John Stremlau | A Biden win would be good for Africa

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Former Vice President Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden
Mark Makela/Getty Images

If Joe Biden wins the US presidential election, he faces a tough challenge ahead of him, but his victory will be a good thing for Africa, writes John Stremlau. 


As the 3 November US presidential election approaches, Barack Obama's former Vice-President Joe Biden and his running-mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, appear certain to defeat President Donald Trump and VP Mike Pence. 

Composite polling shows Biden/Harris with an 88% chance of winning. And Democrats enjoy an even brighter (96%) prospect of retaining Democratic control of the 435 member lower House of Representatives. But they face a tougher challenge in gaining control of the Senate. 

In the 100-member Senate upper legislative chamber Biden/Harris risk major political constraints in their ability to effect major policy changes. 

Chances of flipping four seats that would give Democrats a 51-seat majority are at best 73%. 

This drops quickly, however, with only a 47% of gaining a two-seat majority, falling precipitously from there. Discouraging Democratic dissent will be difficult.

Senate power derives from equality of states, not people, and a democratic deficit. Smaller states that tend to be rural, predominantly white, Christian and Republican, have disproportionate power. The vote of a citizen in thinly populated Wyoming, for example, has 70 times the power of a voter in nearby California, with a population of 40 million.

Voter backlash 

Republican dominance of the Senate since 2010 enabled them to thwart federal judicial appointments during six years of Obama's presidency and to accelerate conservative appointments, including to the Supreme Court, since 2016.    

Biden's political priority will be to secure and protect Democratic Congressional majorities. He will avoid taking action that might result in voter backlash in 2022, as occurred against Barack Obama in 2010, whereby Republican gains enabled them to thwart his legislation and judicial appointments.

These political constraints will condition how he handles three major crises: the Covid-19 pandemic; a related economic disaster that has exacerbated economic and racial inequalities; and mistrust of government. If Biden/Harris can make significant progress on these issues, while consolidating national power, there could be positive secondary effects for South Africa and the rest of the continent. 

READ | John Matisson: How did Biden go from sleepy Joe to frontrunner

First and foremost is redressing the Trump Administration's failure to manage the coronavirus pandemic. Biden has offered the outlines of a plan.  Among many immediate steps, he can and will support restoration of the scientific capacity and credibility of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, a national and international resource for public health, including the vital roles it has played historically in Africa. 

He also promises to immediately re-join and support the World Health Organisation, will quickly restore Obama era rapid response and prevention capabilities that proved so important in dealing with Ebola, Lassa, and other afflictions in Africa, plus early warning and prevention if and when future pandemics arise.   

His second test will be to revive America's badly damaged economy while reducing racial and economic inequality. The centrepiece of Biden's plan for doing so is a $2 trillion federal programme for refurbishing America's infrastructure, generating millions of jobs in the process and jobs that are primarily geared toward transforming the US economy from one dependent on hydro-carbon energy and heavy industry to one based more on renewable energy, new technologies and investment in education and science.  

Raising taxes 

To achieve this, Biden will need to raise revenue through major new taxes on wealthy corporations and individuals, imposing new government regulations to incentivise their investments and ensure greater corporate transparency and accountability, all the while reassuring rank and file disaffected workers that he has their interests in mind. 

This is a huge political lift for any leader. Biden comes from a working-class background and has a long history of supporting organised labour and advocating. But in his 36-year Senate career, Biden represented Delaware, the second smallest state geographically, yet over half of US corporations are incorporated there because of tax and legal advantages.

Biden is both pro-labour and pro-business in his approach to foreign trade and investment. This could open opportunities for Africa, especially in areas of green technologies that could be important for mitigating the effects of climate change, including an immediate restoration of US participation in the Paris climate agreement and support the Green Climate Fund beneficial to African and other developing countries.  

To improve revenue collection, he will seek tougher standards to prevent hiding corporate profits and other forms of illicit financial flows to ensure US corporates are appropriately taxed and engage African countries to reach new tax accords that could help stem tax losses for them, in excess of $50 billion a year.  

Trump's disinterest in Africa  

And Biden will continue to support existing programmes despite fiscal constraints, that have enjoyed broad bi-partisan support in Congress and have persisted despite Trump's disinterest in African affairs. These include vital areas of public health, notably HIV/Aids and TB, energy, agriculture, and Congress's recent doubling of private investment guarantees, the new $60 billion BUILD Act, to support infrastructure improvements in Africa. 

READ | John Matisonn: Harris proves she is ready as women reject Trump and Pence

Biden's other major test will be to rebuild trust in the US government, domestically and in its foreign relations. He succeeds a man whose personal behaviour exemplifies the age-old deadly sins of pride, envy, wrath, greed, sloth, gluttony and lust. No one is perfect, but Biden at least aspires to the four cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, fortitude and temperance. 

Political theorist Francis Fukuyama argues that any government seeking to effectively deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, requires state capacity, social trust and leadership. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris appear ready to seek the ways and means for assuring America does better on all three fronts, despite the political and judicial constraints noted above. If they succeed, there is a good chance America can become a country that belongs to all who live in it, united in its diversity.  That would be good for sustainable democracy domestically and internationally, including in the world's oldest and diverse population that resides in Africa.    

- John Stremlau is an honourary professor of International Relations at Wits University

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