But questions persist over whether he would – and, if he didn’t, would Harris inherit the mantle and go on to win the election? …writes Arul Louis
The US and the presidency of Joe Biden lurched from crisis to crisis in 2021 and political and health uncertainties cloud the year ahead.
The nation faced a crisis of democracy; surges in the Covid-19 pandemic; a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan dimming its global perception; a challenge from China to its status as the premier superpower; a crisis of illegal immigration at the border with Mexico; electoral reverses for Biden’s Democratic Party; and a legislative logjam, but amid them, all ties with India continued to grow.
And next year, the outcomes of the mid-term elections on which the control of Congress hinges are an open question because of the history of the President’s party losing and Democratic Party setbacks in state elections this year.
After this year dawned, the supporters of defeated President Donald Trump rioted, violently forcing their way into the citadel of US democracy, the Capitol, disrupting the formalisation of his election by Congress, leaving at least five people dead and a nation shaken.
The riot that followed a rally by a defiant Trump refusing to concede his defeat, which he continues adamantly, was seen as a threat to US democracy never seen probably since the mid-19th century Civil War and its polarisation haunted American politics.
The Democrats then tried unsuccessfully to impeach Trump a second time.
In a reaffirmation of democracy, two weeks later alongside Kamala Harris was sworn in as Vice President setting milestones as the first woman, the first Indian-American and the first person of African-American to hold the office.
Soon, the administration of Harris and Biden faced a surge in Covid-19 cases and scrambled to provide vaccinations to battle the pandemic.
Through the year, Covid-19 overshadowed all aspects of life in the US – as everywhere in the world – with another surge in August driven by the Delta variant and the Omicron variant posing a possible new threat as the year was setting.
In the first flush of governance, Biden managed to get through a splintered Congress his $1.9 trillion rescue package for a Covid-19-ravaged nation, and later a $1.2 trillion legislation for building up the nation’s infrastructure but at the end of the year, the Congressional logjam blocked his more ambitious bill to expand social programmes.
The opposition came from members of Biden’s own party that has slender majorities in Congress because of its price tag even after whittling down to the $2 billion range given the inflation rate of 6.8 per cent, the highest since 1982.
That was also a personal setback for Indian American Pramila Jayapal, who heads the leftist Congressional Progressive Caucus, who pushed for the bill and even made compromises in hopes of getting reluctant centrists of her Democratic Party to back it.
A Democratic plan to revamp “voting rights” – through measures that would make no sense elsewhere in the world like banning photo IDs for voters – was also in the limbo and Harris who was put in charge of it has not been able to get it through Congress.
Curbing the record-setting levels of illegal immigration, another task Harris had been entrusted with, also floundered with hundreds of thousands surging through the southern border with Mexico drawn by perceptions of the Democratic Party as lenient on border controls.
Grappling with these almost impossible tasks, Harris’s popularity has dimmed with a recent Gallup poll showing a disapproval rate of 54 per cent, up from the 42 per cent range when she took office.
Her office is also in turmoil with several of her key staffers quitting while questions arise over her style of leadership and her political future.
Biden has said he plans to run for re-election in 2024, when he would be almost 82 years old — if his health holds.
But questions persist over whether he would – and, if he didn’t, would Harris inherit the mantle and go on to win the election?
The mid-term elections coming up next year cast a shadow on these ambitions.
In a warning about the possibility of a change in political direction, Republican Glenn Youngkin gained an upset victory in the governor’s election in Virginia where Biden had won in the presidential elections a year ago.
And in New Jersey, another state considered a Democratic Party stronghold, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy eked out a narrow win.
On the Republican side, Trump is continuing to sow confusion by hinting at running for another term in 2024.
That uncertainty makes it harder for other Republicans to openly gear up to fight for the party nomination.
Among those who are actively – though behind the scenes – aiming for the Republican nomination is Nikki Haley, the first Indian American to be a member of the cabinet and a former governor of Southern Carolina state.
The chaotic pullout of US troops from Afghanistan ceding control to the Taliban after a 20-year war was a point of pivot at the global level.
The fall of Kabul to the Taliban, whom the US had defeated and chased out of the city, without any resistance from the Washington-backed military, was a shock and it led to harrowing scenes of tens of thousands of US employees and supporters trying to get out while an ill-prepared US scrambled to meet the challenge.
The scenes of disarray in Kabul and the quick Taliban takeover dented the US image and gave an edge to China and Russia in the region – and, of course, Pakistan.
Those events forced Biden to turn his attention to also this side of Asia after the Indo-Pacific had been the the focus of his foreign policy.
However, the interest in the Indo-Pacific where India has emerged as a key player has not flagged because of his recognition of China’s challenge after he became president.
Biden convened the first summit of the Quad, the group of India, the US, Japan and Australia, as the four strengthened their cooperation moving steadily into a regional role of multilateral assistance while reaffirming their commitment to securing the region where China is aggressively asserting itself with conflicts from the Himalayas to the South China Sea.
In West Asia, a tentative step was taken for another Quad when India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Ministers Yair Lapid of Israel and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates met in October with an agenda of regional cooperation.
Contrary to expectations by some in the US and in India that Biden would shun Modi over alleged human rights issues, there was cordiality and closeness dictated by the geopolitical challenges.
And this was despite the close relationship – verging on the electoral – that Modi had forged with Trump. Modi too executed a swift pivot to Biden.
During Modi’s September visit, Harris tried for the benefit of some of her admirers in the US and India to deliver a coded sermon on democracy.
Modi in turn boycotted the session of Quad summit that she presided over.
Indian-Americans continued to make their mark in the US.
Biden and Harris have appointed over 20 Indian-Americans to key posts in the administration, including Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General, Vanita Gupta as Associate Attorney General and Gautam Raghavan as the head of the White House Office of Personnel.
Neera Tanden, who was nominated to the powerful post of the director of the Office of Management and Budget, had to drop out because she had offended key senators of both parties with coarse attacks.
In the corporate world, Parag Agarwal became the CEO of Twitter, the ubiquitous social media that has arguably become the main platform for political discourse.
Bioinformatics scientist Mihir Metkar was recognised as the primary contributor to the development of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine.
Akilan Sankaran won the top prize in the nation’s leading science competition for middle schoolers with a computer programme using “antiprime numbers” that can accelerate everyday processes.
Three of the four winners at the next level were also of Indian-origin, as were 15 of the 30 finalists from around the country.