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Sensemaker: Biden’s time

Monday 9 November 2020

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Pfizer hailed “a great day for science” as it reported that the Covid vaccine it has developed with BioNTech in the US offers 90 per cent protection against the virus.
  • Kamala Harris said that while she was the first woman to win the vice presidency, she would not be the last.
  • Azerbaijan claimed to have taken the key town of Shusha in its war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Biden’s time

The Trump-slayer has 73 days before he finally moves into the White House, 33 years after his first attempt. By convention he’ll then have 100 days to make a splash. After that his political capital will start draining rapidly because no-one seriously expects him to run for a second term. So no pressure.

To do:

  • Covid. Today he’ll name a 12-person Covid task force to find a way to suppress the virus that helped him win. In principle that could mean copying successful strategies rolled out in places like Australia, Taiwan and South Korea. In practice America’s too big and varied for an off-the-shelf solution and the Biden plan will have to be more piecemeal (see below).
  • Climate. As expected, Biden will reverse Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord on day one in office. This will be important symbolically, but it could be much more than that (ditto).
  • Immigration. He’s expected to use executive orders to end Trump’s travel ban on visitors from seven mainly-Muslim countries, set out a route to US citizenship for children of illegal immigrants and create a task force to reunite the families of 500 children separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border.
  • Global leadership. He’ll rejoin the World Health Organisation, reassure Nato that the US is serious about the mutual defence of the world’s leading democracies, and tell the P5+1 that it wants to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
  • Trade. Biden’s campaign version of Trump’s economic nationalism was “Buy American”. Translation: he cannot afford to be seen to be soft on China and may be slower to unwind Trump’s tariffs than hardline free traders would like. On trade with Europe, which is worth a third more to the US than its trade with China, there will be a reset but no quick revival of the abandoned TTIP deal.
  • A US-UK deal? Not so fast. Biden identifies as Irish. He’s already made clear there will be no bilateral post-Brexit deal that puts the Good Friday Agreement at risk. Bottom line: this is a backburner issue for the incoming administration, but at least that means no serious prospect of chlorinated chicken in your local Sainos.

Team Biden. At 78 the top man won’t have the energy of, say, Obama at 47 in 2008, which is all the more reason his senior appointments matter deeply in terms of tone, policy and execution. Here are some of the more likely ones:

  • State. Once in the running to be Biden’s vice presidential pick, former national security adviser Susan Rice is now a favourite to be America’s next top diplomat. It wouldn’t be her first shot at the job; in 2012, she dropped out of the running amid Conservative criticism of her handling of a deadly terrorist attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Less controversial among conservatives and also a front-runner is Tony Blinken, a stalwart of Biden’s 2008 nomination run and his 2020 campaign who served as deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of State under Obama.
  • Defence. Harvard and Oxford educated with decades of experience, Michèle Flournoy has already served as undersecretary of defence for policy, with a focus on “growing Chinese assertiveness and military strength and eroding US deterrence”. She’d be the first woman to run the Pentagon.
  • Treasury. Lael Brainard, an economist and advocate of financial regulation, would be the first woman to lead the Treasury. She’s worked for (Bill) Clinton as well as Obama and serves on the Federal Reserve’s board of governors. Brainard would perhaps be a less progressive choice than other picks (Elizabeth Warren was another name floated for the role) but more palatable to a Republican-leaning Senate.
  • Press. A regular cable news pundit and a senior adviser on Biden’s campaign, Symone Sanders is tipped to become his press secretary. She cut her teeth on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign aged only 26. At 30 she would be the youngest of Biden’s corps of close advisers and the first black woman to face the press in the White House’s Brady Briefing Room.
  • Chief of Staff. A veteran Democratic aide and people-wrangler, Ron Klain first crossed paths with Biden during his 1987 presidential campaign. He served as Biden’s vice presidential chief of staff and filled the same role for Al Gore in the 1990s. Pandemic response is, usefully, another area of expertise for Klain – he was Obama’s “Ebola czar” in 2014.
  • Health and Human Services. Moving quickly on Covid will be a top priority come January, so it makes sense that a front-runner for health secretary is someone already close to the transition team’s pandemic strategy. Michelle Lujan Grisham, governor of New Mexico, is a co-chair of Biden’s transition committee and has run a health agency before: she served as director of New Mexico’s health department for several years. Vivek Murthy, formerly Surgeon General under Obama, is another candidate.
  • UN Ambassador. Pete Buttigieg, the smooth-talking polyglot and former Rhodes Scholar who ran for the Democratic nomination, is tipped for what could be a crucial role in America’s effort to rebuild its leadership credentials after the Trump experiment. Biden insiders have pitched him for the prestigious UN job not least because the former mayor of South Bend is said to have reached a political dead end in Indiana.

Meanwhile, back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue…

Trump was golfing in Virginia when the networks called the race for Biden. As his campaign released a statement saying it would continue to fight in the courts, the president finished his round, posed for a picture with a newlywed and wished her and her companions “a nice life”.

Reporters said he returned to the White House through a side door, with a slump in his shoulders. What’s been going on inside since then?

  • Trump has tweeted 20 times since Saturday, to a winnowed audience. Thirteen have been flagged by Twitter as misleading, which limits their reach.
  • The family has argued, probably. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, may have advised him to concede. That’s according to CNN, but Axios reports that Kushner is in fact advising Trump to take his election defeat to the courts. The president’s sons are also geeing him up. Don Jr. and Eric have been the biggest advocates of the “rigged election” narrative on Twitter in the past few days. But Trump’s daughter Ivanka is running as an unlucky favourite for the inevitable intervention.
  • Republicans are still on the Titanic. On Saturday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell declined to acknowledge Biden’s victory. Trump ally Lindsey Graham has defended Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud. As of yesterday, only two Republican senators – Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney – had publicly congratulated Biden.
  • The Trump campaign has geared up for a fight without a strategy. According to NYT’s Maggie Haberman, Kushner was searching for a lawyer to head up the legal effort as recently as Thursday. They plumped in the end for conservative activist and alleged fraudster David Bossie, who is not a lawyer.
  • But it’s getting a bit whispery. Someone close to the White House told MSNBC: “No one is willing to tell King Lear the truth.” Trump, according to Haberman, wants people out “fighting”. Like Lear on the heath he is trying to muster up cataracts and hurricanoes. His problem is that with only unsubstantiated legal claims, he’ll struggle to make a squall.

In the app today…. Listen to the latest Slow Newscast, on Jack Ma and his run-in with Chinese authority days before his second tech giant was due to go public. It’s a cracking story about life, Communism and banking. Sign up for tonight’s ThinkIn, with Lionel Barber, former FT editor, on 21st century power; and for tomorrow’s at 8am on Ma – is he the world’s greatest entrepreneur or has he flown too close to the sun?

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

What the markets think
Markets don’t think, of course, any more than a shoal of sardines does when attacked by tuna. But still, when the race was called at cappuccino time on Saturday, US funds linked to healthcare and student loan stocks picked up, and funds linked to clean energy stocks dipped. They haven’t moved much since ($). This is as much about the Senate as the White House. Without a clear Senate majority Biden will not get congressional approval for his full $2 trillion build-back-better plan, which would be expensive for healthcare providers and include big student loan write-offs. Expect all that to change again if Dems win both Georgia Senate seats in January.


New things technology, science, engineering

E-bikes in Amsterdam
Electronic bikes and scooters are increasingly part of the furniture in cities, but they do pose some dangers – 65 people in the Netherlands died in e-bike accidents last year. E-bikes will only get faster and more powerful as the technology develops so the Netherlands is, sensibly, acting now to adapt its infrastructure and accommodate them safely. Amsterdam is trialling a piece of tech that will slow down e-bikes in urban areas; the new digital infrastructure will send signals to the bikes to cut their speed when they enter busy neighbourhoods.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Eco-America
The Paris climate agreement is aspirational, not binding. American non-involvement made this a fatal flaw. If the world’s biggest economy wasn’t interested, why should anyone else take it seriously? This applied especially to China, the fastest-growing polluter, and India, still heavily dependent on coal. But American support for Paris should at a stroke turn their indifference into isolation, and a new anxiety not to be left behind in terms of emissions goals is already evident in Beijing. Also: Biden plans to reverse executive orders signed by Trump expanding oil exploration in coastal US waters and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Hundreds of thousands of caribou and millions of people who simply like nature can breathe easy at last.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Facts are back
Biden’s Covid task force is expected to focus on mask-wearing, therapeutics, vaccine distribution and morale. The first will involve delicate handling of state governments, especially red ones. The third could involve mass production of the new Pfizer vaccine. Long term, the last could be the most important. At the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, Trump’s four-year assault on science and reality demoralised everyone who valued them, and made fools of agency leaders who tried to walk the line between sound policy and a delusional presidency. As the US Covid death toll approaches quarter of a million, sending a clear signal from the top that facts are back is the president-elect’s most urgent task.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Party time?
The streets filled, music blared, social distancing was largely forgotten. In a great exhalation, many of the 75 million Americans who backed the Biden-Harris ticket came out to party over the weekend. Gas stations became spontaneous dance venues. But 70-odd million also voted for Trump. One of them completed a road trip from the Midwest to Eureka, California, last week, and posted a short video of himself musing that he’d only seen Trump flags along the way. One country. Two ships passing in the night.

opinion: matt d’ancona

The president-elect’s speech

With his victory confirmed, Joe Biden spoke welcome words of healing and unity. Achieving those things will be much harder

As Lyndon Johnson’s acclaimed biographer, Robert Caro, has observed: “Power reveals – it doesn’t always reveal you for the better, but it reveals.”

By the time Joe Biden took to the stage in Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday night, he was already exhibiting the transformative impact of power: he was already different.

Where had this surge of energy and presence come from? Officially and in the first instance, from the electorate, of course, who had awarded him the largest popular vote ever achieved in a presidential election; this, remember, in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

But the true gatekeepers to Biden’s presidency were the networks, specifically at the moment on Thursday night when ABC, CBS and NBC cut off President Trump’s deranged rant about alleged voter fraud.

He who lives by media, dies by media. The reality television host who made it to the White House by treating politics as a branch of the entertainment industry was, in the end, deposed because he had committed the cardinal sin of the entertainment world: he had become a bore, an embarrassment, old news. And like so many failed autocrats, Trump took refuge in a bunker; in his case, the bunker on one of his golf courses.

On the stage in Wilmington, precisely the opposite was happening to Biden – a few days shy of his 78th birthday, 32 years after his first presidential campaign (for perspective, the New York congresswoman and rising star of the Left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hadn’t been born in 1988). The president-elect, so often dismissed during the campaign as doddery, past-it, even suffering from early onset dementia, was a force of nature, suddenly and visibly invigorated by the daunting task ahead of him and the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris.

The oratory was not lyrical or even especially original. The speech began with the down-home intimacy of a family cook-out (“I see my buddy Tom, Senator Tom Carper, down there … is that Ruth Ann? And that’s former Governor Ruth Ann Minner”).

And then Biden proceeded to raid the rhetorical larder without compunction. From Martin Luther King (who was himself borrowing from the 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker), he took the phrase “arc of the moral universe”, observing that it was, once again, bending “toward justice”.

“It’s time for our better angels to prevail,” he said – an explicit homage to Lincoln. And he recycled, in only slightly modified form, a trope made famous by Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “I pledge to be a president,” Biden said, “who seeks not to divide but unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States.”

It was plagiarism – of the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, for God’s sake – that did for his 1988 presidential bid. But this was not plagiarism. It was overt citation, designed to reassure his audience in America and around the world that the presidency was once again to be moored in the traditions of the republic, rather than the demented caprice of a pathological narcissist.

More striking still was the sheer intensity with which Biden delivered his victory speech – a fierce reproach to those who have said during the campaign that he is simply too depleted for what lies ahead, a placeholder president at best.

In our age of instant gratification and goldfish attention span, the virtues of stamina and patience are rarely praised. But Biden’s speech, in form and content, was a hymn to both. As he occasionally faltered over this or that syllable or consonant, one was reminded that the formative experience of his youth was a crippling stammer.

Consider this recollection of Biden’s childhood from Richard Ben Cramer’s classic account of the 1988 presidential race, What It Takes:

“And in class, he read about Demosthenes, who made himself the greatest orator of his day by putting pebbles in his mouth and declaiming to the sea, above the roar of the waves. So Joey Biden, of Wilson Road, would stand outside at the wall of his house… and with stones in his mouth, he’d try to read aloud, until he could read that page without a miss, and then he’d go to the next page, and the next… until it was the book in one hand and a flashlight in the other.”

Historians continue to bicker over the speech impediment that helped to form Churchill’s unique cadences (lisp or stutter?) – a problem he shared with George VI, glancingly referred to in the Oscar-winning movie The King’s Speech. Ed Balls, the former Shadow Chancellor, has written movingly of the therapy he sought for his stammer in his forties. Biden’s speech disorder has long enabled him to help others with the same condition.

In this case, however – at this particular moment – it has a much sharper significance, giving depth to his humanity as a prospective leader. The president-elect’s cruel experience of personal tragedy, most recently the loss of his beloved son Beau (to whom he referred in Saturday’s speech) has undoubtedly helped him empathise with those who have been bereaved by Covid-19. He has spoken often of “the empty chairs at dining room tables all across the country, which just months ago were filled by loved ones”; communicating an emotional intelligence that would not be so conspicuous had it not been so lacking in Trump’s response to the death of 238,000 Americans.

Indeed, the president’s own experience of coronavirus compounded his Darwinian approach to the illness. “Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it,” he said on 5 October after his return to the White House from hospital – as though, in his dilapidated imagination, those Americans who had succumbed to coronavirus did so because they were weak and fearful.

Rarely has a nation so needed a leader unafraid of his own vulnerabilities, whose life story is a parable in coping with adversity, seeking solace from others, and committing to the long haul. After four years of bombast, bragging and solipsism, it really is time for a change.

I think Trump intuited much more quickly than Biden’s own party that he was the Democrat who could bring him down: remember, he risked all by linking military aid to Ukraine to a request that President Volodymyr Zelensky initiate investigations into the Democrat contender and his son, Hunter. As a consequence, Trump was impeached – acquitted, yes, but at considerable political cost.

Today, and for a while to come, Biden will look indestructible. He is already convening a coronavirus task force and – though disgracefully impeded by Trump’s own team, which is not cooperating with the transition – beginning the work of key appointments to his administration. He and Harris bestride the planet.

Compare and contrast the grotesque spectacle of Rudy Giuliani – pathetically reduced from the formidable mayor who guided New York City through the aftermath of 9/11 – standing in a shabby lot at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia, sweatily abusing the press and issuing wild claims about electoral fraud.

Even as he denounced the “hateful biases” of the reporters and declared the city to be one “in which voter fraud is professional”, you could feel power draining from the Trump regime. A five-year adventure in delusional populism that started with the Great Orange Hope descending the golden escalator at Trump Tower fizzled out on Saturday in a car park, between a sex shop and a crematorium.

You would need a heart of stone not to laugh. But – as you do – remember that, even as Trump’s presidency dies, a grand betrayal myth is being forged for the 71 million Americans who voted for his re-election: a narrative of electoral impropriety, Democratic corruption, media bias, coastal elites, and “Deep State” collusion that is designed to make sense of what has happened and what lies ahead.

The president’s non-compliance with the usual rules of orderly transition is outrageous. But it is also entirely consistent with the populist play-book. It is essential to Trump and to the inheritors of Trumpism that those 71 million believe with ever greater conviction that they were robbed, and that the 2020 election was invalid. Giuliani’s ravings are only the start of something much sleeker and more menacing to come.

A warning of those gathering clouds – subconscious or otherwise – was etched into the president-elect’s speech. In one of its most powerful passages, Biden declared that “we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans.”

This was a clear homage to Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address in March 1861: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” What is often forgotten about those words, taken out of context, is that they were spoken on the eve of conflict, not in its wake.

They were a plea, not a celebration. And Lincoln’s hopes did not prevail: on 12 April, Confederates stormed Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay, triggering civil war.

It is not enough to hope for healing and unity: they are invariably hard-won. The president-elect’s speech on Saturday was, indeed, quite something. But the hard part starts today.


the week ahead

UK
9/11 – UK and EU Brexit negotiations continue; Wales due to come out of two-week “firebreak” lockdown; Mark Carney, COP26 finance adviser and former Bank of England governor, sets out roadmap for financing net zero, 10/11 – chair of NHS Test and Trace Dido Harding appears before select committee; Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse due to publish results of investigation into Catholic Church, 11/11 – Armistice Day; logistics sector representatives address Commons Brexit committee; former Team Sky and British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman appears before Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service, 12/11 – UK quarterly GDP estimates due from ONS; US disease head Anthony Fauci speaks at Chatham House webinar; first person charged in UK over refusal to wear face mask appears in court, 13/11 – Northern Ireland circuit breaker restrictions due to be lifted; results of Labour’s National Executive Committee elections announced; BBC Children in Need, 14/11 – Prince Charles turns 72

World
9/11 – EU foreign affairs ministers meet to discuss future trade with US; McDonald’s releases quarterly results; former Kosovo president Hashim Thaci appears in the Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity, 10/11 – Supreme Court expected to hear Trump-backed challenge to Obamacare; Vatican releases investigation into Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, found guilty of sexually abusing minors and vulnerable adults, 11/11 – European Central Bank annual forum begins, 12/11 – Emmanuel Macron attends Paris Peace Forum; Fox Corporation annual shareholders’ meeting; The Masters golf major tournament begins in Augusta, Georgia, 13/11 – G20 finance ministers due to meet to discuss debt forgiveness amid Covid pandemic, 14/11 – Diwali marks start of Hindu New Year; EU sanctions against Venezuela due to expire, 15/11 – Moldovan presidential election runoff takes place

And one more thing…

Marvel at how Four Seasons Total Landscaping – a landscaping store not a high-end hotel – became the inadvertent backdrop for Trump’s Saturday news conference. Tellingly it resulted in Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani holding forth next to a sex shop called Fantasy Island.Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill

Patricia Clarke
@paticlarke

Xavier Greenwood
@XAMGreenwood