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On Wednesday, Joe Biden will become president because eighty-one million Americans, the highest tally in US history, voted to change course after four years of Donald Trump's leadership. Like all presidents, Biden and his vice president, Kamala Harris, take office with grand ambitions and high expectations, but rarely has a new administration taken power amid so much domestic upheaval and global uncertainty. And while Biden has pledged repeatedly to restore American "unity" across party lines — at a time of immense suffering, real achievements will matter a lot more than winged words.
Biden has a lot on his agenda, but within his first 100 days as president there are three key issues that we'll be watching closely for clues to how effectively he's able to advance their plans.
<p><strong>At home: the pandemic, naturally.</strong></p><p>As the pandemic rages globally, Biden is taking office in one of the sickest nations on earth. Confirmed cases surpassed 24 million, roughly 4,000 Americans are dying of the virus daily, and the unemployment rate is nearly seven percent. It's no surprise that<a href="https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-pandemics-race-and-ethnicity-immigration-coronavirus-pandemic-7535108288ea054830ff542654c1def5" target="_blank"> polls show</a> 53 percent of Americans see tackling the virus as a top priority, with close to 70 percent saying the same about the pandemic-wracked economy.</p><p>The centerpiece of Biden's response plan is a proposed $1.9 trillion<a href="https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/14/politics/biden-economic-rescue-package-coronavirus-stimulus/index.html" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> stimulus package</a> that includes cash to help state and local governments manage the crisis and their finances, an additional $1,400 in direct assistance to low and middle income Americans, an extension of unemployment benefits, and funding for better COVID testing and vaccine rollout.</p><p>Biden needs to start with a bang, and congressional bargaining over this bill will test his ability to get things done with slim majorities in the House and Senate. Some Republicans and moderate<a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/533355-manchin-on-proposed-round-of-2k-checks-absolutely-not" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> Democrats</a> are<a href="https://www.vox.com/2021/1/16/22234722/republican-coronavirus-relief" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> already balki</a>ng at the price tag and targeting of the funds. The usual compromises will be made — on the size of the bill and its targeting — but if the haggling drags on while Americans suffer, Biden will pay a political price for it, affecting his ability to move the economic recovery legislation that he's teeing up for later this year, as well as to make good on his pledges to advance legislation on<a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/house-passes-sweeping-anti-discrimination-bill-to-expand-protections-of-lgbt-people/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> civil rights</a>, guns, and immigration.</p><p>One simple benchmark to watch here: Biden has promised that 100 million vaccine doses will be administered by day 100 - that's between now and April 29.</p><p><strong>Abroad: the clock ticks in Iran</strong></p><p>Of all the foreign policy challenges that await Biden — rebuilding ties with European and Asian allies, finding the right balance of confrontation and cooperation with a rising China, and don't forget North Korea! — the most urgent test he'll face early on comes from Iran. Biden has signaled he wants to return the US to the 2015 nuclear deal, which Trump abandoned in 2018. But the clock is ticking. The Iranians — who have stopped abiding by the deal's limits on uranium enrichment since the US walked out — are now<a href="https://www.timesofisrael.com/iran-says-it-is-producing-half-a-kilo-of-20-enriched-uranium-every-day/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> ramping up</a> their production of bomb-ready material. </p> <p>For another, Iran holds presidential elections this summer, and a hardliner who is less-inclined to negotiate with the West is likely to win. (The ultimate decision will remain with the Supreme Leader, but a hawkish new Iranian president can complicate the bargaining.) But rejoining any deal will be ultra-contentious on Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers of both parties want Iran to accept tighter constraints not only on its nuclear program but also its conventional war-making and regional meddling capabilities. Biden has argued that a more conventional, multilateral foreign policy can boost US interests in ways that Trump's impulsive unilateralism didn't. Iran will give him an early chance to prove it. </p><p><strong>Immigration: a test approaches</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Dramatically reducing the number of immigrants — both legal and illegal — was one of President Trump's signature, and most contentious, projects. Biden will immediately<a href="https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/17/biden-to-reverse-trumps-muslim-ban-on-inauguration-day" target="_blank"> undo Trump order</a>s that limited asylum opportunities or barred US entry from certain majority-Muslim nations, and he is teeing up a landmark<a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-pitch-year-pathway-citizenship-day-immigration-reform/story?id=75333490" target="_blank"> immigration reform bill</a> that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants already in the US.</p>But the issue could flare up well before that bill enters Congress if large groups of migrants force the issue at the southern border in the coming months. Over the weekend, Honduran police used<a href="https://www.npr.org/2021/01/18/958092745/migrant-caravan-thousands-move-into-guatemala-hoping-to-reach-u-s" target="_blank"> tear gas and batons</a> to turn around one such group, but others will form as people fleeing violence and poverty across Central America anticipate a better chance to reach the US now that Trump is gone. Mexico has already warned that Biden needs to address the issue squarely — after four years of Trump's often cruel and unusual policies along the Rio Grande, a fresh crisis at the border will force Biden to prove he can do things better and more humanely.
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It wasn't pretty, but we made it to Inauguration Day. These last four years have taught the US a lot about itself — so what have we learned?
<p>We've learned that when it comes to the continued functioning of US democracy, two institutions have acquitted themselves particularly well. The first is the military — one reason the <a href="https://www.gzeromedia.com/american-carnage" target="_self">events of January 6</a> didn't turn into an actual coup is because the military never wavered in their commitment to the US constitution, and stayed out of domestic US politics. For four years, the military brass demonstrated the independence of its chain of command, and resisted Trump's pressure to do his domestic political bidding. The one time it didn't — clearing out Lafayette Park so that Trump could stage a photo op — was such a chastening moment that the <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/06/11/875311214/gen-mark-milley-apologizes-for-appearing-in-a-photo-op-with-president-trump" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Chairman of the Joint Chiefs apologized</a> even for the perception of impropriety. One shudders to think what would have happened if senior members of the US military were more receptive to Trump's strongman inclinations.</p><p>The other institution that deserves praise is the judiciary. As dozens of courts across the country have proved in the interregnum between Election Day and Inauguration Day, the US court system remains free of political interference and intervention, even when the most powerful political figure in the country launches false claims and files frivolous lawsuits designed to muddy the political waters. While Trump's claims of election fraud have indeed succeeded in convincing a segment of the US electorate that Joe Biden didn't win the election legitimately, US courts were having none of it, and remain among the robust political institutions in the United States today.</p><p>That's the good news. The bad news is that Trump's stoking of political divisions demoralized a civil service that for generations took pride in being non-partisan — a near-impossibility during the Trump years. It's also further widened already an unworkable political divide in Congress, making it impossible for Congress to rise above the political fray to attend to the business of the people. What's more, Congress has lost much of its ability to act as an effective check on the Executive, one of its most important functions.</p><p>Furthermore, for many Americans Trump's assault against accepting electoral defeat forever tarnishes Biden's electoral victory, and possibly the entire electoral process going forward. Social media has been elevated from a sideshow of politics to arguably its most important arena, raising <a href="https://www.gzeromedia.com/blood-and-glass-and-the-power-of-big-tech" target="_self">real and difficult questions</a> about freedom of speech, who is responsible for policing these platforms and what responsibilities and limitations political leaders have in using them. And it's fair to say that Trump has changed expectations for the kind of character people will expect in future US presidents, for better and worse.</p>With Biden assuming office, the US returns to more traditional political leadership. But that doesn't mean the United States will suddenly regain the stature it enjoyed before Trump took office — too much has changed for both the US and the world to suddenly turn back the clock. What has changed most <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/13/america-is-exceptional-in-the-nature-of-its-political-divide/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">is the depth of the division within US society today</a>. For the last four years, the political dysfunction in the US emanated from the very top; the events of the last few weeks show that the political dysfunction will persist well after Trump's departure from the Oval Office. If Biden hopes to change the world he's inheriting from Trump, he'll need to begin at home.
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January 19, 2021
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:
Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and it is the last full day of the Trump administration. Extraordinary four years, unprecedented in so many ways. I guess the most important feature for me is how much more divided the United States is, the world is, as coming out of the Trump administration than it was coming in. Not new. We were in a GZERO world, as I called it well before Trump was elected president. The social contract was seen as fundamentally problematic. Many Americans believed their system was rigged, didn't want to play the kind of international leadership role that the United States had heretofore, but all of those things accelerated under Trump.
So perhaps the most important question to be answered is, once Trump is gone, how much of that persists? It is certainly true that a President Biden is much more oriented towards trying to bring the United States back into existing multilateral architecture, whether that be the Paris Climate Accord, or more normalized immigration discussions with the Mexicans, the World Health Organization, the Iranian Nuclear Deal, some of which will be easy to do, like Paris, some of which will be very challenging, like Iran. But nonetheless, all sounds like business as usual.
<p>But I would say that after the events of January 6th, the most significant response that I heard from world leaders around the world was shock that that could happen in the United States and certainly more awareness of the divides in the United States, of the reality that Trump is less of an aberration and more of a structural consequence than perhaps they had been willing to believe, or internalize, accept. And so, even though I think we're going to see a honeymoon of the United States with allies, with most allies, there will also be a ceiling on just how reintegrated the US will be diplomatically with these countries.</p><p>Some of which because China is more powerful and has more influence around the world. And that also continues, was happening under Obama, has sped up under Trump, and will continue under Biden. Some of that because there's more hedging on the part of American allies around the world. And some of it because the United States isn't as aligned on some key issues with other countries. I think about the response on technology. You saw how the Germans and the French were really critical of Trump being de-platformed by Google, and Facebook, and others.</p><p>You look at the Europeans today. Their views on the future of technology, not clearly aligned with the United States. I think more aligned with the US than China, but not obvious that it's massively so. They'd much rather, if they have a choice, continue to hedge. And on climate, even though Biden will be much more aligned with the Europeans than Trump was, we shouldn't pretend that these countries are going to be in lock step. So, I mean, some of it is a geopolitical environment where American adversary, principal adversary, is getting stronger. Some of it is that the United States is less willing to play the kind of role it has, and other allies don't believe in it. And some of it is because the actual policy orientations are changing over time.</p><p>And all of those things mean that the Americans don't get to come back to the status quo ante. And it'll be very interesting to see how the incoming Biden team deals with that. It's very interesting to see how Armin Laschet, who has just taken over the reins of party leadership from Angela Merkel and may well become the next chancellor of Germany, how he deals with that issue.</p><p>Another big issue about how we deal with it is Russia. Haven't spoken as much about Russia recently, but after the events of this weekend, how could I not. Alexei Navalny, the most popular member of the Russian opposition, hard to say there's a leader of the Russian opposition because political parties that are formally opposition in Russia are allowed by the Kremlin, and Navalny is not that, he has been detained for 30 days, kind of a show hearing where he wasn't allowed access to his defense attorney, really a joke. Upon him landing in Moscow, the plane was diverted from Vnukovo Airport to Sheremetyevo, which is where most of the international flights historically had come in, at the last minute by the Russian government, as well as a detention of family members and friends that were waiting for Navalny.</p><p>Look, staggering bravery and courage of Navalny going back to his homeland after a failed assassination attempt by poisoning. And he was in Germany for months. You could say, "How could he do that? Because he's obviously risking his life." Then you can ask, "How could he not do that when he knows just how badly his countrymen have been mistreated by a dictatorship, and his relevance, his ability to make a difference in his country, for his country inside, and standing for what he knows is right, is so much greater than he can as an exile living in comparative comfort in a country like Germany?"</p><p>Look, I mean, I have no idea, if I was in his position, how I would act, but I will tell you that an extraordinary amount of thanks, of gratitude, that we have human beings like that, who are capable of putting the many before the needs of the one, I'm going to go back to Star Trek, if you want. It's quite something to see, and to watch it play out real-time, and he knows, and his wife, who was with him on the plane, knew exactly what they were getting into. And not only did it not stop them, in some ways, it emboldened him. There will be additional sanctions from the US and Europe.</p><p>There'll be travel restrictions on Russian officials. It will have virtually no impact on the Russian economy. And it's kind of like what the Chinese are doing, rounding up all of these Democrats and arresting them in Hong Kong. It's making rule of law impossible in that territory. It is ending an agreement to have one state and two different political systems. And ultimately, the Chinese government doesn't feel like there are any consequences.</p><p>And it is that impunity, my friend, David Miliband, the former foreign secretary for the UK, that impunity, as he writes about, that leaders around the world increasingly feel when there is an absence of global leadership, when the United States no longer has the same level of credibility to be able to lead by example, when there are massive divisions, and the country that is most powerful after the United States is, frankly, the opposite, in terms of the absence of human rights and indifference to individual liberties and privileges. We're going to see a lot more of this. And it is the behavior of brave individuals like Navalny that give all of us hope that even as the geopolitics are so truly problematic, that human spirit remains indomitable. And lots for us to continue to hope for in this 2021. So next time I'll talk to you, there will be a new President of the United States. The underlying structural issues will still persist, but there will be a lot to talk about. Hope everyone's doing well. Stay safe, avoid people. Talk to you soon.</p>
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January 19, 2021
Tunisians demand change: Marking ten years since Tunisians sparked the Arab Spring by taking to the streets to demand the ouster of longtime autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a fresh generation is now protesting the country's dire economic and social crisis. Security forces responded with a heavy hand, using tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters who hurled gas bombs, and over 600 demonstrators were arrested. As Tunisia descends further into economic ruin, with youth unemployment hovering at 30 percent, protesters demand a new election (they have not been placated by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi's recent attempt at a government reshuffle.) Demonstrators say that the political class has failed to follow through on pledges of reform made during the 2011 revolution: since then, living standards for most Tunisians have plummeted while poverty has soared. While Tunisia is the only state involved in the Arab Spring that became a democracy, the political elite has largely failed to root out corruption and inequality. Last year, the government responded to similar protests by creating more public sector jobs, but options are limited now due to pandemic-fueled economic stagnation.
<p><strong>Navalny back in Russia:</strong> Top Russian dissident Alexey Navalny was <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/18/world/europe/aleksei-navalny-russia.html" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">arrested</a> on Monday upon his return to Moscow from Germany, where he was treated after being poisoned in Russia last year. What happens now? The Kremlin must tread carefully. On the one hand, <a href="https://www.gzeromedia.com/what-were-watching-navalnys-return-to-russia-italian-pm-in-the-hot-seat-covid-probe-begins" target="_self">Navalny</a> — an outspoken nationalist and anti-corruption crusader — is a perennial thorn in Putin's side, and enjoys some real support in Russia's big cities. On the other hand, keeping the fearless Navalny locked up could backfire, fueling a fresh protest movement in the run-up to this fall's legislative vote — something the Kremlin is desperate to avoid. The last time Putin — who unlike with other opposition figures, famously never refers to Navalny <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/03/this-gentleman-alexei-navalny-the-name-putin-dares-not-speak" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">by his name</a> — headed into Duma (parliament) elections with approval ratings as low as they are now was in 2011, when Navalny himself led hundreds of <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-16122524" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">thousands of protesters</a> angry about election fraud and Putin's tight grip on power. (Also, Putin certainly won't love Navalny's revelations about the president's <a href="https://www.rferl.org/a/navalny-putin-palace/31052807.html" target="_blank">palatial private strip club</a>). An early test of Navalny's ability to rally crowds will come on January 23, when he <a href="https://www.npr.org/2021/01/18/958080423/after-arrest-kremlin-critic-navalny-calls-on-supporters-to-take-to-the-streets" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">called</a> on Russians to stage mass demonstrations "for your future." Before that, get ready for likely fresh sanctions on Russia from the <a href="https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/navalny-arrest-could-prompt-inauguration-of-eu-magnitsky-sanctions-regime/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">EU</a> and the <a href="https://thehill.com/policy/international/russia/534752-romney-calls-for-senate-to-pass-sanctions-on-putin-over-navalny" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">US</a>.</p><strong>Conte hangs on in Italy:</strong> Italy's fragile coalition government narrowly <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/italian-pm-giuseppe-conte-survives-confidence-vote-in-senate/a-56277943" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">survived</a> a confidence vote in the Senate on Tuesday, after several senators — including independents and those from the junior party that forced the cabinet's <a href="https://www.gzeromedia.com/hard-numbers-italian-cabinet-crisis-chinese-jab-woes-israel-raids-syria-africa-procures-vaccines" target="_self">collapse</a> last week— decided to abstain. This will allow political outsider Giuseppe Conte to remain as prime minister, but weakens his power at the worst possible time: Italy is in the midst of a national emergency due to a severe economic crisis and an upsurge in COVID cases after emerging as one of the world's hardest-hit countries back in the spring. The <a href="https://www.gzeromedia.com/what-were-watching-navalnys-return-to-russia-italian-pm-in-the-hot-seat-covid-probe-begins" target="_self">current political crisis</a> was spurred by opposition to the <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55661781" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">PM's refusal </a>to let Italy take on even more debt to get the economy back on track, and his insistence that technocrats — not politicians — decide how EU pandemic relief money is spent. In the coming weeks, we'll be watching to see if Conte succeeds in lobbying moderate parties to agree to his spending plans, or finally steps down if his <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/19/italy-pm-giuseppe-conte-wins-senate-vote-leads-minority-government.html" target="_blank">minority government</a> can't get key legislation passed. The far-right Lega party, currently leading in <a href="https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/italy/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">election polls</a>, is surely hoping for the latter.
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