• MIDTERM FEVER
• JOBS VS PRICES
• JUDGE JACKSON
• FOREIGN DIVERSIONS
• SANCTIONS SINGH
• A SISTER REMEMBERS
President Joe Biden’s administration and the Democratic Party are already preparing for the midterm elections in November. The midterms, when the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate go before the voters, are generally bad news for the White House incumbent. A Republican Congress would hamstring Biden, who has razor-thin majorities in both houses, in the last two years of his term.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and rising inflation have meant Biden’s campaign message will be “strength and stability,” his team has told media. The administration will talk up police and military spending increases. Inflation means earlier talk of radical deficit spending to pay for major welfare and infrastructure spending will be replaced with promises to reduce the deficit by increasing taxes on the super-rich. Biden will position his administration, and by reflection his own party, as centre-left and moderate.
Democratic polling indicates they are vulnerable to Republican criticism on crime fighting and inflation. Overall, the view is that Biden’s competency ratings need to be improved as they have been sagging for the past half-year. Biden wants to rally Democratic votes to push existing climate and social spending programmes. He also hopes to benefit from his massive infrastructure act and other laws boosting innovation and competitiveness, among the few where he received bipartisan support. The president made recent trips to Iowa and North Carolina to highlight his administration’s actions on reducing consumer prices and job creation but was able to pick up only a few local headlines. Inviting Barack Obama to the White House seemed only to underline how much more charismatic the ex-president is compared to the incumbent.
Biden’s repositioning to the centre will attract the ire of the progressive left of his own party. They are already unhappy with the administration’s increases in defence spending and shift away from left-oriented welfare reforms. “Political reality just didn’t support the expansive view of progressive possibilities,” said Bill Galston, ex-Clinton administration official at the Brookings Institution. “If you put an ideological template on it, you have to say the correction is to the center.”
One group preparing aggressively are the Democratic Party’s Blue Dogs, the shrinking centrist ranks of the party. The fear is Blue Dogs may lose dozens of their members, which is why the coalition is already building up staff strength, raising funding and strategizing how best to support moderate liberals who face re-election challenges. Says Representative Kurt Schrader (Democrat-Oregon) leads the Blue Dog political arm, “We need a moderate to replace a moderate because those seats are not winnable by some of those folks further left of the spectrum of our party.”
The Blue Dog and the affiliated NewDem Action Fund are already throwing their support behind certain members in the Democratic primary elections, where candidates for the lower house midterms are selected. “Certainly we understand this is going to be a difficult cycle,” said Representative Ami Bera (Democrat-California), an Indian-American and senior member of the New Democrat Coalition. Centrists have already issued 11 endorsements, the vast majority in safe seats where Biden won by double-digits. But after the last election cycle, when all nine of their endorsed candidates lost, they are playing safe.
While the midterm losses of 2006, 2010 and 2014 point to a pattern of incumbent parties losing heavily, the longer historical record shows that a neutral or even successful midterm is not unheard of. In 1998 and 2002, for example, the incumbent party actually increased seats thanks to a booming economy and the 9/11 terrorist attack helped ensure a pro-incumbency outcome. What Biden’s team will look at the most are the elections of 1962, 1970 and 1990 when the incumbent party lost only a handful of seats or offset losses in one chamber with gains in another.
One complication for Democrats in the midterm is the unusually large numbers of Democratic legislators who are hanging up their gloves. Already 31 Democratic legislators, mainly from the lower house, have announced they will not seek re-election. Only 18 Republicans have done the same. An incumbent legislator normally has an advantage over a challenger in US politics so retirements make it easier for an opposition challenger. Biden’s stagnant approval rating and ideological fighting within the Democratic Party makes the likelihood of these seats being switched even higher.
JOBS VS PRICES
The US unemployment rate hit 3.6 per cent, with 431,000 jobs added during March alone, but this is not translating into positive polling numbers for the Biden administration. One reason is perception: surveys show 37% of the US public believe that there has been a net loss of jobs over the past year, only 28% think employment has improved. The sense of less jobs was ten percentage points higher among Republicans. In reality, the jobless rate was 6.4% when President Joe Biden was elected to office.
The public focus seems to have shifted to inflation. With consumer prices up 8.5% over the past year, well above wage gains of 5.6%, this has been the dominant economic theme in US media and commentary. Inflation, year on year, is the highest it has been in the US since 1981, driven largely by food and energy prices. The National Republican Congressional Committee is already exploiting this, running over 90% of its 30 unique digital aid campaigns on the subject of price rises. Explained a Republican communications director, “Republicans are talking about people encountering rising prices every minute of every day versus Democrats talking about bridges that might be built in three years.”
One issue on which Democrats continue to struggle is how to handle illegal immigration across the US’s southern border. This political thorn was handed over to Vice-President Kamala Harris at the start of the administration but she has failed to make a mark on the problem. A Title 42 public health order had been imposed by President Donald Trump to tighten controls on immigration, but the Biden administration announced it would lift the order in May. Democratic Party members were caught by surprise but the larger problem is the continuing lack of a unified message on immigration and border policy. Republicans have run 80 television ads in March alone on the issue, trying to portray the Biden administration as complicit in allowing unrestricted and chaotic migration from Mexico and Central America. Already over a dozen legislators, half of them Democrat, have joined hands to pass a bill that would stop Biden from abolishing Title 42.
An early April Reuters/Ipsos poll showed President Joe Biden’s public approval rating rising to 45%, largely because of stronger support among registered Democratic Party supporters. However, overall disapproval of the president’s job performance remains at 50% in part because of high inflation but also because of geopolitical concerns over the Ukraine war. Biden has struggled to keep his approval rating above 50% since August last year. The website www.fivethirtyeight.com, which weights different polls by their credibility, concluded that Biden’s rating remains unmoved at about 42%. A Los Angeles combination of four national polls, however, concluded Biden was stuck in 39% approval rating rut.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was appointed and confirmed as the first black woman Supreme Court judge and first Democratic appointee to the Supreme Court in nearly 12 years. Her appointment will not affect the conservative 6-3 majority on the bench, but still marks a success for liberals who have let control of the highest court slip away. Democrats believe that Republicans used illegitimate tactics to secure their appointees. For example, blocking President Barack Obama from appointing Merrick Garland in 2016 and then pushing through Amy Coney Barrett in 2020 in record time to ensure President Biden would not get the chance to choose a judge as soon he was sworn in.
Liberal-left activists fear the Supreme Court will overturn or look the other way at state and federal governments’ moves to undermine abortion rights, civil liberties and environmental standards. They cite conservative judges’ statements about the need to curb central government regulatory bodies and the growing number of right-wing state governments who are making it harder for the poor to vote or putting restrictions on abortion.
Attempts to get President Biden to appoint additional justices, using the US Constitution’s failure to specify the exact number of Supreme Court judges, have received little support. One reason is that the activists’ fears are not shared by Democratic voters as a whole is because there has still been little in the way of tangible shifts in judicial stances by the Supreme Court though the tenor of the rhetoric may have changed. If the court decides undermine or overturn the long-standing Roe vs Wade judgment on abortion in June, as is widely speculated, that passivism could end.
Ukraine, not unexpectedly, has become the overriding foreign policy issue for the Biden administration to the point it is allowing other foreign policy highpoints to be neglected. Among the most striking decisions was the decision to cancel the latest US-ASEAN summit, originally scheduled for March 28-29, a lacunae immediately filled in by China which announced a four-day mini-summit of the four foreign ministers of Southeast Asia and China. The White House then announced a new ASEAN summit would be held in Washington on May 12-13. The US president did hold a meeting with the Singapore Prime Minister in Washington but there have been obvious questions raised about the US’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific. Biden was immediately attacked by Republican politicians. Senator Marco Rubio said, “While President Biden struggles to get a grip on his schedule, the Chinese Communist Party remains focused on undermining U.S. interests around the world.”
The Biden administration made it a point, on the other hand, to hold a 2+2 foreign and defence ministers’ meeting with India and a virtual talk between the president and Prime Minister Narendra Modi despite the war in the Ukraine and unhappiness at India’s neutral stance over the war. However, Biden may have to look for a new ambassador for India. With a second Republican senator imposing a hold on his confirmation as US ambassador to India, Eric Garchetti is looking increasingly unlikely to get his nomination passed by the Senate. Accusations of sexual harassment have been made against Garchetti’s deputy of chief of staff when he was Los Angeles mayor, though none of the claims impugn Garchetti directly. Democratic leaders already question whether they can muster the necessary 51 senate votes from their own ranks and assume they will get none from the Republicans. Garchetti was nominated eight months ago.
The US president also postponed his planned second global Covid-19 summit, which was to have been co-hosted with Germany. Originally planned for March, it was pushed to April and is now being considered for May. On the other hand, the summit might have thrown an embarrassing spotlight on the US Congress’s decision to slash $ 5 billion of funds for global Covid-19 funding.
Washington has also compromised on the Biden administration’s human rights agenda to garner support for its larger strategy to defeat Russia. This has included outreach to Venezuela and trying to fast track the nuclear negotiations with Iran, moves done with an eye on their crude reserves and a US need to provide alternatives if sanctions start to reduce Russian energy production. Even more striking has been the administration’s increasing willingness to re-engage with Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. The crown prince has been on Biden’s blacklist for his involvement in the murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the two have yet to communicate with each other since Biden was elected. However, Saudi Arabia’s massive excess oil production capacity means that compensating for any large-scale drop in Russian oil production is impossible without Riyadh.
Unsurprisingly, the Ukraine war has led a huge swing in US public opinion against Russia and President Vladimir Putin. A Pew Research Center poll has found the number of Americans who said Russia was an enemy had jumped from 41% in January to 70% in late March. Twenty-four percent described Russia as a competitor of the United States, while just 3% said it was a partner. Dislike of Putin is one thing that unites Americans of all stripes with 72% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans describing Russia as an enemy. This is a striking difference from the days when many Republicans were ambivalent if not admiring of Putin, helped along by President Donald Trump’s lavish praise for the man.
US Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh was praised by the New Yorker as the man behind the unusually tough financial sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, including sanctioning the country’s central bank. A former Obama official was quoted as saying, “The architect of these sanctions was Daleep Singh.” Singh, a former Goldman Sachs executive, had helped put together the 2014 sanctions that were used after the Russian takeover of Crimea. He realised that many Russian entities were overexposed in terms of debt and crafted policies that exploited this weakness. Subsequently, Moscow began piling up foreign exchange reserves and moving much of it into gold in what economists termed a “Fortress Russia” approach. Again Singh identified the weak point: the currency trade. However much Russia stockpiled funds, the ability to use them depended on a currency network that was dominated by the dollar and, therefore, US institutions. As he realised, “The real obstacle was diplomatic. The more countries that cooperated, the more comprehensive the sanction.” As the intelligence came in indicating that an invasion was imminent, the US began working with the Group of Seven countries to join what was to prove an unprecedented sanctions hit against a major economy. “You know, we can play chess, too,” Singh said. “It was important for us to show that the fortress could come crumbling down.” The article does not mention that Singh is also the great grand-nephew of the first Asian-American to be elected to the lower house of the US Congress, Dalip Singh Saund.
A SISTER REMEMBERS
In a new memoir Growing Up Biden, the US president’s younger sister, Valerie Biden Owens, writes, “I remember his eyes. I wish I didn’t” while describing the moment when her brother Joe Biden, then a barely 30 newly-elected senator, was informed his wife and baby daughter had been killed in a car accident. The book details the night Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and daughter, Naomi, died. Biden was sworn in as senator in the hospital where his two sons Hunter and Beau were still recovering from the crash. Biden’s sister and brother Jimmy, and a few other senators, had to intervene to persuade Biden to continue with the swearing-in and not give up his position. “Watching him, I struggled with a confused, displaced sense of pride: my brother, the Senator, assuming his role amid ruins. The whole scene felt like a ghoulish parody of our dreams and ambitions.”
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