Biden’s monumental challenge

January has been a momentous, chaotic, and historic month in US politics, culminating in the inauguration of Joseph R Biden as the 46th President of the United States this week. DRD’s George Smith, who served as a Congressional fellow, looks at some of his challenges ahead and what Biden’s Presidency may herald for UK-US relations.

BIDEN’S FIRST 100 DAYS

Bar the crowds, and the former President, Biden’s inauguration went as smoothly as previous ceremonies. It is now down to business, and there is a lot to do. The first 100 days of a presidency are always significant, as this is when the president is most able to utilise the powers at his disposal.

No president has ever had such a challenging in-tray as Biden. He will not only have to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic collapse caused by this crisis, but also try to heal the wounds of a desperately divided country; produce policies to prevent environmental catastrophe; and restore America’s place in the world.

As Biden himself said, any one of these would be difficult enough to deal with, but together they pose a monumental challenge for any incoming president.

Far from being the ‘Sleepy Joe’ of Trump’s imagination, Biden has got off to a breakneck start. He has issued more executive orders (15) in his first 24 hours than any of his last four predecessors did in their first two weeks – but executive orders can only get you so far.

In major policy areas, such as the economic stimulus package, he will need legislation and therefore congressional support. Biden, though, is a man who knows the ins and outs of Congress better than any president since Lyndon Johnson.

He has over 35 years’ experience in Congress, which included heading up both the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees and has a reputation for bipartisanship. He will be looking to push policy through that has both Democratic and Republican support.

INTERNAL DIVISIONS

His success, or otherwise, over the first 100 days will set the tone for the rest of his term in office. Here he may be helped by internal divisions that are starting to emerge in the Republican Party (GOP).

Whilst there remain tensions between different wings of the Democrat Party, it is in the GOP where the deepest fissures lie.

The Republicans must now decide the future direction of the party: whether they continue to draw on the populism Trump stirred in its ranks or revert to more traditional Republicanism.

This is a real dilemma for the GOP. On the one hand, the election showed how popular Trump can be at the ballot box, with 70 million people voting for him. On the other, he has left a toxic legacy that has alienated Congressional leaders such as Senator Mitch McConnell and Rep Kevin McCarthy in the House.

Whether Republican Senate support for him holds up in the upcoming second impeachment trial will be critical for the former President’s own political future, but more fundamental for Trumpism may be the withdrawal of corporate financial support from those who were the strongest advocates of overturning the election result.

THE NOT-SO-SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP

As former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill famously observed, “all politics is local” and domestic policy will remain the focus of the Biden Administration.

In his Inauguration Speech, he devoted barely one paragraph to the rest of the world, but Biden knows he has a job to do in restoring US leadership overseas. He has made a start on this by issuing executive order on re-joining the Paris Climate Change agreement and removing the travel ban on Muslim majority countries.

What does that mean for Britain and the “special relationship”? There is no doubt that the relationship between Biden and the British government has been damaged by Brexit, the threatening of the Good Friday Agreement (which rankled Biden’s Irish heritage) and Johnson’s own perceived closeness to Trump. Now that Brexit and the Irish border issue have been seemingly resolved, these tensions have dwindled.

The focus, instead, will be on what unites the two, such as Biden’s support for multi-lateral international organisations like the UN, NATO, and the WHO. They are both supporters of tackling climate change and addressing the COVID-19 crisis.

The UK’s hosting of the UN’s COP Climate Summit in November and the G7 Summit in Cornwall this Summer – likely Biden’s first foreign trip – will be opportunities to cement that relationship early on.

When it comes to trade, however, things are dicier, and a quick UK-US Free Trade Agreement is now just a remote possibility (if it was ever more). This is partly because it is not a top priority for President Biden, but even if it were, there would be major obstacles in getting it through Congress.

Any trade deal must first go through the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Once it has cleared this hurdle, it will need majority support in the House, which is not an easy feat. The US-Mexico-Canada-Agreement, for example, had bipartisan support, but it still took over a year to get through Congress.

My own Congressional sources have told me that they believe the British side is too complacent and put too much faith in the special relationship to get a UK-US deal through. American politicians will take their time and only vote in favour of the deal if it benefits their district or state.

The Agribusiness lobby is extremely powerful in the US, and for the deal to pass, the UK will have to accept US agriculture regulations and standards. As one US Congressman told me “you’re gonna have to get used to chlorinated chicken.”

HOW CAN THE BRITISH INCREASE THEIR INFLUENCE ON THE HILL?

The UK needs to learn how to improve its presence on Capitol Hill. “The British should take a leaf out of the Irish book,” according to one Congressional source.

Irish influence on Capitol Hill is strong. Each St Patrick’s day the Irish lobby organises a luncheon, where members of Congress and Irish officials connect and help strengthen the US-Irish relationship. The Congressional Friends of Ireland Caucus is influential on Capitol Hill, and the head of this bipartisan caucus is Richard Neal, who is also chair of the Ways and Means Committee – a very useful friend.

The UK-US Caucus on the other hand, just saw their chairman retire. Rep. George Holding had a direct input to GOP leadership on the Hill on all matters relating to the UK. His retirement leaves a big hole to fill.

If Johnson wants to improve relations, he needs to act immediately, but that doesn’t mean sending for Nigel Farage. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rather than a showman, what is called for now is quiet diplomacy behind the scenes.

UK officials need to instantly build relations with key members of Democrat and GOP leadership, as well as committee chairman and ranking members, in addition to those directly in the new Biden Administration.

This is vital to retaining our influence in the US, as the “special relationship” no longer looks so special anymore.  

PHOTO Credit to: The Mega Agency

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