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Dunne Speaks: President Biden Takes Office

Joe Biden is now the President of the United States and many people across America and throughout the world will consequently be breathing more easily. But while the erratic, unpredictable and irresponsible years of the Trump Presidency may be over, the damage they inflicted internally and to America's prestige, credibility and influence will not be quickly overcome.

President Biden has nevertheless made a promising start. His early decisions that America will rejoin the Paris Accord on climate change and the World Health Organisation and stop the ban on Muslim immigration will be widely welcomed and seen as an early sign of the new Administration's commitment and decency. Positive as they are, they are however but a small step on America's long road to domestic and international recovery.

The task ahead is enormous. During his term President Trump had managed to alienate virtually all America's allies, from the North and South of the American continents, throughout Europe and across Asia. The new President and his Secretary of State in particular face a massive task rebuilding these fractured, often long-standing relationships. It will take time, tact and patience.

At the domestic level, the situation is no less daunting for the new President and Vice President. The deep divisions and bitterness latent in American society were raised to unprecedented levels by President Trump. Last week's attempted coup and insurrection in Washington DC was the ultimate outrage showing what a flashpoint the tinderbox that now holds American democracy has become.

President Biden's calmer demeanour will be an asset as he sets about the task of trying to bring America together again. But over time his approach will need to be more than just soothing words. Important as they and his non-confrontational approach will be in initially lowering the presently unacceptably high social and political temperatures, they will need to be followed by demonstrable actions to give effect to what the President is seeking.

President Biden has traditionally positioned himself as the "great unifier" and he will need to apply all those skills to his Administration's dealings with the Legislative Branch of government - the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as to the country as a whole.

It may be a little easier in the Senate where the Democrats will rely on the casting vote of the Vice President to progress their agenda, although that is still extremely fragile. However, the House could prove more problematic. While the Democrats have an outright majority there, it is not large. Moreover, the next election for the House is just two years away, and Presidents frequently suffer an electoral backlash then.

The new Administration will be keen to minimise that risk, so the relationship between the White House and House Speaker will need to be close and tight. This may be a source of tension as Nancy Pelosi, while a very effective politician, can also be a polarising figure. During the Trump Administration she was frequently more akin to the leader of the opposition as we would know it, but now needs to play a more constructive role to help the President pursue his agenda. Their working relationship is likely to be critical to the new Administration’s success or failure.

At the same time, some Democrat members of the House may become frustrated that President Biden’s agenda is unlikely to be as radical as they would wish to pursue now they control all three branches of government. Mollifying these frustrations will require much skilful negotiation between the White House and the House leadership to ensure that the Democrats can remain a unified force and make progress on the President’s objectives.

A critical early issue for the new Administration will be how it handles the latest impeachment of President Trump. So far, this matter has been pursued by the House following the storming of the Capitol and President Trump’s egregious apparent inciting of the protestors. Even though the grounds of impeachment this time look far more substantial than the earlier effort a few months ago, there is no guarantee it will succeed, as it will require just over a third of Republican Senators joining every Democrat Senator in voting for conviction for it to succeed. Moreover, in pursuing it the Democrats need to be careful that it does not look more like an act of political vengeance against a defeated President than the holding to account of President who incited an insurrection.

At the same time President Biden will be well aware that if the Senate impeachment attempt fails, President Trump is certain to claim his acquittal as not just a victory on the particular charges, but also a vindication of all his claims that the election was stolen from him by vote-rigging Democrats. It could give an early breath of life to any nascent new political vehicle he is considering. Of course, four years is a long time, and right now the proposition that President Trump is capable of winning the next Presidential election in 2024 would be dismissed as outrageously preposterous. But stranger things have happened. After all, no-one took the idea of his winning the 2016 election seriously until just shortly before it happened.

The Democrats control the agenda of when the impeachment will proceed. It would be no surprise if President Biden’s legendary ability when a Senator and as Vice President to work “across the aisle” comes into play here. There will be many Republicans keen to see the back of President Trump for good, who might be persuadable to support an impeachment conviction, in return for some other policy trade-offs. At the same time, there are still many Republicans in the Senate and the House too scared of, or in the thrall of Mr Trump to risk opposing him lest they incur his wrath when they next come up for re-election.

As far as New Zealand is concerned, there are unlikely to be too many changes in our relationship with the United States under the new Administration. One possible area relates to China. As its relationship with China deteriorated, the Trump Administration was placing considerable pressure on allies and friends to make a choice between the two, something that would have become increasingly difficult for New Zealand, giving our mounting reliance on China for trade and economic reasons. President Biden is likely to take a far more diplomatic approach, so relieving a little of the pressure on New Zealand in this regard.

Of course, the new President’s immediate focus will be on curbing the spread of the Covid19 virus, which has already killed over 400,000 Americans. With the pandemic still rife in America, and our borders closed for the foreseeable future, the chances of the President sitting down in the White House with our Prime Minister any time soon to discuss these matters look remote.

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