William J. Burns: A Make-or-Break Test for American Diplomacy
If Trump wins, the country can expect more of what we have seen in the initial phase of dealing with COVID-19—shifting the economic and health burden to the states and Congress, a lack of interest in international cooperation, and a refusal to critically scrutinize the response.
But what about Biden? The beginning of his presidency will have a unique logic and character that sets it apart from the early stages of the crisis. His first year will be shaped in various measures by the public reaction to the horrors of 2020, the national Rorschach test of seeing Trump’s silhouette finally from a remove, and a dawning reality of exceedingly difficult choices across the board.
Biden’s first and toughest challenge will be to address the badly frayed governance compact, in which citizens expect and trust the government to deliver on essential services. For decades, Republicans and Democrats have believed that the government needs fixing, albeit for very different reasons. Republicans tend to view much of the state apparatus, including regulatory bodies and social services, as inherently inefficient and run by entrenched, unaccountable bureaucrats. Democrats see our federal workforce as under-resourced and frequently subjected to quixotic and unreasonable demands from political leaders. However, many Americans, particularly those with means, have been shielded from the consequences of a broken government. The economy has generally been good, and the wealthy purchase better education and health care from the private sector.
COVID-19 lays bare the weaknesses of the American system for all to see. It shows that the crisis of governance is much worse than either party believed. And, no one can fully escape the cost. The twist of the knife is that some other democracies performed much better than the United States. Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Germany were able to test quickly and en masse, and seem poised to convert that into a program of broad public-health surveillance that allows a more targeted approach, which in turn facilitates less draconian economic measures. Or consider the stimulus. Like the United States, the Canadian government also cut its citizens a check. But unlike America, the Canadian checks were directly and automatically deposited into their accounts days later. In America, receiving aid can take months, and only after people navigate an abundance of red tape.
Keeping America safe is supposed to be one of the core competencies of the federal government, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat. Many people feel that is no longer the case. A Biden administration will have to design careful, constructive steps to rebuild public trust even as the reaction to the pandemic will likely continue to cleave blue and red. Urban dwellers, who have so far been the hardest hit by the virus, will be more open to the role of government in trying to patch social services and rebuild pandemic preparedness. Rural residents might be more focused on the economy and less on government safety nets.