Editor’s Note: This was adapted from the November 18 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
How’s Joe Biden supposed to get anything done?
Even when the President-elect shakes off Donald Trump’s sulking shadow next year, he will face a harrowing political environment. By his January inauguration, the current explosion in Covid-19 infections will have left a trail of death and sickness in a nation worn down by nearly a year of pandemic-induced deprivations. And unless Democrats win two Georgia run-off elections, Biden will face a Republican-majority Senate led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is as immovable as the marble blocks of Washington’s memorials.
Democrats have been shocked to see their majority shrink in the House of Representatives, meaning Speaker Nancy Pelosi will not always get her way. Progressive dreams that Biden would enjoy a Franklin Roosevelt-style first 100 days of radical social legislation are dead. Remember talk of packing the Supreme Court, the Green New Deal and new state-run health care? Forget that. The delicate new balance on Capitol Hill means the next two years will likely unfold as a war of attrition, with both parties maneuvering ahead of mid-term congressional elections that are usually cruel to first-term presidents.
But it is not all bleak for Biden. Though he will take office during America’s darkest hour for decades, the prospect of several Covid-19 vaccines could begin to restore light to American life by mid-2021. A bright summer and an economic rebound may lend his presidency significant momentum. And Washington’s divides — which mirror a nation at war with itself — have offered clarity: Biden won the Democratic nomination and the White House because he is not a radical and is driven by instincts to unify rather than divide. A president who can bridge differences and broker modest bipartisan wins — for instance in helping workers who lost jobs in the pandemic — might win widespread approval.
The last four presidencies pulsated with impeachments, partisan fury, terror attacks, wars, economic crises, whiplash change and historic firsts. Long buried passions and prejudices are burning thanks to Trump’s inflammatory term. Even before the pandemic, America was exhausted by an incessant fight between factions with vastly different visions of the country it should be.
A quiet presidency that does little more than restore a semblance of normality isn’t what Biden has in mind. But a time-out from history sounds pretty good right now.
‘A complete ass’
On the same day that Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz grilled Big Tech on permissible speech online, he capped a dispute over masks in the Senate with a blistering tweet, calling Ohio Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown as “a complete ass” for asking another senator to wear a mask while addressing the chamber. Cruz will get away with it on Twitter, but the obscure Senate Rule 19 does prohibit a senator from impugning another while on the floor.
At last some gossip
Part one of Barack Obama’s presidential memoir: “A Promised Land,” published on Tuesday reveals an introspective narrator who runs a self-critical eye over his 2008 campaign and the first few years of his administration. The 44th President is generous to allied leaders but also delivers sharp character sketches of those with whom he shared the world stage.
Vladimir Putin: White House reporters used to take delight in decoding the body language when Obama met the Russian leader. His book notes similarities between the former KGB man and political barons in his adopted city of Chicago. Putin was “like a ward boss, except with nukes and a UN Security Council veto,” Obama writes. For people like him: “life was a zero-sum game; you might do business with those outside your tribe, but in the end, you couldn’t trust them.”
Benjamin Netanyahu: Obama had a difficult relationship with the Israeli Prime Minister who has found Trump much more to his liking. “Netanyahu could be charming, or at least solicitous,” Obama writes. “But his vision of himself as the chief defender of the Jewish people against calamity allowed him to justify almost anything that would keep him in power.”
Hu Jintao: The former President found China’s ex-leader tough going. Obama complains one encounter was a “sleepy affair” and that his attempts to lighten the mood during their interminable meetings usually drew a “blank stare.” Obama was far more impressed with China’s then-Premier Wen Jiabao.
Angela Merkel: Obama gazed into the German Chancellor’s eyes, which he recalled as “big and bright blue” and “could be touched by turns with frustration, amusement, or hints of sorrow.” He found Merkel analytical and confirmed reports she was initially skeptical of his oratory. “I took no offense, figuring that as a German leader, an aversion to possible demagoguery was probably a healthy thing.”
Nicolas Sarkozy: The former French leader, described as “a figure out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting,” couldn’t have been more different from his German counterpart, Obama writes. Sarkozy was “all emotional outbursts and overblown rhetoric,” and though often exasperating, Obama also found him amusing and appreciated his “boldness, charm and manic energy.” The book praises both Sarkozy and Merkel for their support of American values.
David Cameron: Obama got on well with the Eton-educated former British Prime Minister, whom he described as having an impressive command of issues, despite disapproving of Cameron’s Tory philosophy of deficit reduction and budget cuts. The privileged PM had “the breezy confidence of someone who’d never been pressed too hard by life,” he notes.
Manmohan Singh: Obama’s observations on Indian politics are already making waves in the subcontinent. He always appeared to have a connection with the former Indian Prime Minister, and describes Singh in the book as “wise, thoughtful and scrupulously honest.”
‘We’re going to have an orderly transfer from this administration to the next one’
The White House is still trying to buy time, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the next president’s inauguration will not be delayed. “We’re going to have an orderly transfer from this administration to the next one,” said McConnell. “What we all say about it is, frankly, irrelevant.”