The inauguration of a new American leader this week closes a chapter of one of the most tumultuous periods in American political history and opens another. The exit of President Donald Trump from centre stage does not end the saga. President-elect Joe Biden has inherited problems from Trump’s presidency that have already defined his own. As a result, he faces a challenge unprecedented in peacetime leadership. Saving lives from the pandemic remains paramount. But he must also repair damage to America’s reputation and address polarisation of American society that led to a revolt against constitutional democracy. The abiding images of Trump’s last days in office are of the storming of the US Capitol by rioters and of members of the US National Guard sleeping in its corridors to protect lawmakers as they voted to impeach the president. Fears abound about what to expect on inauguration day. Such chaos seems incredible when the world’s most powerful country is fighting a losing battle against a pandemic that has claimed nearly 400,000 American lives. There has been nothing like it since the American civil war. It is left to Biden to pick up the pieces. He has already started on the right foot by proposing a US$1.9 trillion stimulus and pandemic relief package focused on households. Sometimes rhetoric defines leadership. He got the tone right by referring to a “once-in-several-generations” crisis and the need to act on “suffering in plain sight”. Restoring the faith Repairing America’s reputation abroad and mending the fabric of society are overlapping priorities. Reputational damage includes uncertainty, loss of trust, weakening of alliances and repudiation of institutions that Washington helped create. There is a need to restore Americans’ faith in multilateralism. That is relevant to putting relations with China back on the right track. Improvement in the United States’ increasingly dysfunctional relationship with China is critical to international peace and stability. The world’s most important bilateral engagement has sunk to new lows, with Trump having repeatedly blamed China for the pandemic. Politically, Biden may feel compelled to give priority to repairing American democracy, through reconciliation and reforging of bipartisan consensus that built the nation. But the world, and especially Beijing, will be looking for signs that so-called Trumpism – characterised by an erratic anti-China stance – has had its day, and the implications for relations in the long-term. At stake are free trade and globalisation, key elements of global economic growth. A trade war started by Trump, following his abandonment of regular strategic economic dialogue with China, redefined relations. A phase one trade deal signed a year ago brought a ceasefire, though China remains behind in its commitment to buy more American goods – though its imports kept growing – and the trade deficit has grown. Hopefully, the phase one deal may yet serve as a foundation for constructive engagement on trade and economic issues. Meanwhile, however, Chinese companies have found themselves targeted with sanctions, black lists and tariffs as Sino-American relations have soured. Many last-minute measures are designed to limit the ability of his successor to shift US policy. This has done nothing to counter anti-China sentiment that plays into an undercurrent of isolationist sentiment in America. Time to re-engage with the world Trump campaigned for election to the office of president on the slogan “make America great again”. It remains unclear to most people whether that needed to be done then. But it is abundantly clear that it needs to be done now. Ironically it has fallen to 78-year-old Biden, dismissed by Trump as “Sleepy Joe”, to make good Trump’s pledge to make America great again, by undoing policies that diminished it. The country that founded and nourished multilateralism generously since 1945 turned its back on it. Trump carried out his threats to withdraw from multilateral solutions to global security and economic issues like the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership because, he said, they were all bad deals for America. Climate change is the issue of the century. President Xi Jinping has committed China to reach carbon neutrality before 2060 and ensure its greenhouse gas emissions peak in the next decade. Biden, thankfully, has promised to reverse US withdrawal from the Paris accord. When Biden takes office he will be confronted with an avalanche of emergencies demanding immediate attention. As well as the pandemic and a crippled economy, there is mass unemployment and miles-long food lines, a worsening climate crisis, and the growing threat of right-wing terrorism and racist violence. This will call on all his experience of nearly 50 years in politics, including eight as Barack Obama’s vice-president; in particular his reputation for working a politically divided room and reaching bipartisan solutions. That said, Biden cannot afford to forget that more than 70 million Americans voted for Trump . Many of them felt marginalised and had nothing to lose by voting for a maverick disrupter from outside the political establishment. But in the end Trump failed everyone when the country most needed effective leadership – in the fight against Covid -19. He paid a heavy price for his focus on tax cuts and a surging stock market when more was needed to keep America safe.