What To Expect From Joe Biden

What To Expect From Joe Biden


The pageantry of the inauguration is done. Now it’s time for America’s new man in charge to get down to business. SLMan asked George Morris Seers of FTI Consulting and ex-UK government adviser Jason Stein what to expect from the 46th – and oldest – US president…

What did last week’s inauguration speech tell us?
George: Biden used the speech to offer hope and to argue, at times forcefully, that the nation must be united in facing the challenges ahead – that it has to move past its current “uncivil war”. At times, the speech seemed a direct rebuttal to his predecessor’s administration, although he did not mention Donald Trump by name. A central theme was a firm commitment to democracy, a return to presidential norms and a focus on bridging party divisions – something Biden will have to strive hard for if he is to receive bipartisan support with his policy agenda in Congress. In fact, the word “unity” was used eight times in the address, a sign of his promise to build on the bonds that Americans share and overcome the issues that divide them.

Has Donald Trump’s behaviour around the inauguration made things more difficult for his successor?
George: Despite Trump’s best efforts at frustrating the handover and making baseless claims of electoral fraud, the smooth transfer of power from one administration to another is an indication that American democracy is alive and kicking, despite the unpleasant events of a few weeks ago.

Jason: It does clarify for Biden’s team that “unity” does not exist right now. A decent chunk of American society simply does not acknowledge Biden as their president.

What happens now with Trump’s impeachment?
George: Trump is leaving office with an impeachment trial and a host of other legal problems on the horizon — not exactly the ideal re-entry into post-presidency life. The impeachment trial will ensure that Trump, and his role in inciting the January 6th attack on the Capitol, remains in the headlines for months to come. The next step is for the Senate to hold a trial. If two-thirds of senators present vote to convict Trump, he would be the first president or former president to be convicted by the Senate. A conviction would trigger a second vote in which a simple majority in the Senate could permanently disqualify Trump from holding public office in the United States.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, has not said when she will send the article of impeachment to the Senate for trial. Last time, Ms Pelosi waited almost a month to hand over the articles. The White House has said the president will allow Congress to determine how to proceed with the trial, suggesting Biden will not be taking a position on his predecessor’s future. This is most likely because Biden wants to separate his image from Trump and will be seeking to avoid any conflict that could overshadow his legislative agenda.

Jason: At the time of speaking, it looks like the Senate will push forward with a trial. The question here is not one of right or wrong, but of maths. Are there 17 Republican Senators out there who think it is electorally advantageous to them to impeach Trump? If they do, he will be impeached, but 17 still feels quite high to me.

"A decent chunk of American society simply does not acknowledge Biden as their president."
- Jason Stein

Is Trump likely to face any further fallout from his time as president?
George: Trump is leaving Washington DC in greater legal jeopardy than when he arrived. Despite his assertion that he possesses the “absolute right to PARDON” himself, he buckled. When he delivered dozens of late-night pardons with just hours to go in the job, his name and those of his family members were not on the list. His legal advisors cautioned him against this move, warning it would be ineffective and could make his life even more difficult by making him look guilty. It's previously been accepted that former presidents are immune from prosecution to guard against the criminalisation of politics, but there is an ever-lengthening string of potential charges mounting up against Trump. Allegations range from sexual misconduct, using his office for profit, falsifying business records, pressurising officials to ‘find’ more votes, and obstruction of justice. Now, as a private citizen and a defendant in a number of civil lawsuits, Trump may be compelled to provide evidence in a number of cases that will keep his name in the limelight for months and possibly years to come.

Jason: Trump has very successfully dodged plenty of legal bullets. My sense is he will keep his head above any serious trouble!

Trump aside then, what do we know about the new man’s priorities?
George: The ‘return to normalcy’ was a core theme first articulated by Biden at his campaign launch in May 2019, then continuing through the November election. Now it’s been applied to his approach to staffing, and will ultimately be reflected in his policy agenda. Biden's first cabinet as US president is potentially the most diverse ever: half of his nominees for Cabinet and Cabinet-level positions are people of colour. If his picks are approved by the Senate, America could soon see its first Native American cabinet secretary; first female national intelligence director; first Latino homeland security chief; first openly gay cabinet member and more.

Jason: Biden’s nominees are refreshingly ‘normal’. They show his priority is delivering results, not just wholly rewarding party factions.

What are the most pressing policy issues he faces?
George: Biden has wasted no time in rolling out his agenda. On day one, he took the US back into the Paris Climate Accord and World Health Organisation, reversed the travel bans on citizens of a number of Muslim-majority countries, halted the construction of the US-Mexico border wall, revoked the permit for a major oil pipeline, mandated mask wearing in federal buildings and signed another nine executive orders. Quite a first day in office.

Over the first 100 days, expect him to emphasise four areas: tackling the Covid-19 pandemic; rebuilding a shattered economy with a focus on a green recovery; attempting to unify and heal the fractured social fabric of the country; and reasserting American leadership on the global stage.

Does he face any hurdles as tries to deliver in those areas?
George: There are challenges that lie outside of Biden’s control. His administration will be dependent on a fractious Congress to authorise funding for both its vaccine distribution and economic stimulus plans. Biden has urged lawmakers to act quickly to pass a version of the $1.9 trillion relief package he proposed on January 14th, but it is not yet clear how much Republican support he can muster. Even with narrow Democratic control of both chambers, the pace of the negotiations may be slowed by the Senate’s impeachment trial of Trump.


How important was it for the Democrats to win the Georgia runoffs earlier this month?
George: Winning both Georgia Senate elections was critical for Biden, as it has a significant impact on his ability to govern and advance his agenda in Congress. Now there’s a 50:50 split of Democratic and Republican senators, which means vice-president Kamala Harris will have a tie-breaking vote, thus giving the Democrats the Senate majority. This will enable legislation and appointments to move forward that would perhaps be stymied if Republicans held the majority, and Biden can likely rely a bit less on executive orders.

Jason: Those extra two seats in Georgia certainly make the task of confirming a Cabinet much easier, but long term it’s not quite a slam dunk because the diversity of the Democrats means the White House cannot be sure of getting all 50 Democrat votes for every policy it puts forward.

Do we know yet what Biden’s own big initiatives will be?
George: I think Biden’s inauguration speech reflected the reality that he enters office with his top priorities already determined for him. His government will be responsible for distributing the coronavirus vaccine in an efficient and equitable way. After that, he will have to focus on the societal and economic disruptions caused by the pandemic. The virus has exacerbated income inequality and pushed many households to the brink of economic ruin. It's devastated the travel and hospitality industries, and placed enormous strain on the finances of state and local governments. His pledge to seek unity will be tested early, as he pushes a sharply divided Congress to pass another massive round of pandemic stimulus aid. If he wants to enact it quickly, he will need Republican support in the Senate, and already there are signs that some on the right may be lining up to oppose more spending.

Beyond that, he has said he wants to improve healthcare in the US, address growing college debt, make new investments in infrastructure and tackle climate change. He’s also pledged to push immigration reform legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants – a political lightning rod that helped fuel Trump's first presidential run. What he prioritises, and how successful his first efforts are, could determine the overall success of his administration. To make lasting change – i.e. policies that can't be undone by future presidents – he will have to work with Congress, and that’s no easy feat.

Is Biden good news for the UK?
George: I am of the opinion that Biden is good news for the UK and that the special relationship could bloom over the coming years. There are many who will point to Biden labelling Boris Johnson a “kind of a physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump and his distaste for Brexit, but his senatorial record and presidential campaign show him to be a pragmatist. While the signs don’t point to a particularly close relationship between Biden and Johnson, in the vein of say Thatcher and Reagan or Blair and Bush, the need for US-UK collaboration on security issues, climate change, containing an increasingly bold China and the maintenance of deep and broad business interests will prevail.

Jason: The relationship between the UK and the US will always be close – our security is so closely intertwined. I think Biden is tremendous news for the UK because on nearly all the major international issues our countries are aligned. President Biden is clearly very energised by climate change and the UK hosting the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November is only a good thing. As for a trade deal, it’s still hard to see it being concluded swiftly. Liz Truss and the government here are working hard, but the issue of agriculture is a thorny one.

How optimistic are you that Biden will be a successful president?
Jason: It takes decades for any president to be truly judged. Right now, the bar is extremely low for Biden. If this time next year he has vaccinated a large percentage of the US population and therefore started an economic recovery, that will be a job well done. After Covid he will look to score some more runs.

George: I’m cautiously optimistic. He starts his presidential journey with an enormous quantity of goodwill as audiences, both domestic and foreign, look to him to restore the traditional virtues of the presidential office, begin the long process of healing a fractured domestic society and repair America’s dented reputation on the international stage. Biden’s team are acutely aware of the need to hit the ground running and not squander the momentum and goodwill gained from what in the end was a convincing electoral victory.

"I think Biden is tremendous news for the UK because on nearly all the major international issues our countries are aligned."
- Jason Stein

What do the next four years look like for Kamala Harris?
George: Kamala Harris being sworn in as vice-president is a watershed moment in US politics. As the first woman to hold the post and because she holds that casting vote in the Senate, she’s likely to have a larger profile than most VPs. It will be interesting to see how she intervenes on issues of race, particularly criminal justice reform, and how she builds a record on the economy – the two issues at the heart of contemporary American politics.

Even now, Harris’s portfolio remains unclear. Biden’s rhetoric during the campaign indicated that he wanted Harris to offer what he offered Obama as VP: a friendship in which the VP is the ‘last voice in the room’ on decisions. However, that dynamic will not be perfectly replicated. Biden had spent decades in the Senate at that point, while Harris was in her first term when she ran unsuccessfully for president and was then selected as Biden’s running mate. Given it’s unlikely Biden will seek to serve two terms, Harris will have to navigate a tricky path of being a committed VP to the Biden administration – with a policy agenda that is slightly more centrist than she would like – while building her own personal brand as she looks to run in 2024.

Jason: She will need to carve out a policy area for herself and own it. Whether that’s racial inclusion, crime or foreign policy, she will need to make sure something is hers and hers alone.

Finally then, who are the most likely candidates for 2024?
George: That’s a notoriously hard question to answer. When Obama’s second term began in 2012, nobody would have had Donald Trump as a realistic candidate let alone the eventual victor in 2016. Right now, the Republican party is scrambling to decide where its future lies in terms of leadership as well as ideology. Potential candidates include Trump’s VP Mike Pence; former secretary of state Mike Pompeo; ex-US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley; and Arkansas senator Tom Cotton. There is also the unlikely but not impossible return of one of Trump’s children, be that Ivanka or Donald Jr.

There are reports suggesting Trump Sr is thinking about creating a new splinter party, the Patriot Party. If he followed through with this, and it was successful in drawing traditional conservative voters, this could be potentially damaging for the Republican Party in 2024. However, there is often a big difference between what Trump says and what he ends up doing.

Jason: On the Democratic side, I actually would be surprised if Biden doesn’t run for a second term. Power is hard to give up. Meanwhile, Trump is going to continue to make a lot of noise, but he’s unlikely to be disciplined enough to run a four-year campaign to return him to the White House. I’m sure he will start some sort of media company. The danger for Trump is that he descends into even more conspiracy theories and drifts further and further away from mainstream society. I think interest in him will wane a bit more quickly than people currently expect and he will be a smaller factor than many think. He may run as an independent, but this would not lead to his re-election.

George: The most immediate concern for the Republicans in terms of elections will actually be the midterm elections in 2022. While they typically have a lower voter turnout than presidential elections, the midterms are important because the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate is up for grabs. The Democrats’ majority in the House of Representatives was weakened in the 2020 election, so Republicans will have their sights on continuing this trend and flipping the House – and potentially the Senate – next year. If they were successful, they would eliminate Biden’s hold on Congress and make it harder for him to roll out his agenda. Accordingly, I would expect to see Biden and the Democrats pushing forward their priorities in the first two years of his term, as progress could be stymied in the near future.


Jason Stein is a director at global strategic communications and public affairs consultancy Finsbury Glover Hering. George Morris Seers is director of strategic communications and public affairs at FTI Consulting.

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