Ben Roback: When the southern border opens, trouble will brew for Biden and Harris

14 Jul

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

President Biden knows, just like his Democratic predecessors, that the immigration problem on the southern border is hard to solve. It almost certainly explains why he put Kamala Harris, the Vice President, in direct charge of the border, with one eye on re-election in 2024 and the possibility that his main Democratic challenger could be Harris herself. It is the most poisoned of chalices.

On this site before, I have written about whether controlling the influx at the border really matters to this administration. We are about to find out. The southern border is expected to reopen in a phased manner in the coming weeks.

While the thousands of miles that separate the USA and Mexico are often thought of as route to freedom for immigrants, it is also a critical trade artery linking two interconnected economies. The economic need to reopen the border has to be counterbalanced with concerns about security.

White House allies are worried that neither Biden nor Harris are ready for the logistical and humanitarian impact of opening the border. Politically, the real concern is the impact and optics of tens of thousands of migrants surging towards the border and claiming a right to live and work in the United States.

Currently and until restrictions change, the United States is limiting land border crossings from Mexico and Canada to “essential travel”. The list of what constitutes “essential” is not short, but what is clear is a shared desire to limit border crossings as much as possible over ongoing Covid concerns.

Restrictions are slated to remain in effect until 23:59 on July 21. Without an extension, legal land crossing for work and recreation will resume. Like night follows day, what will also resume is the attempted illegal border crossings that take place every year.

It is hardly a shock that the Biden administration will take a softer approach to immigration on the southern border compared to Donald Trump. Law and order, immigration control and border enforcement has been a Republican talking point and policy platform for decades. Democrats have tried harder to strike a balance between border control and creating a path to citizenship for children of immigrants.

The Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Since that date, DACA has allowed more than 800,000 immigrant youth who came to the United States as children to temporarily remain in the USA, get an education and pursue gainful employment.

On June 15 this year – “DACA Day” – Biden gave a speech continuing his support for deferred citizenship. The House of Representatives passed the American Dream and Promise Act in March, and a draft U.S. Citizenship Act creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals in the USA, including Dreamers.

Are Democrats walking into a Republican trap?

Democrats want to create a legal pathway to citizenship for child immigrants. The progressive left is especially passionate about this cause and wants Biden and Harris to soften their tone on migrant caravans travelling through central America and arriving at the border.

Republicans wants to solidify the southern border and protect existing communities. Building new and enforcing existing border fencing was a top priority of Trump on the campaign trail and when president. It remains a central issue for the GOP.

With the mid-term elections next year and a presidential election in 2024, Republicans sense White House weakness and a political opportunity.

At this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, Trump gave a vintage Trump speech. Among a long list of familiar gripes – stolen election, big tech, cancel culture – and some unfamiliar talking points – magnets, steam engines, toothbrushes – were repeated mentions of the “border”. Twenty three of them to be precise.

This matters because of how structurally central Trump is to the Republican Party. Trump comfortably outpolled the field in a straw poll at CPAC, with 70 per cent favouring him to run for the presidency in 2024. Trump’s approval rating amongst CPAC attendees was 98 per cent. Where he goes, others will follow.

Use the 45th president’s CPAC speech to better understand the themes on which Republicans want to fight the midterms and 2024 presidential election:

With the help of everyone here today, we will defeat the radical left, the socialists, Marxists, and the critical race theorists. Whoever thought would be even using that term. We will secure our borders. We will stop left wing cancel culture. We will restore free speech and fair elections, and we will make America great again. It’s very simple. Very simple.

Even if this White House take a gradual and phased approach to the border, the thorniest issues will persist. The ultimate dilemma is whether to hold immigrants in detention centres or release them as they await their court proceedings. The former results in a policy that progressives consider unacceptably inhumane and positively Trumpian. The latter can create a backlog which can take years to clear.

The Biden administration would do well to listen to voters, as well as its members

Biden is working hard to keep his Congressmen and Senators on side. With the Senate split 50-50, history dictates that the Democrats will lose their de facto majority in next year’s midterms. With that, the White House will lose the ability to get legislation approved in a simple up-and-down vote. So, keeping the caucus happy matters now more than ever.

A new poll by the National Republican Senate Committee and the Republican Governors Association showed 53 per cent of voters say they are less likely to support Democrats for Congress because of the increase in migrants at the border.

Can Biden keep his party happy while ensuring he does not gift political mileage on a favourite issue of his likely opponent in 2024, Trump? We will find out soon.

Ben Roback: If not Trump, then who will be the next presidential candidate for the Republican Party?

30 Jun

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

It is hard to think of the Republican Party without Donald Trump, such is his grip on the GOP. This is despite a clear culling of his reach of late. Banned by every mainstream social media platform and without even his own website to use as a blog – “From The Desk of Donald J Trump” flopped on launch – the 44th president has no form of direct communication with his supporters.

He has therefore made an eager return to the campaign trail, where big tech can’t “cancel” him. Speaking in front of a crowd of thousands in a small town in Ohio, a key swing state, Trump left the door wide open to running again: “We won the election twice,” he told supporters. “We may have to win it a third time.”

Obsessed with the size of his crowds since that infamous inauguration speech, Trump’s ability to draw numbers remains a useful measure of his support in the Republican Party. It is a bellwether, but not a science. Labour activists presumed Jeremy Corbyn would lead his party to victory in 2019 purely because he was adored at Glastonbury.

A presidential run by Trump in 2024 looks somewhere between obvious and entirely inevitable. Backroom operator does not suit Trump, whose obsession with attention means that it would not be enough to be the GOP kingmaker and have presidential hopefuls walk the gilded halls of Mar-A-Lago to kiss the ring.

Trump is still the Republican Party base’s favourite to run and win in 2024. If you follow the money, he is also the favourite with bookmakers. Having resumed in-person rallies in front of adoring crowds, and with a familiar script appearing that centres around a corrupt election, cancel culture and porous borders, the Trump 2024 campaign looks well underway.

Democrats hope to lay speed bumps on the road to the White House. Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues on Capitol Hill recognise that they have a political opportunity to use the riot at the Capitol on January 6 as a political tool against Trump. It is copied from the playbook deployed by Republicans who set up the Benghazi special inquiry that dogged Hillary Clinton in 2018.

Only 30 per cent of GOP voters blame Trump for the insurrection compared to 61 per cent of the wider population and Republicans argue that in order to “heal” the nation needs to move on from the attack on the Capitol.

Trump remains the darling of the GOP, but what about the others?

Nikki Haley

Haley boasts both an incredibly impressive CV and, crucially, worked for Trump in the White House but left the administration on good terms with her boss. While so many presidential appointments inevitably fell out with Trump and left in either embarrassment or disgrace, Haley resigned her post as US Ambassador to the UN popular with the president and his supporters. The former South Carolina Governor recently hosted Jared and Ivanka Trump at her home in Kiawah Island, signalling a desire to keep “the family” on side.

Notwithstanding the above, she has work to do to regain popularity with the Trump base. Having sided with Trump throughout his presidency, Haley pulled no punches in criticising his actions leading up the Capitol Hill riot in January. As a candidate, she will push her credentials and experience at the UN to further Trump’s “America First” mantra on the world stage. With a compelling background story that embodies the kind of diversity that the modern GOP lacks, in many respects she is the more developed and acceptable face of the Trump-wing of the Republican Party.

Mike Pompeo

The former Secretary of State will, like Haley, use his international experience as a springboard for greater ambitions. Pompeo lacks serious domestic political or policy experience to complement his track record abroad having only spent six years in the House of Representatives as a Congressman from Kansas.

Pompeo has effectively been running for the GOP nomination for months already. When it comes to fundraising and establishing a presence in the early-voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa, a head start is no bad thing. Pompeo left the CIA and then State Department having struggled to balance his deference and loyalty to Trump with the fact that his boss routinely turned against the US diplomatic and intelligence community.

Taken seriously in Republican circles, Pompeo lacks credibility beyond the core. If Trump runs in 2024, there would be few compelling reasons for the party to back Pompeo, a Trump-lite candidate without the showmanship or killer instinct.

Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis, the Florida Governor, is probably the most interesting Republican politician in the United States right now. He bucked the trend and rushed to open bars, barbers and businesses in his state when most other Governors were keeping the doors closed. As a result, he personified what “freedom” means in the context of the pandemic and Republicans elsewhere soon followed suit.

His willingness to engage in culture wars infuriates the Left and galvanises the Right. DeSantis has mandated patriotic education in schools and banned teaching critical race theory. DeSantis has ingratiated himself with the Trump base while remaining deeply loyal. When pressed about his own presidential ambitions, he is quick to back the former president, should Trump run. That had been reflected in the polling of Republicans, where Trump had consistently been the front-runner with DeSantis lagging in second.

At February’s Conservative Political Action (CPAC) conference, the biggest annual gathering of conservative activists and leaders, Trump was out front on 55 per cent with DeSantis second on 22 per cent. Not so anymore. In a straw poll of attendees at the Western Conservative Summit in Colorado last weekend, DeSantis edged Trump by three points with a slightly higher approval rating of 74 to 71 per cent.

A Trump-less GOP?

Thinking about a Trump-less Republican Party seems premature and perhaps moot given the former president’s busy schedule of interviews and rallies. The non-Trump candidates like DeSantis, Haley and Pompeo know they can only win the GOP nomination if Trump decides not to run. If he does, the best they can hope for is to balance the ticket as the vice-presidential nominee. If so, Haley and DeSantis are best placed given their home states of South Carolina and Florida respectively carry critical electoral college votes.

What odds then of Trump not running and opening the path to the also-rans of the GOP? Few have made money betting against Trump’s popularity in the Republican Party. If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prove unpopular and struggle to propel the US economy into recovery after the pandemic, while the crisis on the southern border gets worse in parallel, Trump will almost certainly consider the opportunity too good to pass up.

Ben Roback: Biden and the Northern Ireland Protocol. A strategic international imperative, or purely a domestic trade issue?

16 Jun

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris entered the White House with one clear goal in mind: defeating Covid-19. Fifty two per cent of Americans have now received at least one vaccine dose, meaning that they are inching ever closer to their target.

But after four years of wandering in the wilderness in which Donald Trump preferred Vladimir Putin to some democratic leaders, America’s challenges extend far beyond its own shores.

Biden arrived at the G7 in Carbis Bay last week on his first international trip since taking office. Just as Boris Johnson was the first world leader to speak to the President after he entered the Oval Office, so Downing Street and the Foreign Office will have been delighted with Biden leaving the Unites States for the first time and landing in the UK. In international relations, such symbolism matters.

The President’s main message in Cornwall was clear: America is back. Drapig his arms around the shoulders of fellow G7 leaders typified the bonhomie of the summit. Johnson and Biden laughed together and walked in lockstep. The two first ladies strolled along the beach. It was a world away from the 2018 G7 in Quebec – when the US delegation left the summit before the final communiqué was signed.

Beyond the symbolic change in tone, Biden has made it clear that foreign affairs will not be a top priority for his administration. Whilst paying lip service to a return to the post-World War Two world order matters, the new administration wants to get its own house in order first.

On international trade, Biden said, when President-elect: “I’m not going to enter any new trade agreement with anybody until we have made major investments here at home and in our workers and in education”.

After Trump made NAFTA a central pillar of his campaign and presidency – bad trade deal, companies shipping jobs and profits abroad, big firms not paying taxes – and then successfully renegotiated and rebranded the agreement, trade policy has become deeply partisan in US politics. The President wants to keep out of that fight for now, preferring the mantra that trade and investment begins at home.

That leaves plenty of scope for the long list of Biden’s other international concerns and challenges. Fresh from the G7, he will meet Vladimir Putin in Geneva. It is the latest display of high-risk US-Russia summitry, in which neither side appears willing or interested in thawing icy bilateral relations.

Then there is the rising threat of China, a spotlight having been freshly shone on its human rights abuses at the G7. The final communiqué urged Beijing to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms”, citing abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority group and the crackdown on Hong Kong pro-democracy activists. In the Middle East, tensions have thankfully thawed for now, but the White House remains cautious of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

That shortlist merely scratches the surface of international issues capable of keeping this internationalist President awake at night.

Resolving such issues as the Northern Ireland protocol is either an imperative in international affairs or a purely domestic trade concern, depending on your political proclivity. But amongst a litany of concerns, maintaining political stability and peace in Northern Ireland appears near the very top of Biden’s international priority list.

The G7 provided ample proof. Laying the ground for the President’s arrival, a meeting between the US Charge d’affaires, Yael Lempert (America’s most senior diplomat in London) and Lord Frost led to a diplomatic démarche. In effect, the US formally reprimanded the UK over its row with the European Union over the Northern Ireland protocol.

The island of Ireland has always played an outsized role in domestic US politics owing to the Irish ancestry of around ten per cent of the American population. This President has a particular bond with Ireland given his own Irish heritage, and it was no coincidence that he was in Dublin the day after the EU referendum in 2016, where he expressed his displeasure with the outcome.  Biden will therefore inevitably take a keen interest in the impact of Brexit on Ireland and Northern Ireland, despite a myriad of international affairs issues that should arguably occupy his mind more.

Congressional Democrats have previously insisted that a US-UK Free Trade Agreement be directly linked to the status of Northern Ireland and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement. The GFA can, after all, be counted as one of the major foreign policy successes of Bill Clinton’s administration. In his state of the union address in 1999, Clinton said: “All Americans can be proud that our leadership helped to bring peace in Northern Ireland”.

But nonetheless, Lempert has apparently said that rhe current disagreement over the Northern Ireland Protocol “wouldn’t negatively affect the chances of reaching a US/UK free trade deal.”

So the relevance of the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Biden administration depends on your world view. If its importance relates to the protection of the GFA and peace on the Irish border, then the objection of the White House is understandable. But, in its simplest form, the issue should not be escalated beyond a trade dispute between two parties – on which basis, Washington has already abandoned the playing field, having stated that trade policy begins at home.

Ben Roback: The Wuhan lab-leak theory. Does the world owe Trump an apology?

2 Jun

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

After courting President Xi over golf and dessert, Donald Trump made being a China hawk an accepted norm of his presidency. You can watch three minutes of Trump saying “China” in idiosyncratically Trumpian fashion on YouTube, with clips that long pre-date his time in the White House. For Trump the businessman, China was an opportunity. As a politician it became more of a threat.

It was therefore no surprise when Trump identified China as a scapegoat and began to blame the source of the Covid-19 outbreak on the Chinese state.

The theory goes that the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China. It deserves investigation and should not be dismissed out of hand. A previously undisclosed US intelligence report revealed that three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care.

The next month, cases of pneumonia were detected in Wuhan and first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). In January, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission announced the first death caused by the “novel coronavirus”. One of the final acts of the Trump administration in January was to release a State Department fact sheet on “Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology“. It was ultimately inconclusive in its recommendation:

The US government does not know exactly where, when, or how the Covid-19 virus – known as SARS-CoV-2 – was transmitted initially to humans. We have not determined whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Instead, it called heavily on the need for a true and thorough investigation into the source of the outbreak – something the Chinese state continues to block with full force, proving the desperate lack of power held within the WHO.

A Trump theory goes mainstream

Most things Trump said during his presidency became intensely politicised and an immediate anathema to Democrats and never-Trump Republicans. If the president said it, it was unconscionable for a Sen. Mitt Romney or Sen. Chuck Schumer. Could that change?

“In recent months, our nation and the world has been hit by the once-in-a-century pandemic that China allowed to spread around the globe,” Trump said at his speech accepting the GOP nomination in August 2020.

The Wuhan lab theory was seized on by Trump allies and acolytes on political talk shows. The “China virus” effectively became a Republican talking point (and with it, anti-Asian discrimination rose in the United States). That took the non-political, science-led impetus away from the theory.

Democrats and the functions of the US Government are coming round to the idea. Closer to home, in an interview with Canadian news, even Boris Johnson said he had an “open mind” about the origin of the virus.

Joe Biden would do well to differentiate between Trump’s – plausible but hitherto unproven – claim that Covid-19 was an intentional weapon distributed by the Chinese government.

One step back from that position, there is a clear and pressing need for a thorough investigation into the source of the outbreak to take place. The Chinese government, for all its smoke and mirrors, should not be allowed to eternally defy the United Nations and World Health Organization. It makes a mockery of global institutions like the UN and WHO if they cannot dilute disagreements in international relations and investigate matters of global significance like this.

The signs are beginning to emerge that the Biden presidency is taking the Wuhan theory seriously. Last week, President Biden ordered intelligence officials to “redouble” efforts to investigate the origins of Covid-19.

A report is expected on the president’s desk within 90 days. We will know in the autumn whether Trump will have been proven right, although his credibility when it comes to intelligence reports was diminished owing to several acts of self-sabotage having chosen to politicise reports and go against the US intelligence community.

This all proves that the Wuhan theory has now moved significantly in US political discourse. It was once a talking point for Republicans and Trump sycophants on Fox News, at CPAC and in the gilded halls of Mar-a-Lago. No Republican ever lost friends or votes blaming the pandemic on China.

A favoured stump speech topic of the likes of Trump, Mike Pompeo and Tom Cotton has now found its way firmly into the mainstream. In less than 90 days’ time, Trump could be vindicated. The “full investigation” sought by the US government seems inevitably impossible. Chinese state obstructionism will continue unchallenged. It will place an ongoing strain on US-China relations for years to come.

Ben Roback: Peace in the Middle East. Biden is caught between his party’s historic position and its new left.

19 May

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Joe Biden is discovering what most US presidents find out at some point in their tenure: Middle East politics is hard. It is deep-rooted in decades of war, entrenched in centuries of difficult coexistence.

After years of getting better, it is getting worse again. Palestinian children born during the second intifada, which took place between 2000-2005, are now old enough to avenge for the death of a parent. Gilad Shalit, the former Hamas hostage, and his unit may be years past their military conscription, but as Israel calls up 9,000 reservists, they may need to dust off their uniform and hope one of their number is not kidnapped and held hostage by terrorists for five years again.

When it comes to Israel-Palestine, there simply is no simple solution.

So often in politics, the option set is binary. Remain or Leave. Trump or Biden. Free speech or cancel culture. The Middle East fails to fit the mould.  But it suits a world in which the happy median and polite disagreement are fading into extinction.

Both sides are capable of being right. In this case, one will tell you that Israel senselessly bombed a building that housed press outlets, including the Associated Press. The other will tell you if Israel laid down its weapons, the country would cease to exist: Hamas’ charter commits to the destruction of the State of Israel, for the avoidance of all doubt. Neither is wrong. ‘What about-ism’ too often plagues conversations about life in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Biden, Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State, and Hady Amr, the State Department’s envoy, have their work cut out. Before them, Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor to Donald Trump, made Middle East peace his top priority. But the events of the last fortnight prove that he made minimal progress.

The White House reportedly blocked three recent United Nations attempts at the Security Council to call for a ceasefire in order to protect its relationship with Israel for as long as possible – a critical ally and let us remember, the only democracy in the Middle East.

As the death toll grew, the White House could resist no longer. Biden has now “expressed support for a ceasefire” – short of calling for one outright – between Israel and Hamas in a call with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Biden and Netanyahu are awkward allies, at best. Netanyahu pitted himself firmly against the Obama-Biden administration in virulently opposing (unsuccessfully) the Iran nuclear deal that was eventually signed in 2015. They are unnatural bedfellows. But the US-Israel relationship dictates that they must see eye to eye.

As the situation in the Middle East worsens, Democrats are split between the establishment and progressives

Congress is beginning to flex its muscles. Let us start with the GOP.

Republicans are unfailingly behind Israel, another legacy of Donald Trump. The 45th President was almost embarrassingly pro-Israel in office, typified by his deeply personal relationship with Netanyahu, and the decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The legacy effect was that pro-Israel politics went from being a truly bipartisan issue on Capitol Hill to, essentially, a GOP foreign policy talking point. The running joke for decades on the Hill was that the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby could get a napkin circulated with 70 Senators’ signatures on it. After Trump, Democrats are proving harder to come by.

Biden has the current support of his party. It will not last long.

The Democratic establishment and leadership back Israel: the House of Representatives’ Speaker. Nancy Pelosi, did exactly that late last week during in a news conference. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, has an historically fierce pro-Israel voting record. (Pro-Israel politics has an outsized importance in his New York Senate seat.)

Left-wing Democrat Congress representatives, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, so often described as the ‘future of the party’, deviate from the leadership. And as a whole, the left of the party is not holding back.

Jon Osoff led a statement with 29 Democratic senators calling for such a ceasefire. Chris Murphy and Todd Young, the top Democrat and Republican on the Middle East subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Panel, led a bipartisan statement also calling for a ceasefire.

The centre of the party is wavering, too. Robert Menendez, the Democrat Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a fierce supporter of Israel on Capitol Hill, issued a statement over the weekend saying he was “deeply troubled by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets.”

And Gregory Meeks, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Democrats that he would ask the Biden administration to delay a $735 million tranche of weapons to Israel that had been previously approved. (The administration has approved the sale regardless.)

Fading unity is not just prevalent in the Democratic Party. The red, white, green and black in the Palestinian flag are the same colours that run through flags across the Arab world. The plight of the Palestinians is shared amongst its allies. But what has changed in the Middle East’s political nexus since the last major round of tensions between Israel and Gaza is Israel’s diplomatic engagement with the Arab world.

Israel has signed trade and peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – which, to his credit, Trump was happy to facilitate. Israelis now freely travel to Dubai for beach holidays, an unimaginable prospect ten years ago. Israel is now less of a blanket enemy in the region than it once was.

The underlying tragedy of the events of the last fortnight is the human suffering. Neither side is blameless, and once again civilian deaths are the sad outcome of failed diplomacy. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, said during an interview on MSNBC: “talk to the mothers who put their children next to them because if they’re going to die, they want to die together.” What is most upsetting is that her statement applies no less to mothers in Gaza than it does to mothers in Israel.

Ben Roback: Does controlling migration really matter to Biden and Harris? If not, what follows?

5 May

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

There are intractable problems that seem to always dominate governments – no matter the party, Prime Minister or President in office. The age-old problem of what to do about older people and social care has evaded a hat-trick of British Prime Ministers since Andrew Dilnot’s commission published its recommendations in 2011. The United States has its fair share of such difficulties – from guns and gangs all the way to climate change and carbon emissions.

Joe Biden is seeking to take on the vast challenge of immigration and the crisis on the southern border. Sensing how problematic the predicament is, Biden has delegated the task to his Vice President, Kamala Harris.

It is set to be her most important litmus test ahead of an almost inevitable future run at the White House. Succeed, and she can claim to have fixed one of America’s most dogged political, social and humanitarian problems. Fail, and her record will be tarnished forever. The scale of the challenge means that the President has handed Harris a poisoned chalice. What better way to dampen expectations of Biden retiring in 2024 in order to gift her the presidential nomination?

If the barometer for success is reducing illegal crossings, Harris might find that the only solution is being veritably Trumpian – increased deportations, harsher rhetoric, expanded powers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE).

In political terms, that is unconscionable for a Democratic Vice President, in the shadow of Donald Trump. Harris must deter illegal border crossings without being too harsh on the genuine immigrants and helpless children lumped together with economic opportunists.

The White House and Harris must aim high in order to succeed where their predecessors have failed

Most presidents try deportation. According to analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, more than 12 million people were deported during the Clinton administration. More than 10 million were then removed or returned during the Bush administration.

Barack Obama struck a softer tone on immigration, but nevertheless removed or returned more than five million people, including an estimated 1.7 million people who had no criminal record. With hindsight, Biden the presidential candidate called it a “big mistake” to have deported hundreds of thousands of them.

Trump tried a wall – campaigning on the premise that a physical barrier would stem the tide through Central America. The wall’s construction was mired in funding and contractual complications, but the 45th president left office having reduced the number of refugees admitted to the United States to its lowest level in 40 years.

How much responsibility the “big, beautiful wall” bears for that is mixed. The wall unquestionably embodied the United States’ new attitude to immigration, acting as a physical deterrent to attempted entry, alongside a raft of executive orders such as the Muslim ban and a reduction in the quote of people admitted to the US as refugees each year.

Progressives have cheered Biden…so far

The numbers of people arriving on the US border have grown since Biden took office, seemingly in part owing to a softer immigration policy compared to the Trump era. The President and his team are long enough in the tooth to recognise a political crisis unfolding before their eyes, and so doing nothing on immigration is not an option. So the White House has made a series of interventions so far.

Since January, the Biden administration has reversed a policy of turning away unaccompanied children, instead choosing to process them and place them with sponsoring families in the US. More recently, the White House announced it will raise the cap on refugees to 62,500 this fiscal year.

It followed outrage amongst immigration reform advocates and progressive Democrats after the President’s initial decision to keep the Trump-era ceiling of 15,000 admissions in place. So the move allows the White House to create clear daylight between Biden and Trump. But as the President himself says, “the sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year”.

Most importantly, in March, he handed his vice president a political grenade by putting her in charge of the southern border. It’s a bit like asking Priti Patel to launch her Conservative Party leadership bid after being tasked with reducing illegal boat crossings at Dover and Newhaven.

Is immigration really a priority for the White House?

The problem for Biden, and perhaps more significantly for Harris, is that while immigration is approaching crisis levels, it does not seem to be a major concern in Washington.

The Covid relief plan was an urgent necessity – an essential, albeit expensive, piece of big government legislation designed to stop the country falling to its knees

Next, the American Jobs Plan and the American Family Plan are hugely ambitious legislative packages that are a throwback to the days of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. In legislative terms on Capitol Hill and as the vaccine rollout continues, the full power of the US government is being felt.

John Kerry wants to lead the world on climate change. Anthony Blinken wants to reinvigorate old allegiances in order to combat the rise of China. Janet Yellen wants a global approach to corporate taxation to lower the playing field. Pete Buttigieg wants to make it easier to travel from Washington DC to Washington State.

The White House is firing on all cylinders. Is there any political or legislative oxygen left for anything else? That long and by no mean exhaustive list of political and policy priorities leaves little room for the kind of investment, attention and political capital required to deliver seismic immigration reform.

Washington will descend closer into a Congressional mid-term election overdrive soon. Democrats fear losing their razor-thin Senate majority in 2022, meaning serious policy upheaval needs to be completed sooner rather than later. With Covid relief done and infrastructure next, immigration does not appear to be anywhere near the top of the list for this administration. Time is running out.

Ben Roback: While Biden focuses on Earth Day, Putin moves troops and tanks on the border

21 Apr

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Joe Biden rightly understands that climate change is a political and practical necessity. As one of the world’s biggest polluters, the United States must show global leadership in tackling the emissions and supply chain issues that threaten the future of the planet.

Progressives in his party have channelled this into the Green New Deal agenda, which packages together carbon emission reductions and green infrastructure jobs.

It reflects the growing importance of climate change on the political agenda in contemporary politics. Where all things green were once a fringe issues for protestors, they have now become a pivotal plank of transatlantic foreign policy.

It is no coincidence that the White House is putting huge stock into this week’s climate summit, just as Downing Street channels vast amounts of energy and resource into making a success of COP26 in Glasgow.

In the back of both minds will be the need to present a simple message to the world after concerns of international regression (Brexit and Trump respectively) from the world stage: we are back.

But by getting caught up in promises to achieve net zero carbon emissions and putting electric vehicle chargers on every lamppost in the country, do the Unites States and United Kingdom risk taking their eyes off immediate foreign policy imperatives staring right at them?

With the intersection between climate change policy and foreign policy growing by the day, the White House has sought to remain on top of international affairs. Simultaneously, the question of who speaks for the United States abroad typifies the lack of clarity around what the President wants to prioritise. Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State, is, by definition, the voice of the US on foreign soil. But while Blinken talks troops and tanks, John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, flies to world capitals to chat carbon capture and coal.

American obfuscation opens a new frontier for ambitious rivals – notably China and Russia. When gaps appear in international affairs, both are quick to fill them. It explains the Belt & Road Initiative, vast Chinese infrastructure investment across the African continent, and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Writing about the White House’s unilateral decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, William Hague wrote: ‘Slowly, inexorably, and tragically, we can expect that flank [Afghanistan] to be exposed once again.’ Exposed flanks tend to be seized upon.

Putin flexes his muscles again

Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea put it at the centre of international affairs on the world stage. Biden and Blinken have a new Russia-shaped headache approaching.

With the further US retreat from the Middle East, Vladimir Putin senses a chance to pivot away from being the object of western sanctions towards being the subject of international security and diplomacy.

Biden has promised him a future summit, giving him the stature on the world stage he craves. Putin, so often a despotic master-tactician on the world stage, senses a weakness in US foreign policy. It is hard to believe that Biden failed to consider the weight of his words when he recently agreed that Putin is a “killer”. It followed a decision to sanction seven senior Russian officials over the poisoning and jailing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

The Ukraine border is once again a critical frontier. Leaked documents have revealed that Russia has been holding last-minute military exercises near commercial shipping lanes in the Black Sea. Much as the blocking of the Suez Canal strangled global trade, more locally those Black Sea shipping lanes are a vital artery for Ukraine’s economy. The leaked document assesses that the total area of Russian military exercises takes up 27 per cent of the Black Sea.

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, has said “the highest military deployment of the Russian army on the Ukrainian borders ever” would take only “a spark” to set off a confrontation. Despite this, the US intelligence community discounts the likelihood of conflict. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s 2021 annual threat assessment said that “Russia does not want a direct conflict with US forces”.

Turkish diplomatic sources reported that the US called off deploying two war ships to the Black Sea – for now – in what would have been a serious escalation of tensions. Instead, an upcoming Biden-Putin summit will provide the setting for talks. International diplomacy might be how Joe Biden secures political victories, by being diplomatic and getting to know his opposite number, but Putin’s cutthroat approach means he will continue to assassinate, break laws and tread ever harder on his neighbours’ toes.

Biden’s administration’s grasp of the green agenda deserves high praise, especially given the damage his predecessor did to the United States’ reputation as a global leader in climate science and protecting the planet for future generations. A defence and security review in the UK revealed a pivot towards more innovative and agile foreign and defence policy.

But Putin’s latest actions prove that often international affairs are still conducted in the language of troops and tanks. For as long as he continues to provoke, the United States and its allies around the world will need to come up with a plan to counter his ambitions. Focussing on ‘building back better’ and a green economic recovery after the pandemic could quickly be replaced by more pressing issues.

Ben Roback: Biden can continue to expand the state – now that Republicans are too distracted by the culture wars

7 Apr

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Joe Biden is free to grow the size of the state because no one is there to oppose him

Still within the first 100 days of his presidency, Joe Biden continues to call on the power of the federal government to dig America out of a Covid-shaped hole.

The size of the state is set to grow even further as Biden shapes the future of his presidency. He wants to use a major infrastructure package to fire up the economic recovery, and being able to pass it without any Republican support in the Senate means that the GOP has effectively abandoned the playing field in order to focus instead on culture wars.

Senior Republicans like Sen. Mitch McConnell appear much more focussed on telling big corporates to stay out of politics. Biden is free to grow the size of the state because there is no one left to oppose him.

An FDR-size presidency?

Recovering from a major “moment” like a pandemic or war presents governments with a rare chance to go big in policy terms. Voters are desperate for intervention and change.

History points to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as worthy examples. Both men inherited a huge political and economic crises, and both have tried to solve them with big money and big government. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was based on the principle that the power of the federal government was needed to get the country out of the depression.

Fast forward to 2021, Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” is a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package with investments directed towards roads, schools, broadband and clean energy. Like Roosevelt’s political philosophy and vision, it is based on the idea that when Americans fall down through no fault of their own, the state can help them get back on their feet.

That economic agenda received a significant boost when the Senate Parliamentarian ruled that Democrats could enact another resolution package this year. Put simply, this means that additional bills can be passed this year without any Republican support.

With the Senate split 50-50 and Vice President Kamala Harris making the tie-breaking vote, legislation would have been doomed to failure had it required the 60 votes typically needed. Republicans instead have the green light to oppose the president’s agenda without any consequence whatsoever.

That gifts Biden something of a free hand in a significant deployment of the power of the state. He campaigned citing infrastructure as something that all sides in Washington could agree on. A chance to put a bipartisan presidency into action.

For a country that is home to Wall Street on one coast and Silicon Valley on the other, far too many American roads, bridges and airports in between are crumbling. America gets a C- in its 2021 infrastructure report.

Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve Chair, wants an increase in corporation tax (21 per cent to 28 per cent) to help pick up the tab. The legislation will only pass if Biden can keep his party united, and once again the main opposition will come internally within the Democratic caucus in the Senate.

Republicans want a more focussed and cheaper plan that focuses on roads and bridges, but the consequence of the Senate Parliamentarian’s ruling means that the real opposition will come from Democrats in competitive states like Sen. Joe Manchin who want less big Government, not more.

Neither fish nor fowl, but it will taste awfully good

After the financial crisis and at the outset of the Obama presidency, the White House sought similarly to expand the role of the state. Republicans opposed the 2009 rescue package on the grounds that it was a significant government overreach that swelled the national debt to irresponsible levels.

The White House slowly limped along, enacting a slimmed down stimulus package amid fears of inflation and the political risk of growing the debt too much. Two years later, they were punished by heavy defeats in the midterm elections.

Biden, a first-hand witness to those decisions in 2008-09, wants to act quickly and boldly while his party has unified control of Congress, knowing full well that could change next year.

In an electoral system peppered with elections as frequently as in the United States, good politics often trumps good policy. Biden, with one eye on the first set of midterms in which the governing party is historically punished, understands that he and his party will be judged on their handling of the pandemic and the immediate steps to recovery. In that context, he is seeking to use the full force of the state to deliver for voters who care more about results than how they were achieved.

In 1933, Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority into law. Controversial at the time, Roosevelt said: “I’ll tell them it’s neither fish nor fowl, but whatever it is it will taste awfully good to the people of the Tennessee Valley.”

Biden campaigned with promises to control the pandemic and end decades of hyper-partisan gridlock in Washington. If he can deliver the former and turbocharge the economic recovery, will Americans really care about how he did it? Or that he abandoned the latter?

Once a dominant force in the Republican Party, the freedom caucus, and conservatives whose raison d’être was small government, are now a fading force. Instead, the GOP is abandoning domestic politics writ large in order to fight culture wars in the press and on Capitol Hill.

It is much more Donald Trump than Paul Ryan. In that respect, Biden’s calculation that he can grow the size of the state could be a shrewd one – if nothing because there are no Republicans left to oppose him.

Ben Roback: Vaccination in America – a research and manufacturing triumph. Now for the next challenge: getting needles into arms

10 Mar

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Is the American vaccine rollout a success story?

Joe Biden is on the cusp of signing his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law, in advance of the 14 March deadline when the previous package of support runs out.

With the Senate split 50-50 and Kamala Harris breaking the stalemate, the White House has no choice but to keep every Democrat on side in any vote that progresses through the budgetary reconciliation process, in which only a simple majority is required.

The President’s plea for political unity has yet to bear fruit on either side of the political aisle. The divides that have split Washington appear just as entrenched as ever before; not a single Republican in the Senate voted to support the plan.

This meant that Senate Democrats were able to hold out for their own checklist of amendments. This situation emboldens Democrats to supply the de facto Opposition-In-Chief. Step forward, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose last-minute objection to the size and scope of the legislation required 11 hours of negotiation throughout the night to broker a deal.

The final bill’s headline measures include $400 billion in one-off payments of $1400 (quickly phased out for those with higher incomes), $300 a week in extended jobless benefits for the 9.5 million people made unemployed, and $350 billopn in aid to state and local governments. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill today.

Swift passage is expected despite progressive Democrats, led by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, questioning whether they can support the legislation. Conservatives fear the package is too generous and wasteful, pointing to underlying economic and employment data. The US economy added a surprisingly high 379,000 jobs in February, with expectations for higher numbers ahead as bars and restaurants reopen and Americans begin to travel again.

Republicans are therefore expected to offer blanket opposition in the House. That makes Biden’s next task – selling the plan to red and blue states around the country – an uphill struggle.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink

Whilst Congress has horse-traded over the legislation, the Biden administration has kept one eye fixated on ramping up the nation’s best line of defence against the virus – vaccine production.

The President’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA) last month has bolstered vaccine production and increased the supply of testing kits and PPE. Just as importantly, it prevents exports of certain materials needed to manufacture vaccinations, including gloves and filters.

The invocation of the DPA is not unique to this president; Donald Trump was often accused of not giving Covid the time, attention or respect it deserved, but he invoked the authorities of the DPA no fewer than 18 times to counter the pandemic. Biden’s invocation of the DPA and overarching Covid strategy meant the White House has brought forward the target date for vaccinating all Americans by two months to the end of May.

The expedited vaccination timeline was attributed to an agreement, brokered by the White House, between Johnson & Johnson and Merck. The traditional pharmaceutical competitors will now work together to expand the former’s vaccine production capabilities. By that measurement, the US vaccine rollout is a success story in parallel with our own, given the numbers on our shores suggest all those over 50 may now be vaccinated by the end of March — two weeks earlier than planned.

Politicised jabs

It is a sad reality but hardly surprising that attitudes to the vaccine have become deeply embossed along political lines. A poll this week found 67 per cent of Americans plan to get vaccinated or have already been inoculated – good news, given that the World Health Organization said that 60-70% of a population must acquire resistance to the virus, either through infection or vaccination, to achieve herd immunity.

Look deeper, and partisanship becomes clear. 23 per cent of Republicans said they would “definitely” not get vaccinated, while another 21 per cent said they “probably” will not get the vaccine when it is made available to them.

So if the aim on both sides of the political divide is one nation under vaccination, Donald Trump holds a disproportionate amount of power in his hands. Given the strength of feeling the Republican base retains for their recently departed leader, a campaign led by the former president encouraging Americans (read: Republicans) to get the vaccine would be a hugely powerful tool in the fight against vaccine misinformation.

To his credit, at the recent CPAC conference, which confirmed Trump as the runaway leader for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, the former President said the word “vaccine” a dozen times. Trump continues to identify the vaccination program through the prism of his own administration’s success in getting Operation Warp Speed underway. He touted his defiance of the FDA and the expedited approval of two vaccines. “So everybody go get your shot”, he encouraged the audience. Those words were an island of sanity amidsr a sea of familiar grumblings about election malfeasance and political score-settling.

Warren Buffet has made a career out of his “never bet against America” mantra. In the fight against Covid, the United States has shown renewed strength. The traditional timescales for vaccine testing, approval and production have all been upended. Supply no longer looks to be an issue since the invocation of the DPA.

Biden and Trump deserve joint credit for the progress made so far. Until this point, the American vaccine program looks to have been a proud success story. But researching, approving and manufacturing vaccines for the masses is only as useful as the ability to get it into people’s arms. Failure to launch a major cross-party campaign encouraging vaccination uptake will render Operation Warp Speed (Trump) and the increased firepower of the federal government (Biden) moot. The onus now rests with the American people, and their willingness – or otherwise – to get the vaccine. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Ben Roback: China. Under Trump, a threat. Under Biden, a competitor. The President’s speech at the Munich Security Conference.

24 Feb

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Joe Biden’s speech for this year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC) was probably an easy one to write.

“Don’t be like the previous guy” will have been the simple steer given in advance. And in just his third paragraph, the president delivered that message: “Two years ago, as you pointed out, when I last spoke at Munich, I was a private citizen; I was a professor, not an elected official. But I said at that time, “We will be back.” And I’m a man of my word. America is back.”

Turning the page on Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ philosophy in rhetorical terms was hardly a surprise. Joe Biden has been an internationalist and a multilateralist throughout his political career, and so the recent brief chapter in which the White House was sympathetic to autocratic strongmen was slammed shut.

An immediate return to the Paris Climate accord and a U-turn on the US approach to the European Union – once again a key strategic ally – mark further divergence, although it is reasonable to expect Biden to retain the pressure applied by Trump on European countries to spend more on defence.

Biden also marks a difference on Iran. He retains a hawkish view, like his predecessor – although in this speech he reinforced his “willingness to re-engage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program” while addressin “destabilising activities across the Middle East”. Concurrently at the MSC, Boris Johnson referred to Iran as one of “the most pressing security issues”.

“I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship”

The MSC is hardly a lynchpin in the political calendar in the same way as the presidential inauguration or a State of the Union address. On that basis, with domestic America hardly tuned it, the President spoke to European allies to whom he felt the Trump administration had given the cold shoulder.

There was a reminder of a recent order to halt the withdrawal of American troops from Germany, and a lifting of the cap imposed by the previous administration on the number of U.S. forces that can be based there.

For the United Kingdom, there was perhaps a curious absence. Biden quickly cantered through a reference about the importance of democracy and the need to “fight for it, strengthen it, renew it”, but did not mention the Government’s proposal to create a “D-10”.

In Boris Johnson’s speech, the Prime Minister confirmed he has invited South Korea, and Australia and India to attend the next G7 summit as guests. This chimes perfectly with Biden’s proposal to host a ‘Summit of Democracy’, which is likely to include the three nations mentioned above.

Making the case for democracies around the world is expected to be a core pillar of US-UK foreign policy, alongside a shared approach to China and increased military spending. As proof of the latter, UK carriers will be deployed to the Indo-Pacific and will be fully integrated with the US Marines.

A pivot away from the pivot to Asia?

Whilst Biden is a known internationalist, the world has changed around him. Trump left the Oval Office with Sino-scepticism seemingly a part of the White House furniture. And yet, the 46th president struck a softer tone that would have been unconscionable for the 45th, referring in his speech to building democratic allegiances in order to “prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China”.

As well as seeking to lower the political temperature at home, this was a speech by Joe Biden that perhaps looked to do the same in the Asia Pacific area. Biden spoke about the need to “push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system.” The politics of economics, not conflict.

Barack Obama initiated the ‘Pivot to Asia’ – a political and diplomatic shift towards the Asia Pacific.  Biden’s first foreign policy foray may have indicated a pivot back – three mentions of China, compared to seven of Russia. Time will tell whether that was accidental or by design. Perhaps it was a mere reminder to the world that America would revert to a much firmer stance on Russia than we had become used to with Trump in the White House.

The tonality was stark. Whilst China was a mere “competitor”, Russia was described as a “threat”. Here, no punches were pulled. “The Kremlin attacks our democracies and weaponises corruption to try to undermine our system of governance…Putin seeks to weaken European — the European project and our NATO Alliance.” Even more words that it was impossible to think Trump would ever have deployed.

Republicans have tried to label Biden as a “radical” in every respect – immigration policy, climate change, Cabinet nominees, the pricey Covid relief package. But on foreign policy, Biden’s first major intervention appeared anything but radical. Russia was painted a familiar threat, but Johnson went much further in explicitly calling out the attempted murder of Alexei Navalny. China was reframed from a direct threat (Trump) to a mere strategic competitor (Biden). President Biden’s MSC speech was far from radical. If anything risked being disappointingly tame.