New US President Joe Biden has removed the ‘Diet Coke’ button installed on the Resolute Desk, the presidential desk at the White House Oval Office also known as the Hayes desk, by his predecessor Donald Trump. It is known that Trump, being a soda devotee, would consume up to 12 cans of Diet Coke a day, and had the button put in place in order to “keep the carbonated beverages flowing”. A staffer would provide the drink to the president when the button was pressed.
The removal of the button may just be a symbol of the typical American style of functioning when the regime changes. Yes, undoing the predecessor’s legacy is an age-old trend in American history. Let’s take an interesting recent example to illustrate the situation clearly. Democrat Barack Obama reversed a ban on abortion funding that was restored by his predecessor Republican George W Bush. Earlier this was revoked by Democrat Bill Clinton, and it was originally created by Republican Ronald Reagan.
With 17 executive actions on his first day in office, President Biden unleashed a full-scale assault on his predecessor’s legacy by simply reversing several key Trump policies. Biden took action on the coronavirus pandemic; the US rejoining the Paris agreement on climate change; halting construction of a federally-funded border wall along the southwest border with Mexico; reversing the travel ban on certain Muslim and African countries; stopping the move to withdraw the US from the World Health Organisation; bolstering the sluggish economic recovery; extending the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, and restoring federal efforts aimed at promoting diversity through a number of steps to emphasize racial equity and countering discrimination. In contrast, after two weeks in office Trump had issued eight executive orders, Obama had issued nine, George W Bush signed only two, and Clinton signed three executive orders.
While most of Biden’s initial actions were well anticipated, apparently he is seeking to “reverse the gravest damages” done to the country by Donald Trump. Still it’s “a long way to go,” Biden declared. “We’re going to need legislation for a lot of other things we’re going to do,” the president asserted.
But a US president’s power is not limitless, of course. Ask Barack Obama. When he ordered the closure of Guantánamo Bay, Obama had to face a host of obstacles to closing the prison, including addressing the fate of detainees and congressional resistance. Then, Trump, from the very beginning, was supposedly poised to undo Obama’s achievements. In a desperate bid, Trump attempted to repeal Obamacare, but failed. And, what’s more, this might have eventually helped to create an increased public understanding and appreciation of Obamacare. In turn, as some experts believe, Obamacare might have become the decisive force in depriving Trump of a governing majority during his presidency.
US presidents may also encounter cases that are constitutionally legal but politically difficult. For example, Richard Nixon could not dismantle Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society which was eventually eroded by Ronald Reagan much later. Again, Republican Dwight Eisenhower not only had to keep the Democrats’ New Deal intact, but he also had to expand social security, raising the minimum wage and beginning new public works.
Democrats now have a narrow grip in both houses of the US Congress in addition to control of the White House. Democrats have taken control of the US Senate which is now split 50-50 with vice president Kamala Harris, a Democrat, holding the decisive vote in any tie between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats now hold a thin 222-212 majority in the House of Representatives, although their strength has been narrowed in the November elections. Overall, Biden might be in a reasonably comfortable position in exercising his agenda to some extent, at least in the next two years. But, a filibuster-proof majority means that the president will also have to deal with stubborn lawmakers and civil servants. And these are never very smooth processes or comfortable situations for a US president.
Then, what about American policies on important international issues such as Syria, Iran, Israel, Jerusalem, Taiwan, North Korea, and China, of course? Would some of these really change significantly during Biden’s presidency? History would tell us that it’s never quite easy for presidents to abandon pragmatism for ideology, particularly on matters related to international relationships. To cite a few examples, Dwight Eisenhower had to follow Harry Truman’s philosophy of communist containment, Clinton had to embrace Reagan’s love of free trade, and Obama had to maintain the Bush agenda of expanding the security state.
And what about American society? Its struggle for achieving social equality would continue, for sure. Biden might try his best to make the ‘divided’ country ‘united’ again. However, that’s not quite so easy. Many issues relating to a section of the society that Trump influenced would be irreversible. For example, Trump could appoint three judges in the United States Supreme Court, along with 54 judges to the United States courts of appeals, and 174 judges in the United States district courts, among others – each having a lifetime tenure. And the loyalty of US judges to their appointing party and appointing president’s ideals are well-known and a matter of open discussion in US society and media. No undoing is possible in these appointments, and Trump’s legacy would continue to dominate the country for decades to come. Many important social matters such as social equality, abortion, LGBT rights, etc. would eventually depend on the nod of the judiciary.
Now that Trump is out of the Oval Office, and even if after the impeachment trial, the Senate rules him ineligible to run in 2024, Trumpism will remain alive and active within American society in the decades to come. One cannot undo that overnight. There is no denying that ideals of those who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 are deeply rooted within the mentality of the society. And, as history has illustrated time and again, unseating a predecessor does not guarantee that your successor will not restore his policies by unseating you. Thus, even a ‘Diet Coke’ button may come back to the White House. Who knows?
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.