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Sensemaker: New US management

Sensemaker: New US management

Thursday 21 January 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • China’s Xinhua news agency said “good riddance” to the “final madness” of the Trump administration as Joe Biden was sworn in as 46th president of the US.
  • Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first woman vice-president of the US.
  • Russia applied to register its Sputnik V Covid vaccine with the European Medicines Agency.
  • Amanda Gorman, the 22 year-old poet who stole the show at Biden’s inauguration, said Hillary Clinton had urged her to run for president in 2036.

New US management

The commentariat welcomed a “pretty terrific” speech and heralded a return to normalcy, but there’s not much that was normal about Biden’s inauguration day. Forget the complete absence of crowds and the now-mandated masks. Biden’s blizzard of executive orders was anticipated – but also unprecedented. He signed 15 EOs and two directives compared with one each for the only two of his recent predecessors (Trump and Clinton) who signed any on day one. The broad aim is to unwind Trump’s legacy but also confront four simultaneous crises itemised in the inauguration speech: Covid, Covid’s economic impact, enduring racial injustice, and climate change.

Among other things the orders:

  • create a new office of White House Covid-19 response with a goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in 100 days and reopening closed schools;
  • recommit the US to the Paris climate accords (“Welcome back,” President Macron tweeted) and require a full review of 103 Trump administration actions on the environment and public health;
  • impose a moratorium on drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge;
  • halt construction of the Mexican border wall and require a review of the legality of the contracts under which it was being built. 

The headlines were heavily trailed but the detail suggests a lot of preparation and pent-up ambition. From the bruised right, House Republicans said it was clear Biden planned to “cater to the far left instead of working to help all Americans,” but Republican Senators seemed more willing to heed his appeal for unity, at least for now. 

Other signs of a neck-snapping change of culture at the White House included:

  • a pep rally for incoming White House staff at which they all appeared remotely and Biden told them if he ever heard any of them disrespecting or talking down to anyone, he’d fire them on the spot;
  • the first press briefing from his press secretary, Jen Psaki, a veteran of both Obama terms, who promised regular weekday briefings complete with “truth and data and sharing information even when it is hard to hear”.

From Beijing, an op-ed in the China Daily hoped for an end to the “revived McCarthyism” of recent years and called on Biden to make “a decisive move to end the new Cold War”.

From Brussels, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said it was “time to bring back conviction and common sense and rejuvenate our EU-US relationship”.

From London, Boris Johnson and the Queen sent congratulations, and Johnson, asked if he thought Biden was “woke”, managed to say there was “nothing wrong with being woke”.

From Joint Base Andrews, Trump said goodbye, but said he’d be back “in some form”. Biden aides later said he’d left a “generous” letter in the Resolute desk.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

To Russia with interest
Trafigura is a big Singapore-based energy and commodities trader that seems to be unafraid of controversy as it gets bigger. It has invested €1.5 billion in Rosneft, the state-owned Russian oil giant, for a 10 per cent stake in a huge Arctic oil project backed by Vladimir Putin. With US sanctions squeezing Rosneft’s access to credit, helping it out carries political risk. Trafigura has clearly calculated that for now the risk is worth it. The Vostok Oil project, which requires the construction of 15 towns for its thousands of workers, offers the prize of two per cent of the global oil supply by 2035. But the risk calculus may now change. The US has avoided sanctioning Rosneft’s exports directly, fearing disruption to global energy markets. “But the direction of travel suggests that stricter sanctions in the future are possible,” an expert tells the FT (£). “It might only take one incident — like the arrest of [Alexei] Navalny this week — to raise the temperature between Washington and Moscow, and Rosneft is clearly seen by the US as a pressure point it can target.”

New things technology, science, engineering

VW’s new reality check
A few years ago VW’s reputation for integrity and dependable motoring took a beating from the diesel emissions scandal. Now its reputation for engineering excellence is on the line, because it can’t do software. The WSJ has a fascinating exposé ($) of an almighty hiccup in VW’s $50 billion effort to catch up with Tesla in the business of electric cars. It opens with a scene in late 2019 when Angela Merkel visited VW’s all-electric ID.3 plant in Zwickau. An early example of the ID.3 battery-powered car built to take on Tesla’s Model 3 was rolled out, but none of the hoped-for electronic add-ons worked. There was, for example, no heads-up display on the windscreen even though that had been part of the plan. Key message: electric cars are computers with wheels attached. Key quote: “You can’t just flip a switch and be a software company.”

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Australia’s blackened forests
A year on from the fires that destroyed 10 million hectares of Australia’s forests and sent smoke plumes far out into the Pacific, some areas are growing back well. But some are not. A new meta-study of research into the fires finds that the trees’ capacity to produce and shed enough seeds to grow back fully may have been damaged irreparably. “There’s a big risk now the wetter forests across huge swathes of Victoria and southern New South Wales won’t be able to recover,” one author of the study told the Sydney Morning Herald. Until this century these forests have been used to about one “megafire” every 75 years. They’ve suffered three since 2000.

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

The zero-deaths pandemic
What do China, Taiwan, Thailand and Tanzania have in common? Many things, no doubt, but one is that each has recorded too few Covid deaths per 100,000 people for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control to register any at all. On this particular chart, their number is zero. Vietnam and Burkina Faso register zero too. Nigeria and Ghana each register one. Malaysia and South Korea are among those that register two. In France, Mexico, Spain, the US, Peru, the UK and Italy more than 100 people per 100,000 have died from Covid. The Times reproduces the chart to illustrate a story on EU contingency plans to temporarily ban all inward travel from the UK (and other countries) if necessary. But the chart itself is what’s most striking. It’s easy to forget on “Plague Island” that some countries are experiencing this pandemic in a very different and much less traumatic way.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Up and up
Given the amount of time spent indoors in 2020, it isn’t surprising that many of us got bored with our same four walls. It seems we were prepared to pay a premium for a change of scene. House prices rose in every area of England, and in London, in November, the average price of a home exceeded £500,000 for the first time, up 9.7 per cent in a year. City dwellers fled London in droves, but the stamp duty holiday on homes costing up to £500,000 in England, announced in July, also pushed up prices on properties in the capital. In an already expensive market, properties close to the maximum attracted the most beneficial discounts. Prices may cool a little this year, but if there’s a housing bubble, it doesn’t look set to burst.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Ellen Halliday

Paul Caruana Galizia

Photographs Getty Images