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The Biden Paranthesis Opens

The Biden Paranthesis Opens

Friday, 18 December, 2020 - 07:00
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

With the Electoral College confirming Joe Biden as the winner of last month’s election, it is almost certain he will be confirmed as the next president of the United States on 6 January.

And, unless something surrealistic happens, he would take the oath of office on 20 January.

What might a Biden presidency look like?

Given the peculiarities of American democracy, such speculation amounts to giving a hostage to fortune. Presidents predicted to lead the nation into disaster turned out to have the safest pairs of hands. Those who inspired romantic dreams dropped into banality as Icarus did when his wings melted.

Some observers believe that Biden’s administration will be a third term for former President Barack Obama. Biden was Obama’s Vice President for eight years and a large number of people he has picked in his team are Obama alumni.

I think they are wrong.

Biden’s team is Obamaesque on a personnel level. But I doubt it will be Obamaesque in policy. The same troupe could play Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet.

Lyndon Johnson inherited John Kennedy’s presidency with the same personnel but turned out to be a different operator. Obama was exceptional insofar as he had little political experience before entering the White House. As a “community organizer” he believed that things get done by making speeches. In his brief tenure as senator, he was often absent and did almost nothing as a legislator. As president, he thought things get done by fiat and problems solved by dodging them.

With the bulk of his career covered by legislative experience, Biden is a different politician. He knows that claiming to “make oceans recede” as Obama did is silly. He also knows that in American politics every issue could trigger what George Shultz called “a battle royal”, and that nothing is ever settled “once and for all” as Obama said about his plan to solve the Arab-Israeli problem.

Also, the current situation in the country is different from what it was when Obama stood for election. At the time many Americans went for Obama as an indulgence, some in atonement of real or imagined guilt inherited from forefathers, others in the hope of nudging the nation towards the left.

At the time Obama was the inspiring candidate and John McCain the boring one. This time, the challenger was the boring one. As Mark Ash, a leading member of the Progressive wing of the Democrat Party says: “The 2020 campaign was a weird one... The winner was not inspiring at all and the loser was arguably one of the most inspiring in American history. It was Trump, not Biden, who drove record voter turnout, among Republicans and Democrats alike. You were either inspired to vote Trump in or inspired to vote Trump out; Trump was absolutely the defining figure.”

However, whatever Ash might say, I think, in a democracy, being boring could be an advantage. Wasn’t Clement Attlee a boring man in the British political circus? And wasn’t George Pompidou the greyest of the grey in French politics? Didn’t Aristotle say that the best leaders in a democracy are “average citizens”? And didn’t Confucius warn against “colorful men”, even in despotic China?

Obama was elected because he was Obama; Biden won because he was not Trump.

Some observers claim that the Biden administration is going to fail because it is mostly made up of Robins, that is to say, sidekicks, rather than Batman figures. But underestimating number-twos is often as wrong in politics as it is in business. The first campaign of Xerxes to annex Greece succeeded thanks to Mardonius, the second-in-command. In Waterloo, the Marquis of Anglesey did the heavy lifting but Wellington took the credit.

Although many were number-two or even three in previous administrations, Biden’s team brings forth a wealth of experience that could restore the state discipline shaken under Trump. Biden has put the most controversial members of the Obama administration into isolated slots.

The useless John Kerry will do his uselessness as coordinator for fictive environmental endeavors. Susan Rice, who tried to become Secretary of State, is given something called “domestic coordinator” which, one presumes, does not mean dealing with federal janitors. Hillary Clinton who coveted the Pentagon will continue chewing her chagrin.

Biden has also refused to bring so-called Progressists to the high table. Elisabeth Warren campaigned to get the Treasury while Bernie Sanders asked to become Labor Secretary.

Last week Biden called in “civil rights” leaders and gave them a dressing down with the claim that their extremism, channeled through such outfits as Black Lives Matter, and the campaign to defund the police, prevented him from “crushing Trump” with a landslide victory. “Progressists” were blamed for the fact that Trump doubled his votes among Afro-Americans and Hispanics.

If Ronald Reagan’s motto was “campaign in poetry and govern in prose”, Biden seems to have opted for prose all along. This is why the platform he offered was even blander than the one marketed by Mitt Romney in 2008.

Despite pressure from “Progressists” Biden has managed not to commit himself to reeling back all that Trump has done.

He is not going to make the US dependent on imported energy when oil-exporting areas including the Middle East, the Caspian Basin and Venezuela remain unstable. Efforts to clip China’s wings will continue, perhaps even intensify if only because Hunter Biden’s suspicious deals with Chinese businesses are certain to haunt Biden’s presidency.

Nor is Biden likely to reel-back the campaign to persuade Arab states to normalize with Israel while no one thinks he would relocate the US Embassy away from Jerusalem.

On relations with the Islamic Republic in Iran, Biden holds the strong card of sanctions devised under Obama and applied under Trump. Obama offered only carrots and failed. Trump offered only stick and didn’t achieve his aim of a photo-op with the top mullah, Ali Khamenei, or even Hassan Rouhani. Biden is in a stronger position than Obama or Trump because the Khomeinist regime is weaker than four years ago.

Adopting the Paris Climate Accord is also not easy. Last week, signatories cheekily admitted they had not implemented it. Biden cannot do more than submitting to the Senate where it is likely to be rejected in its present form.

Even if Republicans lose the seats still to be contested in Georgia, Biden won’t have the Senate majority he needs. His own Democrat camp is divided into “Progressists” and conservatives who could outflank him from left or right. In 2022 a third of the Senate, this time concerning more Democrat senators than Republicans, will be up for re-election. By then, the country will once again gear up for the next presidential election. The question could be: Will Biden stand and will he find Trump as a rival again?

Many Americans hope that Trump’s tenure will prove to be a mere parenthesis. They don’t know that Biden’s term will also be a parenthesis. In fact, all American presidential terms are quickly closing brackets. What is permanent is American democracy that keeps the ship of state steady even in the biggest storms.

Well, we started with prose, ending up with poetry. Not a good sign!

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