Can Biden prove to be the change America needs?
Days ahead of Election Day, four US citizens in India and an H1B1 aspirant, take on questions on women's rights, racial reform, climate change, criminal justice and who should lead America
The US elections are just a few days away, and the world is watching. It is no longer a national event, but a global one. More than 80 million Americans have already cast their vote, according to a tally on October 29 from the US Elections Project at the University of Florida, setting the stage for the highest participation rate in over a century.
The record-breaking pace—more than 58 per cent of the total 2016 turnout—reflects intense interest in the vote, in which incumbent Donald Trump, a Republican, is up against Democratic nominee Joe Biden, former vice-president. Ahead of the hotly contested election with several key issues up for debate, we engaged in a Trump versus Biden conversation.
While San Jose-based software engineer Pranav Kelkar, who was denied the HIB1 visa five times in a row, speaks of the immigration issue on the election agenda, Jay Yousuf, Mumbai-based American citizen and owner of Colaba restaurant The Table shares his suspicion on Trump's hurried nomination of Amy Coney Barrett as the new Supreme Court justice, soon after the passing of his constant critic Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Three American expats in India, private chef Mariko Amekodommo, comedian Mike Harrington and permaculture expert Laura Khanna, tell us why Biden could prove to be the change that America needs now.
Edited excerpts from a Zoom conversation.
Mariko Amekodommo - He said things like: 'I got your husbands their jobs back' or 'I brought back the economy so your husbands can work'. But, he needs to realise that women work, too. You are appealing to us as if we are a part of a patriarchal society
Even before the Coronavirus infection had spread through the White House, Trump's persistent downplaying of the disease, sidelining of expertise and unwillingness to mobilise federal resources in response to the pandemic, had gone down poorly with some voters. What could have been done to contain the spread?
Mariko: Anything could have been done, because nothing was done at all.
Laura: Trump told each state to take care of the infection themselves. So, you had states competing with each other to get access to PPE gear, masks, and other essentials that hospitals needed at the time. There was no central leadership at all. He didn't federalise the approach. It left states in confusion, because you don't know which direction to look in, when the leader was not saying anything concrete. There was no consistent messaging, which usually helps pull a country through a crisis.
Pranav: The most important thing for a leader is to acknowledge that there is a crisis, and that has been missing all along. When he got infected himself, he received the best treatment that nobody else had access to. After recovering, he said you can fight the virus and that there is nothing to worry. But for normal people, the ICUs are inaccessible and full. So, the messaging has been misleading throughout the campaign.
Jay: The way he is acting and conducting himself this year has a lot to do with the fact that it is election year. I think he downplayed COVID-19 because he wanted to focus on things that would be best for him. The whole focus was on rioting that erupted as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests.
Laura: Basically, the logic is that if he can keep the country open, he can keep the economy going and he can trick the voters to believe all is well.
Mike: He just gets in his own way. Sometimes he gets away with it, but this time, the forces were greater than him. If it weren't for COVID-19, he had a great shot at winning this election. Because of the way he responded to the outbreak, he seems to be in deep trouble.
Mariko: One of the worst things about how the pandemic was handled is that it became a partisan issue. I am from California, a very liberal state. For the most part of the lockdown, the state has done pretty well in terms of social distancing. But, I have friends from other states, and they were getting attacked at stores. People told them: 'If you are wearing a mask, it means you are supporting Democrats'. So, it became more of a political issue than a health issue.
Laura Khanna - May be, he [Joe Biden] is not the most progressive guy and he has a mixed history in politics. But he is not an ego-fuelled sociopath either. He will put smarter people around the table. He knows he is not the brightest tool in the tool box, but at least he knows he can get the work done
The Black Lives Matter movement received majority support from people. If Biden were to come to power, would he be capable of improving race relations?
Laura: There is so much conversation about black lives, but you cannot address the issue as long as there is a disproportionate number of blacks in jails for petty crimes like possession of small amounts of marijuana. Biden's take on criminal justice reform is really good. He wants to address the disparity between crack and cocaine. He wants to decriminalise cannabis. When people get out of jails, he wants them to be put into care programmes, so that they can get back on their feet.
Jay: About 63 per cent Americans are supporting Black Lives Matter movement.
Mike: The movement started long before Trump. When Obama was president, that was when the movement actually started, because they wanted to bring to light issues of racism. These are societal issues, and we all need to work on them. We need to be cognisant of systematic racism in various institutions. We can take the conversation further to other countries as well. The US government has a lot of power to reform criminal justice and do things that will help us all, but we need to look within, not get defensive. It does take time and a lot of hard work.
Mariko: One of the worst things to have happened is that there are no repercussions when cops kill innocent people. With Biden, I hope there will be some accountability. We need that more than anything.
Pranav: With Biden and Kamala Harris, the situation will become better. But the change needs to come from within.
Jay Yousuf - I think Trump downplayed COVID-19 because he wanted to focus on things that would be best for him. The whole focus was on rioting that erupted as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests
In contrast to 2016, immigration has barely figured during this campaign. How important an election issue is it?
Pranav: I arrived in the US in 2012 and graduated with a masters degree in software engineering in 2014. I filed for the H1B1 visa five times. Each time, it was rejected. So, I had to leave for India and work for my employer, Apple, from Bengaluru. Now, I am on the L1 visa. I don't think the Trump administration is entirely responsible. I was rejected at the lottery stage itself. It never mattered to them that I worked for Apple. There are many people who abuse the system; they file three to four H1B1s and that affects genuine candidates. This should have been reformed during Barack Obama's tenure. But Trump is making it even more difficult to retain the H1B1. Even if you get through the lottery, he is adding clauses with which you might get a maximum of a year's extension. These changes are done to indirectly target immigrants, and ensure you stay for a short period of time.
Mike Harrington - When Obama was president, that was when the movement [Black Lives Matter] actually started, because they wanted to bring to light issues of racism. These are societal issues, and we all need to work on them. We need to be cognisant of systematic racism in various institutions
Trump has had longstanding difficulties with an important group of voters—women. The prospect that the Supreme Court might strike down the 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling on abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act introduced under President Obama is not popular. What do you feel about this?
Mariko: Just a couple of days ago, during his rallies, Trump was trying to promote the white suburban woman. Trump said things like: 'I got your husbands their jobs back' or 'I brought back the economy so your husbands can work'. But, he needs to realise that women work too. You are appealing to us as if we are a part of a patriarchal society.
Laura: Even if Biden is elected, that Roe vs Wade ruling on abortion rights would be repealed in the next couple of years. It is heartbreaking that in 2020 we are regressing when it comes to women's rights. Trump is deplorable, disgusting and horrific about how he feels about women. Or nasty, which is the word he has often used to describe women.
Mariko: I have a friend who was six months pregnant last November. There was an issue with the baby and, if she went through the delivery, her life would have been at risk. Doctors suggested that she have an abortion. And she was a doctor herself. She went to four different states to get the abortion done. When there was a waiting line in California, she had to fly to Europe for a medical procedure. It is traumatising to hear this. She already has two kids, and she wanted to have that baby more than anything. But, having to deal with this ordeal of travelling across the seas is absurd in 2020.
Mike: The hypocrisy of the Republicans in selecting a chief justice for Supreme Court and voting her and approving her is appalling. But unfortunately, also unsurprising.
Mariko: When Obama had the option of selecting a replacement for the chief justice of Supreme Court, he was six months away from elections. He said there was not much time for it. Right now, it is like people can do whatever they want. And that is exactly what Trump did in nominating a new SC justice.
Pranav Kelkar - I don't think the Trump administration is entirely responsible. But Trump is making it even more difficult to retain the H1B1. Even if you get through the lottery, he is adding clauses with which you might get a maximum of a year's extension
America has a president who says it like it is. Has that worked in his favour or against him?
Jay: Americans have grown numb to it. When he tweets, sometimes 60 tweets per day, Americans are numb. I don't think what he is tweeting makes any difference anymore. People are experiencing fatigue.
Mariko: It is okay if you are a comedian to do that. But you are a politician and there needs to be some sort of diplomacy. I have lived in Asia and India, and everyone tells me he is just so embarrassing. We should be proud of our country and leaders, not embarrassed of them. I know why Trump supporters love him, because he speaks his mind and he tells it how it is. But that's okay with some things only. When you are trying to conduct foreign relations, you need to think before you speak. My mom taught me that when I was four.
Does Biden come with his own set of problems, and voters need to understand that too?
Mariko: I think if Biden gets elected, there is going to be a problem. Because there are talks that the Republicans are getting vigilante groups out there. They are preparing for some kind of conflict if Biden wins. There are going to be riots. The Republican party in Cailfornia is putting up fake ballot boxes. They have been asked to remove them, but they are refusing to take them down.
Laura: You cannot compare Biden's package of issues with Trump. May be, he is not the most progressive guy and he has a mixed history in politics. But he is not an ego-fuelled sociopath either. He will put smarter people around the table. He knows he is not the brightest tool in the tool box, but he knows he can get the work done.
Mariko: In a recent speech, Obama said that we shouldn't have to be worried about what our President says every day. But every day you wake up and worry, what did Trump say now? It's scary.
(Clockwise from left) San Jose-based Pranav Kelkar, writer Aastha Atray Banan, comedian Mike Harrington, private chef Mariko Amekodommo, permaculture expert Laura Khanna and entrepreneur Jay Yousuf
What do you make of Trump's 'India is filthy' comment?
Laura: I think it's a reflection of his tiny mind and world view. He has no value for other races. He said Mexico is full of rapists. I think none of us should consider it. Who cares? India is beautiful and vast and doing pretty damn great proven by how many people here are on this panel today.
Mike: He made that remark in a debate in the context of climate change policy. Let's face it. This isn't about India, this is about the election that will claim his position in the White House again. US is one of the top polluters in the world. US knows that climate change is leading to monumental disasters. The US government has the power to really change something if it wants to. It can do so many things on the regulatory front and on public awareness. And Trump has done nothing for it. On the contrary, the Biden campaign has made it clear they understand the concern and they will make this a priority. To me, this is the most important issue in the election agenda.
Pranav: Trump called Indian air filthy. In the last few months, we saw ash flying in California's air. I haven't seen that in India. Trump is just a 10-year-old, who has just discovered the Internet and is going about ranting. It is not a presidential thing to do.
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