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.

Ben Roback: Biden’s new administration. Are you not entertained? (No: and don’t expect to be.)

10 Feb

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

There is an iconic scene in Gladiator when Maximus (Russell Crowe) lifts his arms out and exclaims: “Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained! Is this not why you were here?”

Donald Trump’s departure from Washington aboard Marine One was markedly less dramatic to say the least, but asking those three rhetorical questions to the press might have been a fitting way to draw a line under his presidency. Like or loathe his politics, Trump kept us entertained.

Throughout the Trump era, the gap between fact and fiction blurred: inaugural crowd sizes, vote counts and election outcomes spring to mind. Not only that, but Washington politics also increasingly resembled a Hollywood production. A cast of characters defined by their ability to remain close to the centre of power at all costs. The West Wing, The Thick of It, House of Cards, Veep and The Apprentice all combined for a presidential term like no other.

The early days of the Biden presidency look different. Less politics and more policy, starting with attempted outreach to Republicans across the aisle on a Covid-19 relief package.

Whilst bipartisanship is a worthy ambition, the risk of failure is high. With midterm elections in two years, sitting Republicans are more likely to fear a primary challenge from the right than losing their seat to a Democrat, unless they are in a genuinely competitive race.

Ramming through a Covid relief package and an over-application of Executive Orders would make a mockery of this president who campaigned on a message of unity. Biden might well be pursuing bipartisanship but if that fails, he is expected to push through his agenda without Republican support.

So the White House is set to be a more functional seat of government over the next four years than the last four. But Biden cannot control party politics. Democrats and Republicans are undertaking their own bouts of infighting.

Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, is having to work overtime to keep his conference together. For the GOP, nothing captures the battle for the future of the party better than last week’s votes on the futures of Liz Cheney and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Rep Cheney, daughter of former the Vice President, Dick Cheney, and something akin to Republican royalty, voted in support of impeaching Trump and has unapologetically doubled down on her position since then. She has irked Trump loyalists such as Rep. Matt Gaetz, who even travelled to her home district in Wyoming to campaign against her. House Republicans voted emphatically (145 to 61) in a secret ballot to allow Cheney to keep her position in the Republican leadership.

Intriguingly, in the same week, they also voted against stripping Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her two committee assignments. The vote was prompted after it was revealed that in social media post that Greene has expressed support for QAnon and 9/11 conspiracy theories, and suggested that school shootings in Parkland and Newtown were “false flag” operations to crack down on the Second Amendment.

So on the one hand, last week was a clear expression that there is still room in the Republican Party for centrists and those willing to challenge the legacy and ongoing influence of Donald Trump.

On the other, it showed that the Republican leadership harbours real fears of a potential party division if it excludes those most closely aligned with Trump. As McCarthy and the Republican leadership try to keep a lid on the simmering tensions within the party, an Axios poll indicated where the GOP base is gravitating towards. Among Republicans and those leaning GOP, Marjorie Taylor Greene had a net approval rating of +10. Liz Cheney, meanwhile, was at -28.

These characters form a helpful sub-plot in the future of the Republican Party, but the star of the show is still Trump. Serious attention will be paid to his  impeachment trial this week, where he faces a single charge of inciting an insurrection relating to the January 6th riots at the Capitol. His lawyers argue that the trial violates his free speech and due process rights as well as being “constitutionally flawed.”

But do not let those internal divisions and infighting distract you from the serious issues at play.

Just as the Trump soap opera continues into the latest season – Impeachment: The Sequel – it is a vital week for Biden’s Covid relief package. In many ways, this split screen between American politics as reality TV and American politics as detailed policy is the perfect encapsulation of the past four years compared to the next.

The White House’s $1.9 trillion package is the centrepiece of the new administration’s legislative and political agenda. Crucially, it only has one shot at getting it right from the outset. Get it wrong, and a failed policy will plague the administration for its duration.

Committees in the House of Representatives will begin detailed work on the policy proposal this week. Disagreement in the Senate becomes intriguing later down the legislative line. With a 50-50 split in the Senate, where Kamala Harris breaks the tie, Democrats need every single one of their Senators to support a proposal to secure a simple majority.

This means that each Senator is now emboldened to stand alone and make demands on legislation, with the ability to stop its progress entirely. This explains why a handful of Democratic Senators in low cost-of-living states have expressed their opposition to a $15 minimum wage – which has been tacked onto the Covid relief bill.

A dozen House Democrats are on the record to prefer regional differences based on the cost of living. Putting the politics aside, process here is paramount. Senate Democrats will need to convince Biden to allow them to include an increase in the minimum wage in the Coronavirus Relief Bill. It was a major campaign promise that helped keep the left of his party on side, but in recent days the President has sounded increasingly sanguine about it surviving into the relief package.

If the White House’s attempt at bipartisanship fails, Democrats in Congress will move to pass the stimulus package without Republican support in the Senate, using a procedure known as reconciliation. Under the rules of reconciliation, only measures that have an impact on the budget can be passed.

We have spent little time during the last four years obsessing over such Congressional detail because the politics of the Trump era was so dominating. The White House’s dysfunction made for compelling viewing but left little room for serious policymaking. Internal party divides will always be interesting in the latest context of who’s up and who’s down in terms of power and influence. Democrats will inevitably descend into tribal disagreements once the honeymoon gloss on the early days of Joe Biden’s presidency begins to fade. Republicans are working hard to keep their warring factions together, with GOP leadership hoping the midterms in two years is enough to keep their members focussed.

This White House looks to be significantly more interested in policy than politics. Are you not entertained? Don’t expect to be.

Ben Roback: What do Biden’s appointments tell us about his presidency?

27 Jan

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

In what became an incredibly strange time between Joe Biden winning the 2020 election and taking the oath of office, the Cabinet began to take shape.

It presented a political maze of trickery to be navigated by a president who is seeking to counterbalance blue collar centrists with liberal millennials who make no apologies for their flirtations with democratic socialism.

That challenge is no more unique than Boris Johnson marrying post-Brexit free marketeers with big state interventionists. But whilst the Prime Minister need not spend a second considering what Sir Keir Starmer thinks about his Cabinet, let alone voting on his proposed appointment, President Biden must get his nominees approved by the Senate.

Having won the two run-off elections in Georgia, the Democrats have an effective majority in the Senate. With a 50-50 split, Vice President Kamala Harris will break the tie in any split votes. That should, in theory, mean the President can get his Cabinet appointments through – as long as the Democratic caucus remains united. The president is not reliant on Republican votes. He is looking for them, nevertheless.

The Biden presidency is seeking reach across the aisle wherever possible and work with Republicans. This reflects a desire to lower the political temperature from far further back than just the past four years. Tensions rose under Barack Obama and soared under Donald Trump. Everything became a political fight. The White House wants to calm the country down.

Optically therefore, the White House wants to project bipartisanship in its first 100 days by nominating Cabinet appointees who are able to gain at least pockets of Republic support.

When we think of bipartisanship, we tend to think of opposing political parties working together. The challenge for President Biden is deeper than that. His modus operandi is finding people and policies that can attract at least a modicum of Republican support. But his own party is increasingly fractious.

Biden’s first 100 days are likely to pass by during a honeymoon period of rapid-fire executive action, but the clash between blue collar Democratic towns and democratic socialists in California and New York looms large over the White House. The Cabinet is a fascinating first look at how he will manage those tensions.

In terms of Cabinet appointments, keeping competing interests together poses two major challenges. First, diversity. If all of Biden’s appointments are approved, this will be the most diverse Cabinet in US history. The list of would-be firsts is extensive – first Native American cabinet secretary (Deb Haaland); first female national intelligence director (Avril Haines); first Latino secretary of homeland security (Alejandro Mayorkas); first openly gay cabinet member (Pete Buttigieg). This week, Janet Yellen was confirmed as Treasury Secretary, the first woman to ever hold that role.

This is a modern Democratic Party that has evolved quickly into one that champions diversity of more than just gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation – hence the second test. To compile a Cabinet sufficiently stocked with liberal minds ready to enact left-wing policies.

A Senate majority gives Biden the green light to appoint his Cabinet

From his decades in public life and his inaugural address, it is clear that Biden will seek to govern in the first instance as a bipartisan president. Keeping his own side together will prove taxing, if not as challenging as winning over the opposition.

In seeking to avoid any major early fights with Republicans over Cabinet approvals, Biden has overlooked the dominant left-wing figures on Capitol Hill. No Cabinet jobs for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. No promotion for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He wants to keep his political powder dry over personnel, in order to push Republicans when it comes to hard policy – starting with a $1.9trn COVID relief package.

Cabinet appointments are crucial because they are the first signal of the intended direction of travel for any given administration. For Biden, a big question lingers: can the leadership tame the left of the Democratic Party?

Consider the nominations of Yellen (US Treasury) and Rohit Chopra (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), two of the more eye-opening appointments that Biden hopes will keep the left on side.

Chopra was an early hire of Senator Warren after she set up the CFPB in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis under the Obama administration. He will now oversee the financial products and services that are offered to consumers, with overall supervision of banks and financial institutions. A Federal Trade Commissioner since 2018, Chopra has sought to increase the scrutiny of Big Tech corporations that pose risks to privacy, national security, and fair competition. He now has the ability and scope to rein in Wall Street’s and Silicon Valley’s perceived excesses – a top priority for the types of Democrats listed above who were passed over for Cabinet roles themselves.

Yellen’s qualifications for the role are self-explanatory, hence her confirmation by Congress this week. As Chairwoman of the Fed, conservatives wondered if she was seeking to overtly politicise the role. Now, as Secretary of the Treasury, she will be responsible for guiding the Biden administration’s economic response to the pandemic – a seismic undertaking, and one that will fall heavily under the spotlight if the left of the party does not think the White House and Treasury’s proposed plans are generous enough.

She is in many respects a typical Biden appointment, in that she has a track record of securing bipartisan backing. Her nomination to the Fed in 2014 won support from some Republicans.

In her Cabinet confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Yellen urged Congress to approve trillions of dollars more in pandemic relief and economic stimulus, saying that Congress should “act big” without worrying about national debt. “The focus now is not on tax increases. It is on programmes to help us get through the pandemic,” she stressed. Liberals will have cheered financial support being her guiding principle, with scant regard for the (soaring) US national debt.

The role of the Cabinet is to deliver the President’s agenda. This Cabinet, the proposed most diverse top team in US history, has a herculean task on its hands. Biden made it clear in his inaugural address that he wants to be a president for all Americans. Practically, that means finding bipartisan policies that he can work with Republicans on. That will not always mean keeping the liberal wing of his party on side.

On policy, the early round of executive actions has provided plenty for the left to cheer. The President has moved quickly to undo a litany of Trump administration policies by halting border wall construction, placing a 100-day pause on deportations, and embracing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants through DACA.

The middle of the Venn diagram that charts issues supported by Democrats and Republicans is narrow. Both have been pushed to a more hawkish view of China. The insurrection at the Capitol has put big tech sharply in the spotlight again for being too slow to muzzle Trump (Democrats) and too authoritarian on freedom of speech (Republicans). Biden will need to tread carefully to keep both groups together as he tasks his top team with taming the tech titans.

People make policy

Keeping the left of the party on board will not be limited to just Cabinet appointments. With Congress confirming this week that it would not blow up the filibuster in the Senate, the biggest planks of Biden’s legislative agenda will only be able to pass Congress if it has bipartisan support. That means the left’s biggest wins will need to come from presidential executive actions – major policy shifts at the forefront of the left’s agenda like a $1.9trn COVID relief package and a $15 minimum wage requires legislation, not executive order.

That in turn reinforces the need for Biden to keep the left happy through the appointments he makes – after all, people make policy.

Ben Roback: Will Trump explode America’s two-party system?

13 Jan

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

America’s political system is famously divided between two parties. In the land of the free, anything is possible – besides a successful third party run at the presidency.

Owing to successive decisions taken by the Supreme Court protecting political donations as a form of free speech, the wealthiest Americans have become primus inter pares when it comes to political influence. The rise and rise of Super-PACs as vehicles for donations has meant that the bigger one’s wallet, the greater the sway.

But donors don’t often become great candidates. The business world is full of tycoons with vast wealth and equally sizeable political ambition, but few take the plunge into electoral politics.

The standout name when it comes to putting a chink in the armour of the two-party system is Ross Perot, the billionaire who ran as independent candidate for president in 1992 and 1996.Owing to the structure of the electoral system, which simply does not reward candidates outside the binary structure of Republican or Democrat, he won zero Electoral College votes.

What if the objective is not to win Electoral College votes, but to disrupt the system?

In seeking to answer that question, we begin to contemplate what Donald Trump might do next. He has in his hands immense power over the future of the Republican Party. It is abundantly clear that a tectonic shift is emerging – a San Andreas fault line running through the GOP. For four years with Trump in the White House, the vast majority of the Republican establishment – donors, Congressmen and Senators – have tolerated the President’s excesses.

For, as Lindsey Graham put it, “he has been a consequential president”. Rebuffing China. Putting three Conservative judges on the Supreme Court. Appointing almost a third of all active federal judges on the US appeals courts. Ensuring massive tax cuts.

Elected Republicans saw Trump as a winner, and therefore as central to their own career prospects. Taking a firm line against the leader is a bold strategy when he has polled at an average of 86.5 per cent amongst registered Republicans throughout his presidency.

What will the Republicans do about Trump now that he is no winner?

The party needs to think fast. The US electoral cycle, unforgiving in its perpetuity, kicks in again on 8 November next year, when all 35 seats in the United States House of Representatives, 34 of the 100 seats in the Senate, and 39 state and territorial gubernatorial elections will be contested.

Will Republicans break free from the shackles of the President, whose polling numbers with the American public have fallen off a cliff since last week’s events?

A new Morning Consult poll now puts Trump’s approval at just 34 per cent, the nadir in his presidency. Approximately 20 per cent of Republicans say they are “less motivated” to vote in future elections based on the outcome of the 2020 election.

It turns out that encouraging domestic violence and a literal attack on the nation’s home of democracy in its capital city isn’t good politics, and so the break has already started. Three cabinet secretaries have resigned.

Previous loyalists like Chris Christie, Graham, and Mick Mulvaney, a former White House Chief of Staff, have turned their backs on Trump. The GOP establishment, which had learned to tolerate him and then sought to ride his coat tails to victory, are washing their hands of him now that the political cost is lower, given that he will imminently leave office.

Could the same be said if last week’s events had somehow happened when he was in the middle of his Presidency? A handful of Trump’s supporters in Congress have remained steadfast in their support, namely the likes of Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Cawley and, in the House, representatives Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan. Their naked political calculation is that their electoral prospects are better served with the President’s blessing and the support of his base.

Trump could well try to retain his power base in the heart of the Republican grass roots. He has exploited a fissure between his most passionate, diehard followers and the larger chunk of the Republican Party, which looked on in horror at last week’s insurgency and has decided to draw a line.

Without a Shadow Cabinet structure, and therefore an immediate successor, there is no leader to replace Trump at the top of the party when he leaves office next week. Instead, Mitch McConnell will become the most senior Republican in the country.

Before his Twitter account was suspended, Trump had pledged open warfare on McConnell. The Kentucky Senator has become a master of political chicanery, doing whatever it takes to preserve his party’s grip on power. If he wants to retain a united Republican Party, he will need Trump on side. Those prospects seem bleak.

Will Mr Trump become a Ross Perot?

Mike Bloomberg, the former New York Mayor, decided not to run for President in 2016 because he said he would take votes from Hillary Clinton and hand the White House to Trump.

In 1992, Perot played spoiler and, whilst he took votes from both sides, arguably cost George HW Bush his re-election, gifting the White House to Bill Clinton.

If the Republican Party moves on from the Trump-era institutionally, he will have to run in 2024 as an independent. His base is so loyal that they were willing to storm the Capitol, and so there is no doubt that they will follow him.

Running as independent but dragging the Trump wing of the Republican Party with him would take votes away from the Republican nominee, possibly handing the presidency to Kamala Harris. Unlike Perot, an independent Trump would only take votes from the right – his impact will be limited in the centre and non-existent on the left.

Today, Democrats will embark on the fourth impeachment in American history, with half of them aimed at removing Trump from office. Liz Cheney, House’s Republican Conference Chair, has  announced she would vote to impeach Trump, and it is expected that more will join her.

So far, at least three Republican Senators have publicly indicated their willingness to convict the president this time around, while Mitt Romney voted to support the impeachment proceedings in 2019. If every Democratic Senator votes to convict Trump in a trial, 17 Republicans would be needed for the two thirds majority required to convict him.

Seventeen seems a high bar. There probably will be insufficient support in the Senate to proceed with impeachment, but for the entire Republican Party it will do one important thing – mark the cards of existing Congressmen and Senators with the answer to a binary question: ‘Were you for or against Trump when it mattered?’ That will become the major division in the Republican Party for years to come.

Ben Roback: Who would bet on Trump turning up at Biden’s inauguration?

16 Dec

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

The Electoral College has spoken. When will Trump listen?

For a man who loves to win, a check in on the President’s attempts to overturn the outcome of the November election makes dismal reading.

Recounts prompted by Donald Trump and his merry band of legal advisers have confirmed repeatedly that Joe Biden was the winner in the key swing states that shaped the election. The President urged the Supreme Court last week to set aside 62 electoral votes for Mr Biden in four states, which may have thrown the outcome into doubt. The justices rejected the effort.

Trump has urged his Republican colleagues to continue to question the outcome and validity of the election. It had been working on Capitol Hill, where only a handful of Republicans had acknowledged Biden as the President-elect.

That sense of lingering doubt has spread through to the American people. In a poll this month, only 61 per cent of Americans said they trusted the results of the election. Unsurprisingly, given the President’s ongoing campaign and the loyalty of the Republican base, 72 per cent of Republicans polled do not trust the results.

The president is running out of ways to deny the election outcome

The Electoral College met yesterday, rubber-stamping Joe Biden’s victory through formal votes in state capitals around the country. Electors gave Biden and Kamala Harris their votes in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the six battleground states that Biden won and which Trump contested.

Senior Republicans have long insisted that the President had a right to contest close results, and pointed to the Electoral College as a key moment in that effort. Now that the Electoral College has formally ratified the election results, a change has been prompted amongst Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, whicj now acknowledges for the first time the resolution of the election.

Mitch McConnell yesterday said: “The electoral college has spoken. So today I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden”. The two men are by no means political allies, but ahave shared experience after accruing decades in the Senate together. Both have referred to each other as “friends” and the Senate Majority Leader was the only Senate Republican to attend Beau Biden’s funeral. They will need to work together in the coming weeks if Congress is to pass another Covid relief package, and a government funding bill to avert a December shutdown.

McConnell’s calculated statement gave Republicans permission to acknowledge the election outcome. Lindsey Graham, whose Trump journey has taken him from mocking sceptic to reliable ally, said he had a “warm” phone call with Biden. More are expected to follow in the coming days.

Despite the change in tone from Republican Congressional leadership, there has been no concession from the White House. On Twitter, the President continues to allege mass voter fraud owing to corrupt voting machines. Intriguingly, Trump retweeted a Breitbart news article whose headline included: ‘May God bless him, Melania, and their family, as God leads him to the next chapter in his life.’

McConnell has reportedly urged his GOP colleagues not to object when Congress formally certifies the Electoral College count on 6 January, in what is surely to be Mr Trump’s final throw of the dice. Trump allies in the House of Representatives, led by Rep Mo Brooks of Alabama, have pledged to object to the Electoral College count.

In order to successfully force a debate and vote on the objection, at least one Republican Senator would need to support it. There is currently no indication that will happen. For historic context, a lawmaker has never been able to succeed in throwing out a state’s results.

There is a prevailing sense that the inevitable outcome – Biden entering the White House as the 46th President of the United States – is being delayed in the minds of the Trump team. That is not enough to change the political reality shaped by the constitution.

The President-elect continues to shape his Cabinet and advisory team at pace. It was announced yesterday that Pete Buttigieg, an initial rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, will be nominated as Transportation Secretary. If approved by the Senate, he would become the first openly gay member of the Cabinet in US history.

As Coronavirus runs riot and reaps havoc across America, getting to grips with the vaccine rollout will the biggest challenge from day one for the incoming administration. The FDA has granted emergency authorisation to an over-the-counter, at-home Covid test, a new weapon in the government’s arsenal. Coronavirus has now killed over 300,000 Americans (CDC). It is high time the White House takes this crisis seriously, which Trump has so far failed to do.

When Congress meets in the new year, it will only be a fortnight before the inauguration. Traditionally, the sitting President attends as a visible symbol of the peaceful transfer of power. If Trump’s form thus far is anything to go by, you wouldn’t bet much on him acknowledging Biden’s victory in a statement let alone in person.

Biden’s top team takes shape. Diversity is required in principle though not always in practice.

2 Dec

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

Where were you at the precise moment when Joe Biden was announced as the President-elect of the United States?

Flashbulb memories, a phrase coined by Brown and Kulik in 1977, are moments defined as if people had taken a photograph of themselves while learning of a public, emotionally charged event. The long delay prior to the first news network’s projection of Biden’s victory meant that any sense of sudden excitement had somewhat dissipated.

Days of staring at ‘Election Update’ beaming across the screen on CNN had become numbing. We were all waiting for Wolf Blitzer to put us out of our misery. The lack of one single election authority in the United States complicated matters further. Similarly, the knowledge that, if he were declared the runner up, Donald Trump would refuse to accept the result.

The delay and subsequent litigation meant tht the ‘moment’ Joe Biden was announced as president-elect was hardly momentous at all. Trump eventually tweeted through gritted teeth that he had instructed the General Services Administration to begin the customary transition process. The Biden/Harris transition website went from buildbackbetter.com to buildbackbetter.gov. Neither were exactly flashbulb memories. The change happened not with a bang, but a whimper.

Trump clings on, but not for long

Trump is not going down without a fight. The president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has resorted to claims of voter fraud entirely bereft of legal substance or evidence.

An electoral overturn was always borderline impossible given the magnitude of the president’s defeat in the swing states he required to retain the White House. Watching Giuliani peddle the President’s latest conspiracy theories, it is easy to forget that the man was formerly such an immense political figure first in New York and then around the world that he was given an honorary knighthood by the Queen. First as tragedy, then as farce.

A top team that holds up a mirror to modern America

Meanwhile, as the Trump show prepares to pack its bags and leave town, Biden has been quietly preparing for office. It has become clear that two guiding principles are motivating his choices: experience and diversity.

The President-elect has announced a list of senior appointmeints to the White House and prospective Cabinet nominees, the latter requiring Senate confirmation. Cognisant of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the fact that he hardly embodies diversity or youth himself, Biden has consistently expressed the need to build a team that reflected modern America in its range of background.

Glass ceilings are being broken, subject to Congressional approval. Janet Yellen would become the first female Treasury Secretary in its 231-year history. Those who refer to her gender as the primary motivation for her appointment overlook the fact that she could become the first person to have served as Treasury Secretary, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Chair of the Federal Reserve.

On the world stage, President-elect Biden’s primary motivation will be to announce that America is back – to leading from the front and bringing allies with her. He will not be able to shed the skin of Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra entirely – the Rust Belt has been scarred by a skills deficit and the offshoring of jobs for decades, culminating in  Trump’s victory in 2016 and an aggressively hawkish national stance towards China ever since.

But on the world stage, Biden has entrusted Anthony Blinken as prospective Secretary of State to take America back to the epicentre of global affairs and international cooperation. As Deputy Secretary of State under Barack Obama, Blinken helped with the rebalance to Asia. He spent his most formative years as a student in Paris and speaks fluent French. In 2019, he said in relation to Brexit: “This is not just the dog that caught the car, this is the dog that caught the car and the car goes into reverse and runs over the dog.”

Whilst Dominic Raab has his work cut out, commentators are too quick to dismiss the UK-US relationship purely on the anecdotal grounds of one personal view on Brexit. Assuming a deal is done between the UK and EU, the decision taken in 2016 will become an afterthought in American minds.

It is only if no deal is reached and the knock-on effects are seen adversely to impact the Good Friday Agreement and peace process that Blinken’s forethoughts become relevant. Brexit aside, the incoming administration has plenty to agree with Downing Street on – namely, promoting democracy around the world, combatting the rise of China and misinformation spread by Russia, and using diplomacy once again to cool Iranian nuclear ambitions.

In John Kerry, the former Secretary of State, the Biden White House will benefit from one of the foremost global leaders on climate change. Climate science will once again be trusted and not contested in the White House.  Biden and Kerry will look to old allies like the UK to pursue equally radical climate ambitions, addressing climate change with the required level of urgency. COP26 in Glasgow provides the perfect platform to push for global change.

In the White House, Biden will be advised by experienced heads whom he has trusted for decades. It is here where experience seems to have trumped diversity. Ron Klain served as Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff from 2009-11 and will perform the same role again. He also worked as an advisor on Biden’s 1988 and 2008 Presidential campaigns; his experience is undeniable.

The fringes of the Oval Office will be dominated by Steve Ricchetti (Counselor to the President) and Mike Donilon (Senior Advisor to the President). The President-elect’s closest circle of advisers certainly fail to fulfil his ambitions of diversity and representation. Instead, their selection looks to be based on trust and experience.

Ironically, it is the British system of Cabinet appointments which is positively presidential. The Commons or Lords have no say over whom the Prime Minister ascends to the Cabinet table. President-elect Biden has made his Cabinet picks with the Senate majority leader and Republicans in mind, who will inevitably select and handful of nominees to oppose.

Republicans might have lost the White House, but their supporters will thrive off a fight in the Senate. That would limit the President-elect’s ambitions and ability to surround himself with the voices and views he desires to deliver the change his campaign promised. As in so many years previous, huge power huge power lies in the hands of Senator Mitch McConnell.

America’s election results – and the Blue Wave That Never Was. Biden will be constrained if he wins.

4 Nov

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

So much of the 2020 election remains unknown, and so this column is laced with caution.

What do we know? That the final outcome of the presidential election is not yet known. Predictably, that did not stop Donald Trump from asserting victory in the early hours of the morning in front of his supporters. Claims were made of fraudulent voting, but they remain unproven.

It was all very President Trump – and you should read that in a pejorative way. In many ways, it is those excesses, idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that make the maverick so popular amongst his base. He has once again defied the odds and fended off the suggestion from pollsters that was down and out of this race.

The President is evidently frustrated with the slow pace of returns, and he is perhaps not alone. Americans are not used to waiting this long for their results – although in 2000, it took 36 days, a recount and the Supreme Court to make a determination in Gore v Bush in the swing state of Florida alone.

The stress put on the election system by Covid-19 means that record numbers of Americans have voted early or by mail. Counting those votes takes time. Crucially, the system varies on a state-by-state basis. For example, in the absolutely vital swing state of Pennsylvania, the deadline for military and overseas ballots is next Tuesday.

Whilst the final outcome of the presidential race is not clear, we do know that it the result was not that which many expected. Pollsters and forecasters’ models had suggested a blue wave looked likely, albeit by no means guaranteed.

At this stage, we do know that it has not materialised. An early indication of a blue wave would have been victory for Joe Biden in Florida or Texas – the latter a Republican stronghold but recent object of Democratic desires. But Trump has won both. He and Joe Biden are locked in a razor-sharp battle for a handful of swing states which will determine the outcome of the election. There will be no Democratic demolition of the electoral map.

Next, it looks increasingly unlikely that Democrats will take control of the Senate. Under the (correct) assumption that the Republicans would flip a seat in Alabama, the path to picking up four additional Senate seats seems unclear. That will have a seismic impact on the next four years on Capitol Hill should Biden win the presidency.

If weeks of recounts and litigation end with Mr Biden securing the White House, a Republican majority in the Senate will severely curtail his ability to govern. In this event, Senate Republicans will frustrate and handicap Biden’s agenda –  so his ambitious $2 trillion green energy and climate plans will be trimmed in order to protect traditional energy production in states like Texas

Such a result will all but guarantee gridlock ensues on Capitol Hill, with the Senate providing a serious check on the President’s power. A President Biden would therefore rely on Executive Order to govern, while trying to find bipartisan issues that he can work with Congressional Republicans on like infrastructure.

Finally, it may be that the most volatile and unpredictable election in recent history returns a strangely familiar outcome. Continuity on Capitol Hill look set to ensue, with Republicans holding the Senate and Democrats keeping the House. That will mean Speaker McConnell in the Senate and Speaker Pelosi in the House continue to be the two most important figures on the Hill for years to come. The great unknown, of course, is whether there will be change or continuity in the White House.

Ben Roback: The polls only point to one election outcome – a Biden win. But what if they’re wrong?

21 Oct

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

There are 13 days until the election and 54 days until the Electoral College meets. All available polling and data currently points to only one clear outcome – a victory for Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris.

There is no doubting that Biden is in a formidable position. He has a lead of 8.6 percentage points nationally, according to Real Clear Politics.

His campaign’s finances are in far better health, having collected a record $383 million in donations in September; up on its $365 million tally in August and Hillary Clinton’s $154 million in September 2016. So the Democrat challenger now has $432 million to play with in the remaining days of the campaign – a figure so large that experts said they were unsure how it could all be spent.

But while the national picture is interesting, the polling in key swing states is what matters most. In eight of the most competitive battlegrounds – Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – Biden has a lead in all but one of them.

In some of those states, the polling has begun to tighten, but with only one presidential debate remaining, Donald Trump is running out of opportunities to reverse the current trend.

Why is the Trump 2016 playbook not working in 2020?

Trump was such a spectacularly maverick candidate in 2016 that literally no one knew how to cover him, let alone run against him. Cable news didn’t want to give him hours of endless free coverage, but his rallies were so unpredictable and entertaining that they had no choice but to cover them in full.

In the primaries, Republicans couldn’t work out whether to take the brash businessman seriously or laugh off his latest hot take.

When the election campaign proper finally arrived, the Democratic Party machine didn’t want to break the rules of engagement, but the Trump campaign had such little interest in convention or courtesy that traditional campaign tactics became null and void.

But his year, the 2016 playbook has been less effective. There are three good reasons why.

First, the president has tried to recreate the notion that he is campaigning against a criminal opponent who is part of a wider anti-Trump, anti-American enterprise.

Leaked emails claiming that Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, used his influence to broker business meetings with his father, are being used by Trump as the new smoking gun – in the same way that Trump deployed Clinton of using a personal email to conduct government business against her.

But to date, “lock him up” has not had a comparably transformative effect. The President has demanded that the Attorney General investigate Joe Biden’s son before the election. Bill Barr is loyal to the president, but appears unlikely to take such an aggressive step.

Trump campaigns well when his loyal and at times obsequious base have a common enemy. But this year, he has failed to make accusations or insults against Joe Biden, Hunter Biden and Kamala Harris stick.

Second, Trump rallies in 2016 became a hallmark of his campaign and visual displays of voter enthusiasm. At times they had to be seen to be believed. Having allowed a Covid-19 diagnosis to only momentarily sideline his roadshow, the President’s rallies have resumed, but mass gatherings of thousands of chant-shouters and sign-wavers looks deeply irresponsible at a time when the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive is rising across the country.

Record numbers of Americans will vote by post rather than by physically going to a polling station this year. That suggests the Trump campaign’s insistence on mass rallies is deeply out of step with the concern harboured by Covid-weary voters.

Third, the President’s attempts to bully and beat the press and digital media into submission are not working as well, although that is not to say they have failed entirely. Twitter has begun censoring the President’s tweets when they violate its rules, performing a delicate dance between the roles of platform and publisher.

The presidential debates in 2016 gave Trump free rein to follow Clinton around the stage, interrupt her and impose his will on the room entirely. The first head-to-head debate this time around was a basket case of shouting and disruption ,and the second was scrapped in favour of side-by-side town halls.

The third, taking place tomorrow, will curtail the president’s instincts by muting the microphone of one candidate to allow the other to make an uninterrupted two-minute introduction at the start of each 15-minute discussion point. After all these years, it turns out the only way to keep Trump quiet is to literally silence him.

A major question looms large – what if the polling is wrong?

So Biden is ahead in the national polls, swing state polls and his campaign has more cash in hand. Even accounting for the same polling error in 2016 in battleground states in 2020, he is still be on-track to secure the required swing states to win the election. It would take a specular mass failure of the polling industry to get this one wrong.

But we are human beings and not computers. We find it inherently hard to shake off the errors made in previous electoral upsets. The EU referendum and 2016 presidential election surprised many. The polling industry took a reputational thumping.

With that in mind, heads are beginning to turn now that Trump is chipping away at Biden’s lead around the country.

Take Pennsylvania – a crucial swing state on both candidate’s potential paths to election, which Trump won by less than 1 point in 2016. A new Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll put Biden ahead by just four points. A Washington Post-ABC poll found Biden and Trump in a dead heat in the battleground state of North Carolina. Those headline figures have begun to dent confidence in the overall polling picture we see nationwide.

If the polling is proven wrong and the President wins re-election, the polling industry will be plunged once again into crisis. And yet, analysts will turn again to polling data at the next election because it remains the best tool of analysis at our disposal. It is imperfect and sometimes inaccurate, but not sufficiently challenged by a viable alternative.

What seems certain is that, irrespective of the current polling outlook, both sides are planning to act once the result of the election are announced.

Trump has urged militias like the Proud Boys to “stand down and stand by”. Clinton has pleaded with  Biden to “not concede under any circumstances”.

The worst-case scenario for election day and the weeks that follow is illegal and armed militias imposing themselves on polling stations and state capitols. The US Conference of Mayors warned in a statement: “There is significant concern that we may see voter intimidation efforts and protests, some possibly violent, in the days leading up to November 3, on that day, and on the days following”.  Local government and law enforcement could become the unexpected heroes of the election.

Do not be entirely discouraged by the dire warning signals flashing in the land of the free. Spencer Cox and Chris Peterson may be well known in Utah, but they are far from household names across America.

But in a rare shared campaign advert, the two competing candidates for Governor of the Beehive State reminded Americans that they can debate the issues without hating each other. There are political points to be scored in bucking the trend of aggressive negative campaigning. Just don’t expect it any time soon in the 2020 presidential election.

Ben Roback: Vice-presidential debates usually don’t matter. Tonight’s does – because either contender could be president soon.

7 Oct

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

From one week to the next, the dominant themes of this campaign swing violently like a dinghy caught in a storm.

At the turn of the year, as we entered the early days of the election cycle, the President had hoped to base his election campaign on three pillars – law and order, the economy, and judicial appointments. The Democratic candidate might have predictably based his campaign on healthcare, social justice and immigration.

Instead, the rapid spread of a global health pandemic and the death of a Supreme Court Justice just weeks before election day put pay to the notion of a predictable campaign narrative.

Now, there question marks surround the health of the President and his inner circle. Covid-19 has torn through the White House like a knife through butter – a tough look for an administration that appears to be above its own restrictions on mask wearing and social distancing.

The President clearly wants to put his positive Coronavirus diagnosis behind him. He has utilised clever videography to portray the image of a strongman who has defeated a virus that has killed over 200,000 of his fellow citizens.

If you’re a Trump fanatic, he is a phoenix rising from the ashes. If you’re not a fan at all, his decision to rush back to the White House, despite remaining deeply infectious, is as reckless as it is downright stupid. You can literally choose your narrative based on two different versions of the same video: pro-Trump or anti-Trump.

It is clear that COVID-19 is now the inescapable focus of the election

Following the President’s personal experience of the virus, it will almost certainly shape the outcome too. IfTrump wins re-election, his ultra-committed supporters will celebrate four more years amidst a presidential resurrection.

If he loses, cries of “China virus” and “foreign interference” are all but guaranteed. DeAnna Lorraine, who won 1.8 per cent of the vote to Nancy Pelosi’s 74 per cent in June’s primary for California’s 12th district in the House of Representatives, and then wrote a book about it, even went so far as to saying that Trump catching Covid-19 could “technically be viewed as an assassination attempt on our President by the Chinese”.

Pages have been consumed by the question of what happens if Trump loses, but refuses to concede. In the event of such a development, whether the cause is the consequences of a bout with Covid-19 or allegations of voter fraud caused by an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, the President could simply refuse to accept the immediate outcome of the election.

His most loyal followers – increasingly devoted and often armed – will follow his lead. The left and right will almost certainly both take to the streets in protest. According to a June 2018 briefing paper by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, there are 120.5 guns per 100 people in the United States. Disaster could ensue.

The most important VP debate since they began 40 years ago

There is no doubt that the President is taking huge risks to project strength at such a crucial time in the election cycle. For a man obsessed with optics, being bed-bound in hospital less than 30 days before Americans go to the polls, and with postal voting already underway, is clearly not an option.

That puts an even greater spotlight on the vice-presidential candidates. Whilst the president is battling the virus, we cannot forget that questions have been raised over the health of the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden.

Critics claim he is losing his sharpness and has a poor grip of the facts. At 78 years old by the time he might enter the White House, Biden is being described as a one-term president who will hand over to his running mate, Kamala Harris, in 2024.

This combination means that the sole vice presidential debate of the campaign has taken on sudden significance. That is an exception to the rule.

For the vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine in 2016 was immediately forgettable. It was obvious then that the two deputies would sink back into the campaign shadows the very next day.

Not so tonight.

Mike Pence is, in many ways, the ‘acceptable’ face and voice of the Trump White House in that he is a traditional Republican carved out of core GOP traditions. Softly spoken, proudly Christian and a family man, Pence plays a straight bat when defending his boss – but is not afraid to play offence, either.

A former prosecutor, Harris will be precise in her approach while pursuing the zingers that make for 30-second soundbites deployabe on social media and in fundraising emails in the days after. Pence will look to land knockout punches without ever raising his voice above his customary gentle tone – very much a la Michael Gove.

Vice-presidential debates are usually very much the undercard to the main event. 37 million Americans watched Pence v Kaine in 2016, 44 per cent fewer than the viewership of the lowest-rated Clinton-Trump presidential debate, which drew 66.5 million viewers. Pence v Harris will lack the explosiveness of Trump v Biden – but, by the same token, the sheer chaos that made it entirely unwatchable.

The viewing figures will almost certainly be much higher than the average for VP debates. Rightly so: Americans might be watching the two deputies battle it out, but with one candidate sick with Covid-19 and another rumoured to be only destined for one term, they could well be watching their future p.