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Joe Biden’s first year as US president included two major historic accomplishments and a series of (often bitter) disappointments that has his party headed toward likely defeat in November’s midterm elections. Biden’s own political future is increasingly uncertain.
A caveat: presidents are never judged fairly. Credit is given and blame assigned for events and circumstances well beyond their control. But the policy and political consequences of their perceived successes and failures are real. They matter for both the future direction of the country they lead and the political fortunes of their parties.
Begin with voters. By historical standards, Biden entered office with modest popularity. He opened at about 55 percent in composites of various surveys and steadily fell to a current level below 42 percent. It’s a downward spiral that leaves him barely more popular than Donald Trump was after his first year in office.
A new poll shows that just 28 percent of respondents would like Biden to run for re-election in 2024, a number that suggests that, unlike Trump, Biden is hemorrhaging support from within his own party.
Few Republicans and a falling number of Biden’s fellow Democrats credit him for the two major accomplishments of his presidency: a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, which passed Congress in March, and a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that became law in November. These investments stand with the largest legislative achievements of the Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson administrations, both of which benefited from much larger congressional majorities than Biden is ever likely to have.
The list of Biden’s perceived failures is much longer. After promising in July that Americans were “closer than ever to declaring our independence” from COVID, the nation now faces a third wave of coronavirus infections. Biden has greatly expanded the availability of COVID tests and vaccines — and he can’t be blamed for Republican aversion to vaccines and masks — but there’s little question he overpromised on an end to the pandemic.
The US economy has posted strong growth numbers, unemployment has fallen sharply since the pandemic’s early days, and US stock indexes reached record highs in December. But a variety of foreseeable factors have produced the highest inflation numbers since the 1980s, a problem that will further disrupt supply chains, cost consumers, and dampen expectations for continued growth.
On immigration policy, the Biden White House was startlingly unprepared for the surge of migrants that was sure to arrive with the end of the “tough on immigration” Trump presidency and periods of pandemic easing.
On foreign policy, Iran’s new hardline government has so far balked at Biden’s invitation to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan left US soldiers dead and American friends behind.
The most immediate test ahead comes from the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin has ordered more than enough troops to Russia’s border with Ukraine to pose a credible threat of military aggression. He has demanded guarantees from NATO that would redesign the security architecture of Europe.
During a Wednesday press conference, Biden warned that Russia would pay a “stiff price” following a Russian invasion of Ukraine. He can back up that threat with unusually harsh sanctions and US-made weapons to Ukrainian troops.
But he also said that a “minor incursion” by Russia would leave NATO members “to fight about what to do and not do.” Ukraine’s government was appalled, and the White House was forced to issue a clarification. Biden has since done some damage control.
But Biden’s greatest political failure has been his inability to lead haggling factions within the Democratic Party toward compromises that might have brought more of the investment and reforms that he and members of his party have promised for years.
Central to the Democratic Party’s message to Americans is that government can (and should) do big things to strengthen the nation and its people. When Democrats hold the White House and both houses of Congress, their voters expect them to deliver on promises to strengthen the social safety net, reform immigration policy, protect voting rights, and expand individual liberties for Americans who have historically faced various forms of discrimination.
When the leader of the Democratic Party, with Democratic majorities in Congress, fails to rally his own lawmakers toward the political deals needed to advance the party’s goals, he’s failing in his most important job — and giving voters fewer reasons to support him or his party when they next go to the polls.
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January 20, 2022
Joe Biden's approval rating has taken a big hit during his first year as US president. Biden is now just slightly more popular than his predecessor Donald Trump at the same point in his presidency. While Biden has made a series of policy and political blunders that might be reflected in polling, this is also a sign of the times: US politics are now so polarized that presidential approval has a low ceiling. We compare the approval ratings of the last five US presidents in their first year.
January 20, 2022
Iran and Russia heart each other. The presidents of Iran and Russia have little in common personally, but they share many geopolitical interests, including in Afghanistan and Syria. They also have a common resolve in countering "the West.” These issues are all on the agenda as Vladimir Putin and Ebrahim Raisi held their first in-person meeting in Moscow. Raisi is a hardline cleric who leads a theocracy with nuclear ambitions. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is a wily autocrat who enjoys provoking America and Europe, and has ambitions to return to the glory days of the territorially expansive Soviet Union — as seen with the Kremlin's recent provocations on the Ukrainian border. With the Iran nuclear talks on life support and Joe Biden already bracing for Russian troops crossing into Ukraine, Tehran and Moscow now have even more reasons to scheme and cooperate. Indeed, Moscow and Tehran have increasingly been cooperating on energy and security issues (Iran might be buying Russian military technology) as their respective relations with the West deteriorate.
Will Sheikh Jarrah eviction spur more unrest? Israeli police evicted on Wednesday a Palestinian family from their home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The removal came after a court ruled against the Salhiyeh family in a land dispute with the municipality (East Jerusalem was controlled by Jordan before it was seized by Israel in the 1967 war). The Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state. But after a years-long legal battle, the court ruled that the municipality can expropriate the land — which it plans to turn into a school (not handed over to Jewish settlers like in previous similar cases). Other Palestinian families also face potential expulsion from Sheikh Jarrah, a recent flashpoint in the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year, protests over the proposed eviction of Palestinian families in the neighborhood set the stage for a brief war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group which rules the Gaza Strip.Kim Jong Un at it again. North Korea's supreme leader isn't top of mind for a preoccupied Joe Biden. And since he hates being ignored, Kim Jong Un is now trying to get the US president's attention by threatening to resume testing nukes and long-range missiles that could hit the US. (This is on top of recently firing off a bunch of hypersonic missiles.) Kim presumably wants to restart negotiations to lift crippling US economic sanctions in exchange for ending North Korea's atomic weapons program. But Biden has quite a bit on his plate at the moment, and would rather first sign a nuclear deal with the Iranians. Kim might have better luck with Moon Jae-in, South Korea's president, who wants to make peace with North Korea before he steps down after the election in March. The frontrunner to replace Moon favors détente with Pyongyang, but he's not yet assured victory against his hawkish rival, who wants the US to deploy tactical nukes on South Korean soil to deter the North Koreans.
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Hard Numbers: Namibia’s anti-LGBTQ ruling, Red Cross hacked, Biden to deliver N95 masks, North Korean compensation
January 20, 2022
2: Namibia’s High Court ruled against two gay couples seeking legal recognition of their marriages. The judge said she agreed with the couples, who are seeking residency or work authorizations for foreign-born spouses, but is bound by a Supreme Court ruling that deems same-sex relationships illegitimate.
515,000: The International Red Cross says hackers infiltrated its database, compromising the personal information of 515,000 vulnerable people, including migrants and those displaced by conflicts. The Geneva-based organization believes the hackers were likely criminals hoping to profit from the data breach.
400 million: As omicron continues to spread, the Biden administration will distribute 400 million free N95 masks to Americans starting next week. But some analysts have criticized the move, saying it will further disrupt supply chains.
240,000: A New York court ruled that the family of Otto Warmibier — a US student who died in 2017 after being detained by North Korea — should be awarded $240,000 in seized assets from Pyongyang. Plaintiffs in Japan and South Korea are pursuing similar legal avenues to hold the North accountable for human rights abuses.
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No one knows whether Russian President Vladimir Putin plans on invading Ukraine. But the president of the United States sure seems to think this is a real possibility, saying Wednesday that Putin will likely "move in" in the near term. Biden, prone to political gaffes, was then forced to awkwardly walk back comments that Russia would face milder consequences from the West in the event of a "minor incursion."
The timing of this blunder is... not great. It comes just as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to meet his Russian counterpart on Friday in hopes of lowering the temperature after recent diplomatic efforts in Geneva were deemed a failure by Moscow.
Indeed, with the Kremlin having amassed at least 100,000 troops surrounding Ukraine on three sides, the growing threat is impossible to ignore. So what would a Russian military offensive into Ukraine actually look like, and how might the West respond?
How far might Putin go?
Most analysts agree that it’s extremely unlikely that Putin will launch a wholesale invasion of Ukraine, which, given the immediate expense and likely Western response, would prove a very costly exercise that could push Russia into recession. Indeed, a full-scale occupation would also be a hard sell to the Russian public, because large numbers of Russians troops would return home in body bags. Putin knows that a Ukrainian insurgency in urban areas could drag on for a long time, leading to a mounting death toll.
If Russian forces do advance further into Ukraine, they could annex the Donbas region already held by Russian separatists and seize adjacent territory to create a buffer. But this would come with serious economic consequences for Russia, which would then have to provide basic services for millions of poor residents who live in its newly acquired territory.
And even a limited Russian offensive could lead to a significant refugee crisis, as was the case in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, displacing about 1.4 million people. This time, many Ukrainians might try to cross into Russia or flee to nearby states like Poland and Belarus, creating a refugee crisis that reverberates through Eastern and Central Europe. Though this would mainly be a problem for the European Union, Putin can predict the potential diplomatic and geopolitical consequences for Russia.
What would Washington do about it?
The Biden administration has made clear that it will not send American troops to defend Ukraine, which is not a NATO ally, but would impose fresh — and harsher – economic sanctions to punish the Kremlin. Unlike in the past when Washington has mainly targeted Russian oligarchs, sanctioning Russian financial institutions and sovereign debt — which could include all international entities that lend Russia money – is also on the table.
But in order to really make Moscow hurt, Washington needs the Europeans to match the sweeping sanctions it has floated (about one-third of Russia’s current reserves are in euros). Indeed, Biden reiterated this Wednesday: "I’ve got to make sure everybody’s on the same page as we move along.” But currently, Europe, which imports 45 percent of its gas from Russia, does not seem to be in lockstep with Washington. Moscow could cut off crucial supplies during a frigid winter (it wouldn’t be the first time that Putin has used natural gas supplies to create geopolitical leverage).
The stakes are particularly high for Germany, which is seeking to certify the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would keep even more natural gas flowing from Russia. The new leader of Germany’s opposition, and Angela Merkel’s successor as head of the CDU party, has rejected Washington’s proposal, saying that American threats to cut Russia off from the international banking system would do “a lot of harm” to Western economies.
The NATO equation
If tensions continue growing in the coming weeks, NATO could reinforce its troops in parts of the Baltic and Black Seas, which could lead to an (unwanted) military confrontation with Russia. Moreover, it’s likely that NATO and Washington will transport large supplies of Western-made weapons to help Ukrainians fight back against Russian attacks. Still, because Ukraine is not a NATO member state, the alliance is under no obligation to defend it — and most of the major decision-making will likely fall to Washington and Brussels. (Biden also came under fire this week for suggesting that NATO unity was a concern in dealing with Russian aggression.)
What’s more, a Russian attack could cause states like Finland and Sweden to rush to join the alliance – precisely the kind of additional NATO pressure at Russia’s borders that Putin claims threatens Russia’s security.
An invasion is hard to imagine. But so is the prospect of Vladimir Putin backing off without at least the appearance of a major concession from NATO.
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January 20, 2022
Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, discusses the Democrats voting bill.
What is the status on the Democrats voting bill?
The Democrats are pushing a bill that would largely nationalize voting rules, which today are largely determined at the state level. The bill would make Election Day a national holiday. It would attempt to end partisan gerrymandering. It would create a uniform number of early voting days and make other reforms that are designed to standardize voting rules and increase access to voting across the country. This matters to Democrats because they think they face an existential risk to their party's political prospects. They're very likely to lose at least the House and probably the Senate this year. And they see voting changes that are being pushed by Republicans at the state level that they say are designed to make it harder to vote, particularly for minorities, a key Democratic constituency.
Republicans see this as a power grab. They argue that the changes happening at the state level are reverting back to the pre-pandemic baseline. And during the pandemic, voting laws were expanded nationally. And they argue that the laws in states like Georgia, which Democrats are calling Jim Crow 2.0, are actually no more restrictive than the voting laws in a state like Delaware or New York, where two of the nation's most prominent Democrats come from. Regardless, this voting legislation is going nowhere. Republicans are uniformly opposed. And while Democrats are united in support of the voting reform changes, there are not enough votes in order to change the Senate rules to overcome a Republican filibuster.
As long as the filibuster exists, it will be nearly impossible to pass any kind of electoral reforms that could help Democrats push back on the tide of a system that largely benefits Republicans today. The US political system is structured in favor to benefit the more rural areas, and Republicans largely dominate in rural areas.
So knowing this bill will be blocked, why hold the vote at all? Well, this is a hugely important issue for the Democratic base and for the Democratic Party who worried about being locked out of power for the next 10 years. By holding the vote, Majority Leader Schumer hopes to pressure two moderate democratic holdouts and draw a contrast between them and the rest of the party. And he wants to send a message to the activist base that they support them, even though the Democrats are not united. The end result will probably be a failure to act and also further alienation of the two moderate holdouts, who Biden also needs their support on his fiscal policy bill, the Build Back Better bill, which is currently stalled until least March and probably beyond that.
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Omicron has arrived. It's more contagious, but less severe. Some parts of the world are even looking forward to the pandemic becoming endemic.
Not China. Xi Jinping's zero-COVID strategy has worked wonders until now, but it's unlikely to survive omicron, explains Ian Bremmer on GZERO World.
Why? China's vaccines are not as effective against the new COVID variant as mRNA jabs, and the Chinese population has no protection from previous infection.
Without a homegrown mRNA vaccine, China is vulnerable to local omicron outbreaks, which will lead to severe lockdowns and, in turn, greater economic disruption.
That's the last thing Xi wants less than a month out from the Winter Olympics, and later this year, when he hopes to get an unprecedented third term in office as China's leader.
Watch this episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Omicron and the undoing of China’s COVID strategy
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