Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022


You do not have to be over 50 to see today’s parallels with the USA of the 1970s. That decade offers an instantly recognizable meme of rising inflation, political drive, rising crime, and ominous geopolitics. You also do not have to equate Joe Biden with the unfortunate Jimmy Carter, whose presidency deserves higher marks than history has given it. There is no Ronald Reagan on the sidelines. After Biden comes the flood of a reviving Donald Trump, or a related figure. Biden’s goal should be to avoid a Cartesian fate.

Events – and atmospheres – make it increasingly difficult to do. Like Carter, Biden discovers how little room the White House has for influencing U.S. murder rates, consumer price inflation, or Russia’s military ambitions. As with Carter, he’s blamed anyway. The murder rate took its biggest leap in 2020 before Biden was appointed, although it continued to increase last year. Rising annual inflation, which hit 7 percent in December – the highest since 1982 – is largely a function of the pandemic, though Biden may be reevaluating the wisdom of last March’s $ 1.9tn stimulus.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has done nothing on the scale of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But amalgamating troops on Ukraine’s border is as potentially challenging for Biden’s global status as an aggressive USSR for Carter. In fact, Carter was far more robust than his reputation would suggest. His appointment of Paul Volcker as chairman of the US Federal Reserve and support for Afghanistan’s mujahideen are both steps related to Reagan. In some ways, Reagan’s actions, contrary to his words, were less decisive than Carter’s. But America’s public thought differently. Praying must take note. Vague impressions – of drive and waning energy – are difficult to shift once they have formed. Politics offers little room for revaluation.

The question is whether voters think Biden is in control. In practice, he has less power than responsibility. A key to public trust is the impression that you are in control. Carter famously kicked off the test in 1979 with his “malaise” address, in which he muses on the country’s crisis of confidence – “a fundamental threat to American democracy”. It was apparently about US energy security in a time of galloping oil prices. What voters heard was a leader mourning America’s spiritual decline. He did not use the word “crime”. Inflation was just mentioned casually.

Compared to what Biden faces, Carter’s domestic challenges seem almost enviable. Unlike Carter, who had a large majority in both chambers of Congress, Biden had little ability to pass legislation. Prospects for his “Rebuild better ”account, and the two democracy reform bills he prioritizes are dull. He should get high marks for good intentions. But declaring something an existential priority is a gun you can fire only once. If it appears to be loaded with spaces, voters will notice it. Carter’s malaise speech was remembered for his insoluble things; no president can fix a mental crisis. Biden has at least set himself a goal that he can theoretically achieve. But can he convince the nation?

Although no one knew it then, the 1970s were a transitional decade between the age of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal and the 1980s shift to free market ideology under Reagan. By not signing on to one, but with traces of both, Carter has been orphaned by history. The early 2020s had a similar transition feel. The age of 1980s “neoliberalism” is over. It is unclear what it will replace. One possibility is an American version of fascism – something that could really happen here. It would be nativist and relentless in its way of retaining power. Trump has given America a dress rehearsal. Biden’s stated reason is to prevent this from happening.

Yet another is the continued connection of American institutions. It’s also a resurgence of the 1970s – the Soviet version, not the American one. Moscow under Leonid Brezhnev was a gerontocracy. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser put it, the USSR reversed the laws of natural selection: evolution was penalized. The age of America’s leaders is not encouraging. Trump is 75. Biden is 79, as is Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader. Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, is 81. It’s hardly reassuring to note that they began their careers in the 1970s. Most of those waiting in Washington’s wings are not much younger.



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