World

President Joe Biden’s big policy agenda starts with Covid-19. In first 100 days US to rejoin World Health Organization and Paris Agreement. Donald Trump’s legacy is a Supreme Court with a conservative majority. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Kamala Harris pivotal as Democrats eye the future

Vice-president-elect Kamala Harris speaks at an event in Delaware last week as Joe Biden looks on.
Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The first 100 days

On January 20, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.

On his first day in office, he plans to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, wind back Donald Trump’s corporate income tax cuts, allow 11 million undocumented immigrants to seek citizenship, and end a travel ban that Trump imposed on several Muslim-majority nations.

But his first 100 days – a period that, since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first presidential term in 1933, has been seen as a crucial window for setting a policy agenda – will be largely aimed at addressing the Covid-19 pandemic.

Biden plans to introduce a 100-day national mask mandate on day one, which will apply to planes, trains, buses and federal buildings. He has also committed to distributing 100 million vaccines within his first 100 days, and to extend economic relief and ensure that a majority of schools have reopened. “I’m absolutely convinced that in 100 days we can change the course of the disease and change life in America for the better,” he said in early December.

Biden also plans in that period to again allow admission of refugees, reverse Trump’s measures allowing for discrimination based on sexuality, and reinstate daily White House press briefings.

He will rely on executive orders and other presidential tools to achieve many of his immediate plans. But some measures will require passing legislation through congress, which Biden’s Democrats may not control. The senate’s make-up will depend on two runoff elections being held in Georgia on January 5 – the Democrats must win both to take control of the chamber.

Vice-president Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris is set to become the first female vice-president as well as the first Black and first South Asian–American person to hold the position. She is expected to be an active and influential vice-president.

Biden, who spent eight years as Barack Obama’s vice-president, famously told Obama that, as vice-president, he wanted to be the last person in the room for major decisions. The incoming president says he will now assign the same role to Harris.

“There’s not a single decision I’ve made yet … that I haven’t discussed it with Kamala first,” he said in early December.

Harris is expected to play a significant role in the Covid-19 response, particularly in ensuring relief is provided to vulnerable communities. She is also likely to assist in criminal justice reform, including undoing some of the punitive measures that Biden supported as a senator in the 1980s and 1990s. Harris, too, has been forced to distance herself from some of the harsh positions that she supported as a former San Francisco prosecutor and as California’s attorney-general.

But the other reason Harris will be a prominent figure is that she will be seen as the presumptive next leader of the Democrats. Biden, who is 78 years old, will be the oldest first-term president in American history and may only serve one term. Harris is 56 years old.

Great power rivalry

The US is still the wealthiest country and has the most powerful military, but China is quickly catching up. Ten years ago, the American economy was almost three times the size of China’s; today, it is less than 50 per cent bigger. China is the second-biggest defence spender and now has the world’s largest navy – it already poses a serious challenge to the US military in Asia.

For Biden, China’s ascendancy looms as an overriding policy challenge of his presidency. A consensus has quickly formed in Washington in recent years about the need to treat China as a rival. As a senator, for instance, Biden helped to normalise trade ties with China and declared, during a trip to Shanghai in 2001, that “China is not our enemy”. But, during the presidential campaign, he described Xi Jinping as a “thug” and threatened to impose new economic sanctions in response to China’s national security law imposed on Hong Kong.

However, unlike Trump and some of the more strident anti-China members of the outgoing White House, Biden is not expected to present the rivalry with Beijing as an ideological Cold War-style conflict. Instead, he will look for areas of co-operation, such as in addressing climate change and the pandemic. But efforts to separate the economies will continue, especially since Xi, too, has recently indicated he wants China’s growth to become less dependent on exports.

So the world’s two great powers are likely to keep moving apart. Whether this can be achieved peacefully, and with minimal economic disruption, will now be determined by Xi and Biden.

Trump’s legacy

Biden plans to quickly reverse many of Trump’s policies, particularly in areas such as healthcare, the environment and immigration. But much of Trump’s legacy will be impossible to undo.

Trump, backed by the Republicans, has overhauled the judiciary, appointing hundreds of conservative judges. A recent study found that 85 per cent of Trump-appointed judges up to July 2020 were white and 76 per cent were men, marking an end to 30 years of increasing diversity in the courts. He has also appointed three members of the Supreme Court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority. Trump’s three appointments range in age from 48 to 55; like all Supreme Court justices, they have life tenure. For the coming years, or decades, a conservative-majority court will be able to reshape laws on gun controls, healthcare, electoral procedures, gender equality and abortion.

Trump is also likely to leave a lasting impact on the Republican Party. Despite losing the election in November, he received more than 74 million votes and demonstrated the electoral potential of appealing to a right-wing voter base. He still has the overwhelming support of Republican voters, and Republican politicians largely backed him as he blamed his election loss on voter fraud. After January 20, he may consider launching a new media network or, possibly, preparing for another attempt at the presidency in 2024.

But Trump’s most significant legacy may prove to be the current dire condition of the US. The country has suffered, by far, the highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths. In a tweet on March 10, Trump wrote: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2020 as "Kamala Harris pivotal as Democrats eye the future".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.