On August 23 2008, Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his presidential running mate. That choice set Biden on the path to being sworn in next Wednesday as the second most powerful man on earth. (China’s leader Xi Jinping ranks first, because he doesn’t have to worry much about separation of powers and may enjoy popular support for military adventures.) Biden’s administration will include many veterans of 2008. But the world and the US of 2008 no longer exist. Biden, 78, needs a playbook for a new age. Here are just a few of the dizzying, distressing, interconnected changes of the past 12 years:
• National downward mobility. In August 2008, Americans still thought that incomes and life expectancy rose inexorably outside world wars. Despite brief recessions, the arc bent upwards. That has changed. American life expectancy began falling in 2014 and, given the pandemic, may now be lower than in 2008. Moreover, by last October, more than one in five American households didn’t reliably have enough money for food — a higher figure than at the worst point of the financial crisis, says Lauren Bauer of the Hamilton Project policy institute. Many Americans who once assumed they’d outdo their parents are now living off their inheritance.
• Climate change is here now. For more than 200 years, economic growth has relied on emitting carbon. Biden hopes to break that link, at least by a little. He has to. Wildfires already make California periodically unlivable, while taking out a 30-year mortgage in flood-threatened Miami, New Orleans or even parts of New York has become a folly. Longer term, Americans may remigrate to the Upper Midwest, where there are no coasts to flood, natural supplies of drinking water and few heatwaves.
• Antidemocratic candidates can win elections. In 2008, a President Donald Trump was unimaginable and Viktor Orbán was still a democrat. Now, Trump can while away the years till the next election by encouraging far-right terrorism and perhaps sparking secessions in southern states. What happens if a Trumpist crowd takes the Alabama statehouse and declares independence from Biden’s US?
• The US is no longer a superpower. It still has the world’s strongest military, but sending troops into action has become politically impossible as well as pointless. The US can detach from its old stomping ground of the Middle East anyway, given that the country became a net exporter of energy in 2019. Nor will any enemy ever attempt to invade America.
The US military therefore now serves three main purposes: a rationale for the state-funded defence industry; a need-blind stimulus programme for places with military bases; and a jobs and welfare programme for military personnel.
Meanwhile, China and post-Soviet Russia, which had been docile abroad until Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008, have taken over the US’s role of aggressive interventionism: the Russians in Ukraine and Syria, China in Hong Kong.
The US is no longer the only economic superpower either. In another reversal since 2008, China’s economy is now bigger by some measures. And the US hasn’t been a values superpower since about 2003. Post-Trump, the country needs to take rather than dispense lessons on democracy. Even on climate, where Biden has said the US “must lead the world”, it has in fact followed the EU and China in committing to reach net-zero emissions. The world, knowing that Trumpists might return in 2024, won’t follow Biden’s long-term lead on anything.
• Social media is now the main source of information. In 2008, Facebook and Twitter combined had about 100 million daily users, while WhatsApp and Instagram didn’t exist. Today 3.96 billion people — over half the world — are on social media, said the Digital 2020 report by Hootsuite and We Are Social. This shift has brought us the death of truth, the death of privacy and:
• The dominance of tech giants. In August 2008, the US company with the largest market capitalisation was the oil major Exxon, worth $425bn. Amazon was worth $33bn, and Facebook about $15bn. At the time, the fossil-fuels lobby stalked Washington. Since then, the valuations of Amazon and Facebook have risen 50-fold. Today the six most valuable American companies are all tech businesses (counting Tesla as tech).
• Healthcare has ceased to be an individual problem. Until 2020, the American healthcare system worked perfectly well on its own terms: it was a money-spinner for the 18 per cent of the economy that lived off it, and it provided decent if exorbitantly priced services to well-off Americans. Most voters had health insurance, and didn’t worry much about people who didn’t.
The pandemic changes that. You can have the most expensive personal healthcare on earth, but you can still die from a virus that you catch from your cleaner, driver or waiter. Even if you get vaccinated, if the coronavirus keeps proliferating among poor Americans, it will eventually probably produce a mutation that can defeat your vaccine. Suddenly healthcare becomes a collective problem. That’s just one of the unforeseen issues that the American political system isn’t set up to handle.
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