If Biden seizes the moment to produce a national unity government, US might actually come out of the COVID-19 crisis stronger Image Credit: WaPo

In the last Democratic debate, Joe Biden declared that he would nominate a woman as his vice-presidential running mate. That felt right at the time. But times have changed.

Biden needs to go much, much further: At the Democratic convention he needs to name not just his vice president, but his entire Cabinet.

And it needs to be a totally different kind of Cabinet — from Democrats on the Bernie Sanders left to Republicans on the Mitt Romney right. Why?

Americans today deserve the government they need more than ever. It has literally become a matter of life and death


Because while most people are playing nice right now managing this virus, the wreckage, pain and anger it will leave behind will require megadoses of solidarity and healing from the top.

Set of wrenching debates

And even if we get to the other side of this crisis by January, there are going to be a set of wrenching debates around who got bailed out and who didn’t and around how much civil liberty we should sacrifice to track and quarantine COVID-19 carriers until there is a vaccine.

If handled on a partisan basis, those issues will rip America apart.

Considering all the people who have come together in this crisis to tend to neighbours, contribute to hospitals, share scarce resources and learn from one another how to combat COVID-19, would it be asking too much for our political system to mirror the best in us rather than to continue to exacerbate the worst?

Americans today deserve the government they need more than ever. It has literally become a matter of life and death.

Biden, because he doesn’t run anything right now, has had a hard time demonstrating leadership. The one giant contrast that he could draw with President Donald Trump, though, is the approach he would take to governing.

Americans are not focused on this now — but they will be. And when they are, Biden needs to show that he isn’t running to be president of the 48% (or less), as Trump is; he’s not trying to suppress the vote, as Trump is; he’s not running to squeak by in the Electoral College, as Trump is.

A majority president

He needs to show he’s running to be a majority president, a unity president — but not just unity for unity’s sake, but unity of purpose based on a set of shared values for rebuilding America.

Biden should enlist people ready to embrace these values:

1) They have to believe in science — and not just around the coronavirus but around climate change, which is the next train coming at us.

2) They have to be open to taking extraordinary measures to help the poor, the unemployed and the bankrupted get back on their feet.

3) They have to want to extend health care to every American, for starters by strengthening Obamacare and adding a public option.

Latest on coronavirus

With those criteria, Biden could name his team. My recommendations:

For vice president, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala or Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island; for Treasury secretary, Mike Bloomberg; health and human services secretary, Bill Gates; secretary of oversight for the trillions of dollars in emergency coronavirus spending, to make sure it’s done fairly and productively, Elizabeth Warren.

Attorney general, Merrick Garland; homeland security secretary, Andrew Cuomo; secretary of state, Mitt Romney; defence secretary, Michele Flournoy; labour secretary, Ro Khanna (who co-chaired Sanders’ campaign). EPA administrator, Al Gore.

A medical worker in a protective suit arrives at the Policlinico Tor Vergata hospital, where patients suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are being treated, in Rome, Italy
Covid-19: Societal stress is going to be enormous as people fully absorb their lost savings, businesses and jobs Image Credit: Reuters

Fantasy government?

A fantasy, you say? No, no. I’ll give you fantasy. Fantasy is thinking we’ll be OK, post-COVID-19.

Can you imagine the fights that will break out, as this crisis abates, over whose company, restaurant, store, non-profit or local government was saved by Washington’s trillions of dollars in rescue packages and whose went under?

The societal stress is going to be enormous as people fully absorb their lost savings, businesses and jobs, while defaults mount and worker rehiring happens much slower than the layoffs did.

A US national unity government with a strong foundation of expertise will be much better able to navigate these issues.

As Gautam Mukunda, author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter,” pointed out to me, only three previous presidents have been dropped into a crisis in this way: Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 and Barack Obama in 2009.

Such a national unity government might pay another dividend: fracture the Trump/McConnell/Limbaugh/Fox/GOP — a warped coalition dedicated to nothing but its own power and cutting taxes on the rich.

The US needs a healthy conservative party. Trump’s GOP is not healthy.

If Biden seizes the moment to produce both a national unity government and a government that radically innovates — in ways we have not done for so many years — we might actually come out of this crisis stronger.

If we fail to use this crisis to get healthy again — as a people and a government — it will not only be remembered for the vast death and destruction it wrought, but it will be remembered as the moment America ceded its global leadership.

Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author