H I G H L I G H T S
• BIDEN’S BUILD BACK BETTER NEW YEAR
• LATINO SHIFT
• DEMOCRACY SUMMIT
• TRUMP PREPARES
• JUDGE FAVOURITE
BIDEN’S BUILD BACK BETTER NEW YEAR
Last year ended dismally for United States President Joe Biden with a single senator blocking a $ 1.7 trillion part of the Build Back Better programme that would have transformed the US welfare system and funded an ambitious green energy transition. The legislation had already passed the lower house, but needed all 51 Democratic senators to get past the Senate. On December 19, centrist Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia declared he would not be able to support the bill because of fiscal concerns.
The Biden administration indicated it would pick up the threads in 2022, possibly after shrinking the ambit of the law or cutting it into smaller parts. A White House spokesperson said, “We will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honour his prior commitments and be true to his word.” However, President Biden’s governance record inevitably enters the new year further battered. The progressive left wing of the Democrats attacked the White House for not tying the law to an earlier, more politically non-controversial infrastructure bill.
The legislation was always going to the most difficult part of Build Back Better as it provided large scale funding for education, health care, climate change and introduced tax reforms that were all an anathema to the Republicans. Manchin was not incorrect to argue the legislation would cost more than envisaged. Many of the law’s programmes only had funding for one year: the unwritten assumption being they would become too popular for Congress to let them lapse.
Some have argued Manchin was as, if not more, concerned at the $ 580 billion funding earmarked for green energy. Almost all of the money would have been spent on solar and wind energy, storage and electric vehicles with little or nothing for nuclear or natural gas. Manchin, whose state is a major producer of coal and natural gas, had been sceptical of overdependence on weather-dependent renewables. “The main thing that we need is dependability and reliability,” he said. “If enacted, the bill will also risk the reliability of our electric grid and increase our dependence on foreign supply chains.” The last being a reference to Chinese made batteries and solar power components.
Opinion polls showed broad public support for the contents of the legislation but not for the law itself. A Morning Consult/Politico polls found 47% of registered voters supported the bill, seven percentage points more than opponents. The healthcare provisions of the bill were particularly well-received – including increased government healthcare funding and subsidised medicines – attracting 70% plus levels of support. Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz was among the voices on the left who argued he bill’s passage would drive growth for decades, compensating for waning fiscal stimuli and improving the US’s decrepit infrastructure along the way.
With the appointment and confirmation of a slew of regulators and ambassadors, the Biden administration will be better equipped to overhaul the US financial and tech sectors and carry out diplomacy. Among the ambassadors confirmed is the new US envoy to India, former Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti.
The Biden administration has an ambitious agenda to create a new regulatory framework for digital assets including cryptocurrencies and unsupervised fintech sectors, especially online lending platforms. A number of prominent South Asians, including Rohit Chopra of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Pakistani-American Lina Khan of the Federal Trade Commission, are among the new regulators who will spearhead these efforts. Chopra has already indicated his intention to push through open banking reforms which would allow consumers to access their own financial data from lenders and financial firms. The Biden administration will also seek to regulate cryptocurrencies and related assets, an issue facing other governments as well.
Just before the year-end break, the US Senate confirmed 30 ambassadors, partly ending an impasse between the administration and Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz had blocked ambassadorial appointments, demanding the administration reconsider its approval of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. A compromise, and the threat of forcing the Senate to meet through through the Christmas period, resulted in about half the ambassadorial appointments receiving approval. At one point in mid-December, only nine of Biden’s 77 ambassadorial appointments had been confirmed by the Senate and nearly half of the US embassies of the world were headless.
Latino voters are seen as the most important swing voters in US politics. While they skew Democrat, they are less partisan than other ethnic minorities. They surprised many in 2020 by increasing their support for Donald Trump. This is a major concern of the Democratic Party whose future depends on a coalition of white liberals and ethnic minorities. Equis Research, a Democratic Party research firm, released a lengthy report analysing the “Latino shift”. “The simplest story remains the most powerful,” Equis Research’s co-founder Carlos Odio wrote. “The economy and its intersection with Covid became voters’ top priority.”
Trump’s anti-immigration stance in 2016 cost him Latino support, but he deliberately toned this down in 2020 when the economy and Covid became the community’s main concerns. The economy was a big plus point for Trump. Between 2016 and 2019, Latino families enjoyed faster economic growth than their black or white counterparts and the community’s unemployment fell to a historic low. Trump’s investment in Covid vaccines received a 74% approval rating among Latinos. The study also shows favourable majorities for his push to reopen the economy (66%) and emphasis on living without fear of Covid (55%). Latino voters, while seeing Democrats as the party “that cares more about you” and representing “fairness and equality,” put the two parties on par when it came to supporting the “American Dream,” believing in hard work and traditional values. There is also a clear political divide between Latino Protestants and Catholics with the former having views similar to white Protestants, including opposing illegal migrants and supporting Trump. About 55% of Latinos are Catholic and 22% Protestant.
An Economist/YouGov analysis of polling shows a sharp drop in support for President Biden among US adults below 30, with only 29% approving his job as president and 50% expressing disapproval. The analysis says this is the worst net rating of any age group. When the administration was first elected, young Americans rated Biden 32 points higher than their elders did. The analysis indicates perceived failures on climate change, health care and student debt are among the main sources of disaffection. In a Twitter exchange, however, Data for Progress disagreed with the analysis, arguing Biden’s drop in support among youth was largely in line with other demographics and not an outlier.
President Biden’s most curious foreign policy action in December was to hold a virtual two-day Summit of Democracy with the leaders of 110 countries, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, when asked why certain authoritarian regimes were included and other flourishing democracies were not, said the summit was about democracy and not of democracies. Pakistan was invited but declined to join, presumably to not anger China.
While Biden was fulfilling an election promise, the summit reflects a strong personal belief that the growing divide between his country and China and Russia is about a larger global struggle between autocracy and democracy. In his speech at the summit, he confessed US democracy was not in great shape, and cited reports that half the world’s democracies were guilty of liberal backsliding but underlined democracy’s capacity for self-correction. Democracy’s greatest challenge, he said, were autocrats claiming their systems were more efficient at tackling problems. Said Biden, “And perhaps most importantly and worrying of all — most worrying of all, by increasing the dissatisfaction of people all around the world with democratic governments that they feel are failing to deliver for their needs. In my view, this is the defining challenge of our time.”
The summit generated little of substance, but it seems to be largely about not conceding an ideological space to China. Beijing and Moscow openly attacked the summit. China was especially unhappy that Taiwan attended. China issued a lengthy “State of American Democracy” white paper that spoke of the dysfunctionality of US politics, the entrenched role of money and the country’s problems with race and inequality.
The strongest indication that former president Donald Trump remains interested in another election run is the tight grip he has retained over the Republican Party. As of December 7, in the runup to the 2022 midterm congressional election cycle, Trump has endorsed a remarkable 46 candidates for Republican primaries. He has also endorsed candidates for three secretaries of state, the seniormost election official at the state level and generally too low-level for an ex-president. The Trump endorsements are three times more than the number he issued by December-end in 2019.
Trump is both dissuading his opponents in the party from running and ensuring only those who virulently support him are likely to be elected to Congress. The secretary of state endorsements seem to reflect his continuing belief Biden’s victory was fraudulent and that he was betrayed by Republican office-holders who certified key election results. The Washington Post reported in October that Trump nearly announced his intention to run again during the debacle of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan but was dissuaded by his aides who argued the focus should be on midterm elections. This led him to shift to a strategy of political “winks and nods” to maintain control of the Republican Party and deny the Democrats control of Congress. He retains considerable support with the party rank-and-file with two-thirds of Republican supporters saying they want Trump to remain active in US politics.
Last year ended with US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts having the highest approval rating among US federal leaders with a 60% approval rating. He was one of the few who had bipartisan support with a nearly equal number of Democrats and Republicans saying they liked how he had handled his job, said Gallup Poll.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci also scored well, but their support was largely on party lines. Powell had a 53% approval rating, but his support among Democrats was more than double his support among Republicans. Fauci had an overall 52% approval rating, but only 19% of Republicans versus 85% of Democrats gave him a thumbs up.
President Joe Biden held the middle with a 43% approval rating, while Vice-President Kamala Harris scored one point higher – the best she has done in several months. Both of them trailed Secretary of State Anthony Blinken who scored 49%. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell received the lowest, with only 34% rating, with even Republican support down to 46%. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scored a mere 40%, but at least had high numbers among Democrats.
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(The views expressed are personal)