Ben Roback: The economy, stupid! A bounce back would be Biden’s biggest strength; failure his downfall

1 Dec

Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.

The political strategist James Carville is by no means a household name, but the phrase he coined has become gospel in political campaigning. “The economy, stupid!” became a central pillar in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.

The unique economic context laid the groundwork for Clinton’s execution of Carville’s strategy. The recession of the early 1990s was gripping much of the western world and threatened not just their economies. Unemployment in Finland surpassed 20 per cent, riots spread across the United Kingdom, and in Canada forced Brian Mulroney’s resignation as Prime Minister.

As the debate around the state of the American economy rages, these are all consequences Joe Biden is desperate to avoid.

The opportunity to take credit for rebuilding the US economy following the pandemic is arguably the President’s greatest political strength when it comes to his (presumed) re-election campaign. But inflationary concerns, labour market shortages, and long-term supply chain problems could equally be not just his downfall, but also his party’s.

A pre-Thanksgiving speech last week gave an insight into the most pressing economic concerns at the top of Biden’s list.

First, inflation. Workers’ wages are up 4.9 per cent year on year, clear cause for celebration in the White House and around kitchen tables across the United States. But that only tells half the story. Wage growth has been offset by a meteoric increase in the cost of living: 6.2 per cent in the last year. The one figure published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that should worry the White House more than any other is 1.2 per cent, the amount by which average hourly earnings have decreased from October last year to this when inflation is taken into account.

There is not much that Biden and Donald Trump agree on, but one is placing faith in Jerome Powell to run the Federal Reserve. Last week, Biden nominated Powell for a second term as Chair of the Fed, a remit that includes financial regulation and managing inflation.

The decision was the latest example of progressive Democrats falling out with the White House. The left of the Party had lobbied for the appointment of Lael Brainard instead, citing Powell’s apparent weakness on climate change policy, income inequality, and banking power. Powell is, given his incumbency, the safe choice, but progressives in the Senate have threatened to oppose his nomination during the senate confirmation process, which must take place before February 2022.

Powell’s task is monumental, but he needs a disunited Democratic Party to come together if he is to even have the opportunity to carry it out.

Second, supply chains. Chronic supply chain issues have become one of the most critical political backlogs that the White House is desperate to clear, and fast. Ongoing supply-chain problems have helped contribute to inflation reaching its highest level in 30 years, erasing wage gains and denting consumer confidence.

The sight of shipping containers piled high on docksides awaiting processing has become depressingly familiar the world over. The United States is no exception, where ports like Los Angeles have become symbolic of the gummed-up system that threatens the supply of familiar Christmas favourites as the holiday season nears.

The Port Authority of LA has gone as far as threatening to fine businesses who do not process containers quickly enough, but that negates the wider supply chain shortages like insufficient truck driver numbers, lingering shipping delays caused by the Ever Given grounding in the Suez Canal, and perpetual COVID concerns.

The White House acknowledges the severity of the subject. Supply chain issues are complex in their very nature, making the problem a difficult one to solve, let alone explain to voters. This week, the President called in CEOs of major retailers and grocers to discuss these supply chain concerns amidst the customary frenzied period of shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas. A snappily titled speech on ‘The economy, supply chains and lowering costs for the American people’ is expected later this week.

Biden has sought a delicate balance between optimism and caution thus far. At the roundtable, he said that Americans have “a little more hope” about the holidays compared to last year, which was about as confidence-building as Boris Johnson saying this Christmas will be “considerably better” than last year. The measure for comparison could hardly be lower.

It is not commonplace for the White House to have to reassure the American people that they will be able to buy Christmas presents and put food on the table. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week that “throughout the holidays, products will be on shelves and consumers will be able to purchase what they want and need.” ‘There is no need to panic buy’ usually prompts panic buying.

Soaring demand, supply chain delays, labour market deficiencies, shortages in key materials and logistics essentials like wood pallets – it is a vicious cycle that could limit consumer choice this holiday season and the American public will look for a political scapegoat. As George Bush found out to his chagrin, and Clinton to his benefit, under such circumstances the sitting president is usually in their sights.

Ben Roback: Is freedom from vaccines worth dying for?

28 Jul

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

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

President Ronald Reagan’s words have been immortalised over time by conservatives who consider the government an irritating source of interference. Too often governments get in the way when they should be structural facilitators of growth and development. Cut red tape and let businesses/people thrive, don’t flood them with a tsunami of requirements, regulations, and checks.

But what about when any given central government is the only viable solution to a truly existential problem? In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, there appears to be no alternative to a centrally driven vaccine rollout programme.

Trump started it, Biden is finishing it.

The response to the pandemic and the vaccine rollout has been conducted entirely under a Conservative government here in the UK. It gives less cover to those whose mistrust in the government might be centred on an opposition party being in power.

On that basis, in the United States, the Republican position on the vaccine remains curious. After all, the vaccine programme owes its creation and early development to the Trump administration. The former president does not get enough credit for Operation Warp Speed, the public–private partnership initiated by the United States government to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. The US Government sprung rapidly into life and showed how it can be a friend, not the kind of foe described by Reagan.

Donald Trump rightly boasts about the achievement. In a recent speech, he said: “Our operation warp speed was absolutely breath-taking…the Trump administration deserves full credit, which we do.”

Given Mr Trump remains at the political and philosophical heart of the Republican Party, why do so many Republican politicians and the party base itself remain so hostile to the vaccine?

Consider the evidence. Arkansas’s Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson was booed on stage after he said that the Covid-19 vaccine doesn’t affect fertility. Fox News has begun to roll out a new out a new public service announcement to encourage viewers to get a vaccine. “America, we’re in this together,” one presenter said. “If you can, get the vaccine,” another added. Meanwhile, its star presenter, Tucker Carlson, continues his perennial campaign against Covid restrictions and inferred hesitation towards the vaccine programme. Analysing why the American vaccination programme is stalling, The Economist wrote that ‘populist conservatives are to blame’.

Mr Trump is not consistent on the matter. On the one hand, he boasts in speeches about shattering records for vaccine manufacture, approval, and deployment. On the other, he kept his own first vaccination silent for weeks initially. That has created a framework for elected Republicans at all political levels, flanked by conservative commentators through their social and mass media platforms, to continue to decry the vaccines as part of a liberal ploy to control their brains and bodies. That would be strange given the vaccines were approved and rolled out initially by a Republican president, would it not?

The pursuit of freedom is an admirable goal and one that we should encourage, not suffocate. But is freedom an absolute outcome or an aspiration with occasional practical limitations? In the case of the vaccine rollout in the United States, it is clear that health guidance designed to protect Americans from a deeply infectious and all too often deadly virus, has been caught up in enflamed cultural tensions deep-rooted in an inherent mistrust of “the Government” – whether at the local, state or federal level.

One step forward, two steps back

The United States made an impressive start in getting federally approved jabs into arms. For the Biden administration, the weather ahead looks troubling. Fully vaccinated Americans have had the taste of freedom in their mouths since May, when the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) announced that masks needn’t be worn following vaccination. This week, in the face of rising Delta variant case numbers, the CDC reversed its guidance and recommended that Americans wear masks indoors again, particularly in crowded indoor settings. For many, it will feel like a prisoner being released from jail, and then being asked to return through no fault of their own.

The new mask mandate comes at a particularly troubling time for southern states like Louisiana, Alabama and Missouri. These three are suffering from a killer combination – literally – of sudden spikes in Covid-19 cases and weak vaccine uptake. The causal evidence? More than 95% of the patients hospitalised nationwide are unvaccinated, according to state public health officials and the CDC.

The Trump administration deserves credit for initiating the vaccine programme. The Biden administration deserves praise for ramping up its rollout. For the health and prosperity of all Americans, the country has little choice but to come together and recognise that vaccination is the only way out of this Covid-19 nightmare which we have all endured for far too long. Freedom can be pursued at all costs, but in the case of the campaign against the vaccines, is it worth dying for?

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: 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: What the Republican and Democratic conventions tell us about the state of the race

26 Aug

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

The Democratic convention concluded last week without the traditional ticker tape parade and fireworks. There were no screaming hordes or huddled delegates. It was the BBC Proms without Rule Britannia, if you will.

That could not have been helped, of course, given the restrictions imposed by COVID-19. Nevertheless, both parties have done their level best to inject energy and enthusiasm into proceedings.

The most notable example was an often overzealous (and at times borderline fanatical) speech made by Kimberly Guilfoyle, National Chair of the Trump Victory Finance Committee 2020. “The best is yet to come!” she yelled, into an empty convention hall. The speech desperately needed the reaction of an excitable crowd. Instead it felt overly aggressive.

Instead, at the Republican Convention so far, the standout moment was Nikki Haley’s more orthodox convention speech. The former South Carolina Governor and United States Ambassador to the United Nations’ serious tone and vision will be viewed for years to come as her launch pad for a presidential run in 2024. Unlike most of her Republican colleagues, Haley attempted to deliver a serious answer to the current question of racism in America. Instead of describing the election as “shaping up to be church, work and schools versus rioting, looting and vandalism” (Donald Trump Jr.), Haley addressed the issue through a personal prism, describing her background growing up with Indian immigrant parents and becoming the first female Governor of South Carolina.

Although previously a supporter of Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, Haley is a rare example of someone who served in the Trump administration and left on her own terms whilst retaining good relations with the President. If Trump loses in November, attention will quickly turn to her own aspirations.

The Republicans and Democrats appear to have pursued very different strategies

At the start of the year, President Trump would have expected and wanted his convention to be almost entirely about the economy – huge economic growth, low unemployment and record stock market rises. The Democrats might have turned their attention to his record and remarks on immigration, women, race and culture in America. How times have changed.

It is quite clear from that convention so far that the Republican game plan is now centred on cultural issues – namely crime, patriotism and American identity. Joe Biden seems to have caught the zeitgeist a little better, recognising that America is jointly experiencing cultural shifts as well as health and economic crises brought about by COVID-19. The Trump campaign and Republican convention has ignored coronavirus entirely.

The second abundantly clear difference has been in personnel.

The Republican convention has been popular viewing for those who like people whose surname is Trump: Eric, Donald Jr., Tiffany and Melania have all spoken so far. Eric Trump, who has tended to be marginally less visible and antagonistic towards the left that his brother Donald Jr., used a portion of his speech to speak directly to his father and lavish praise on the President’s first term.

But the substance of much of his speech was directed at the Republican base and once again reminded us of the tone the campaign will pursue in the next 70 or so days. “Cancel culture”, accusing Democrats of “lacking patriotism” and “disrespecting our national anthem by taking a knee” both featured heavily. Those hoping for an insight into four more years of Trumpism were left underwhelmed.

Several speakers on the Republican stage painted a picture of a nation on the precipice of Communist chaos. Voters must choose between either liberty or looting. Prosperity or protest. Advancement or anarchy. The Democratic candidate, they have argued, is in the pocket of the radical left and does not have the strength to stop towns and cities across America being blighted by the scenes of civil disorder we have seen time and again this year.

The killing of a black man by armed police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has framed the Republican convention. Street battles have raged between protesters and the police following the shooting of Jacob Blake. Republicans have pointed to the disorder as proof of their warning that law and order might come to an end the moment Donald Trump leaves the White House. Democrats counter that it is further evidence of the urgent need to reform police behaviour. Expect the debate to repeat itself long into the election cycle.

Speakers at the virtual Democratic convention have tried to take a more optimistic tone, painting Biden as a man who can unify a country whose social fabric appears to be cracking at the seams. But it is impossible to escape the fact that a question of credibility might underline that message. Barack Obama sailed into the White House – twice – on an upbeat message of hope and change. A young Senator from Chicago with youthful looks to match his optimistic tone, to many Obama embodied his message. Biden might well be a unifier, but as a career creature of Washington, is he best placed to carry a message of change? So far, the underlying message appear to simply be ‘let’s get the other guy out of the White House’.

Viewing figures are helpful but cannot determine a convention’s success or failure

This is a White House and President obsessed with viewing figures. Trump might therefore be concerned with the first night of the Republican convention’s figures. A total of 15.8 million Americans tuned in, nearly 3 million fewer than the 18.7 million viewers who watched the first night of the Democratic National Convention across the same number of networks. Biden’s keynote speech was watched by 21.8 million Americans – a number the President will be desperate to beat when he takes the stage. For historic context, Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention four years ago drew 34.9 million viewers.

Those numbers might have quite understandably reflected the contrasting strategies taken by the parties. The stage and big screens at the Democratic convention were graced by the great and the good of Hollywood and high society. Chaired by Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria and with comedic interludes from Veep and Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the Democratic convention felt at times more like a political take on an all-star awards gala.

In stark contrast, the high watermark of the Republican convention’s first night was a piece to camera by the St Louis couple who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters as they marched past their home. The American public could be forgiven for opting for a night of Netflix instead.

Trump might be lagging in the opinion polls, but he certainly makes for entertaining viewing. For some, politics is a more serious business than that – especially when a country is in the grip of simultaneous health, economic and social crises. When he stands behind the microphone in the White House to deliver his keynote speech, the President does so as the Republican candidate for president but also the sitting Commander in Chief. As such, his keynote speech will command the attention of more than just the nation. You can bet with certainty that his convention speech will be far from conventional.

What would President Biden and Vice President Harris mean for the Special Relationship?

12 Aug

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

Contrary to some of the analysis of late, Joe Biden is by no means a shoo-in for the presidency in November. Nationally, polls are tightening and at the same point with 84 days to go in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s lead in the Five Thirty Eight polling average was 6.6 per cent. The Biden campaign will begin to face accusations of losing momentum if Donald Trump continues to chip away at his lead. On that basis, it makes sense that Biden has sought to wrestle back the narrative by announcing Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. If the Biden-Harris ticket is victorious in November, the White House will look like a very different place to the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Biden on Britain and Brexit

Biden is no Brexiteer like Trump. Biden and his old boss, President Obama, fell into line with David Cameron when they effectively backed the Remain campaign by declaring an independent UK would be at the “back of the queue” when it came to negotiating a US trade deal. The day after the EU referendum in 2016, Biden was in Dublin and remarked “We’d have preferred a different outcome”.

Nevertheless, the political imperative of the Special Relationship means there is no chance that Biden would abandon the UK on day one of his presidency. On the contrary, one would expect a presidential visit to London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin within the first six months of President Biden’s tenure. It is the final two stops of that likely trip that provide the most interesting topics for discussion.

Both presidential candidates have direct links to the UK. Donald Trump is an Anglophile and reveres his Scottish heritage. Biden’s proximity lies in Ireland. His great grandfather, James Finnegan, emigrated from County Louth as a child, in 1850. In advance of his 2016 visit to Ireland, Biden said: “James Joyce wrote, ‘When I die, Dublin will be written on my heart. Well, Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart. But Ireland will be written on my soul.’” On a purely personal basis therefore, we have grounds for optimism that the Special Relationship is in safe hands no matter the election outcome.

Negotiating a US-UK FTA in a Biden presidency

Biden would almost certainly cool some of the Trump White House’s more aggressive trade policies such as obstructing the work of the World Trade Organization. But Biden’s 40 years of political experience means he knows which way the wind is blowing on trade. He will want to ensure any deal is seen to protect US jobs and domestic production, while maximising export potential.

What is more, Harris, Biden’s newly announced running mate, has said she would oppose any trade deals that don’t include high labour and environmental standards. She opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2016 citing insufficient protection for US workers.

That rings alarm bells for those hoping the UK could ascend to the CPTPP – assuming the United States would do the same – therefore subverting the need for a bilateral US-UK FTA. Furthermore, Harris has little experience of the Special Relationship to speak of. On the foreign policy section of her website, she lists as “key partners” Japan, India, Mexico, and Korea. The UK is conspicuous in its absence for a potential future Vice President of the US

Where Washington and Westminster could align

In four clear instances we see Washington and Westminster aligning under the prospective leadership of Biden and Johnson respectively.

First, the Trump campaign and Republican Party are trying to paint Biden as a puppet of China. Consequently, he is being pushed into a more hawkish corner. That will mean alignment with an increasingly Sino-scepetic Downing Street and Parliament. Trump initially courted Chinese President Xi Jinping but since then has made an aggressively anti-China stance a key plank of his presidency. Having banned Huawei from our 5G infrastructure, Downing Street looks set to be largely in lockstep with Washington regardless of the outcome in November.

Second, Johnson’s government has shown little interest in entertaining Trump’s more excessive foreign policy ideals. The Trump administration has done its best to erode the World Trade Organization, considering it too kind to China. Conversely, Johnson has nominated Liam Fox to be its next Director-General. Both Fox and his successor at DIT, Liz Truss, extol the virtues of global trade and the rules-based international order that governs it. The British government aspires to be an invisible link in the chain that connects trading nations. In that regard, Biden would be supportive.

Third, environmental policy is one area in which Johnson and Trump do not see eye to eye. The stark divergence in approach has become an awkward rift between the two allies. The UK was a key supporter of the Paris Climate Accord from which Trump removed the US. As the Chair of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Downing Street would undoubtedly favour a US President who considers climate change one of the world’s biggest and most pressing priorities. That only applies to Biden.

Lastly, Iran. As Foreign Secretary, Johnson failed in his attempt to persuade the Trump administration to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. Biden would rejoin it in a heartbeat, having been a part of the Obama administration who orchestrated it in the first place.

In summary, the Special Relationship will endure irrespective of the winner in November. Built on a shared understanding and common values, the relationship transcends presidents and prime ministers. On China, the US and UK look set to form an even closer alliance alongside their Five Eyes allies. That is something both Trump and Biden appear to agree on.