforceable.
Like so much else, transitions run on norms rather than compulsion. What will happen to Jared Kushner’s coterie of friends who have taken over the administration’s Warp Speed vaccine plan? Will they hand over all their documents and contracts? Can you subpoena WhatsApp communications? Will the White House turn into one vast document shredder? I guess we will find out. My concern extends beyond inaction on coronavirus to vandalism that would make it harder for the next administration to do its job. There will be sins of commission as well as sins of omission that America can ill-afford at this stage of the pandemic. Readers, with a year full of surprises, tell us, what’s one thing you think will happen in the next few weeks that we’re not expecting?
And Rana, I see the infection rate is steadily rising in New York. What is your coping strategy for Biden’s “dark winter”?
Rana Foroohar responds
Ed, while I’m somewhat more optimistic than you in terms of election results, I do have in place myriad coping strategies for the Dark Winter.
First, I try to remember that America is a resilient nation and we’ve been in very dark and long winters before. I actually watched my former colleague Jon Meacham’s HBO documentary, based on his book, The Soul of America, last night (here’s a quick video of him discussing it), and I was both horrified and heartened by some of the historical parallels he drew to the present moment — from the 20s and 30s to the 60s. The bottom line — things always got better after they were really, really bad. Call me naive, but that’s something. Second, I am focused on the fact that if Biden wins, once he’s eventually in office, I think he does have an economic plan that takes us in the right direction, as per my upcoming Monday column.
I’m not saying it will be easy to execute — as I’ve said before, it will require a heterodox team. Thirdly, I’m working on my own next book about why the forces of decentralisation (in tech, economics, politics, and society) may actually create a new kind of localism that will start to counterbalance globalisation and its discontents (as Joe Stiglitz put it in his book of the same title. Finally, I walk every day, listening to Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart on audio. I find that in dark days, it helps to be a bit Buddhist.
More from the FT with just four days until the election . . .
Catch up: FT’s US foreign policy correspondent Katrina Manson explained Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s foreign policy plans for Iran, China and the EU in an Instagram Live last Friday.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘Do the markets care who wins?’:
“At the risk of jumping the gun here, I’d love to see Samantha Power as secretary of state, Lael Brainard as secretary of the Treasury, Mayor Pete for Homeland Security, someone like Ray McGuire for Commerce, Jim Mattis or Leon Panneta for Defence (I don’t know anything about Michele Flournoy but welcome a woman in that role), Elizabeth Warren for HUD, Francis Collins for HHS, and someone like Stephen Chu for a climate change post (not sure Tom Steyer is the person for that). This list does, however, need more people of colour and maybe some younger folks, so it’s not quite right as is . . . but you see the focus on mature, wise, accomplished and knowledgeable, fact-oriented decent people . . . that would be such a welcome change and relief!” — Rick Soloway, New York, New York
“With all respect to Luke Gromen (who has nailed the financial big picture) the matter of degree is critical to the financial markets. It is one thing for fiscal policy to fill the demand hole that Covid has created. It is another to launch a meaningful incremental program, whether it be infrastructure, clean energy, etc, in the multitrillion dollar range. This would be impossible with a Republican controlled Senate — as the Republicans ‘rediscover’ their fiscally conservative roots. It is the difference between muddling through on one hand, or a potential deflationary boom on the other, which would set the state for inflation and financial repression as the Federal Reserve is forced to control the yield curve. This is the bullish case for the stock market (at least in nominal terms) and for gold. Otherwise we will be in an investment environment of buying what people need, not what they want.” — Bruce Lueck, Camden, South Carolina
Join the FT on November 11-13 for live online debate and interactive networking sessions featuring more than 150 leading minds in policy, business and finance. Speakers include US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey and Carmen Reinhart, vice-president and chief economist at the World Bank Group. Register for free here.