Since it’s in our interest to have a successful United States, it’s also in our interest to have a successful American President. So we wish Joe Biden well on this, his inauguration day, and during his term of office. In that spirit, what’s the best that can be said of him?
Quite a lot, it turns out. Biden is not from the left of his party. Though the Democrats aren’t the Conservatives’ sister party, a slice of Tory activists will have wanted him to win – and, probably, a bigger one of Conservative Parliamentarians, plus Tory voters.
He has a long history of engagement with Europe, its institutions, and the UK. He knows Britain and values it as one of only two countries in western Europe that can project military strength.
On Iran, climate change and Russia, he is closer to our Government than the previous administration was. China presents America with a rising strategic challenge; his policy towards it is likely, because of the current of events, to be tougher than Barack Obama’s.
A Biden presidency would have been a headache during Brexit – that’s to say, during the negotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement, especially given its Northern Ireland dimension, and the Trade and Co-operation Agreement.
But he arrives just as Brexit finishes, in terms of the agreements that underpin it. (It’s finished here, at any rate: they’ve not been ratified yet within the EU, remember.)
On balance, one can understand why the Government would collectively prefer the multilateralism, the conventionality, the normalcy and, surely, the predictability of the new administration’s approach to foreign affairs (compared to Donald Trump’s, at least).
As Jonathan Caine wrote on this site yesterday, Biden’s Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, and his National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, are known quantities – old Obama hands.
Looking at them on film or reading them in print brings with it the strange sensation that the Trump years, with their Apprentice-type hirings and firings in national security (like everything else) were somehow a dream.
It is a bit like waking up from reality TV back to find oneself back in The West Wing, or something a bit like it, minus the hyper-eloquence, the cameras that follow the protagonists from room to room, and the jokes.
Biden has known family tragedy, which will have deepened him; and is old enough not to spring any unpleasant surprises (or so we hope). And finally: he isn’t an egomaniac.
That’s a fair-sized chunk of good news, but we’re afraid that it this point it runs out. Big problems arrive with this presidency, and they’re not hard to spot.
First, Biden is the only President in modern times who can reasonably be expected at the start of his first term not to seek a second. Ronald Reagan was 69 when elected in 1980. Trump was 70 in 2016. Biden is 78. Will he really fight another election at the age of 82?
The jostling for the Democrat candidacy in 2024 is likely to begin sooner rather than later, and it must be likely that the party moves left during the next four years in protest against the compromises of government (as many of its activists will surely see them).
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin don’t have the luxury of contesting elections, in any sense that remotely resembles that of the liberal democracies. They will treat this instability as a weakness.
Second, it is impossible to see how he can unite America. If you doubt it, read Lord Ashcroft’s polling on ConservativeHome this morning. The country is deeply, frighteningly divided on culture, as it faces a future in which its economic primacy is under challenge.
Biden is old enough to remember more confident, cheerful times (though lived out beneath the shadow of mutual assured destruction). He may try to bring a bit of their flavour back – by reaching out to the Republicans in Congress, for example.
But the Republicans will be busy trying to exorcise the ghost of Trump; or, more likely, summon him up from the dead or, more likely still, both.
And the two parties were bifurcating long before Trump or Hillary Clinton came along. Remember Newt Gingrich shutting down Congress during the mid-1990s.
Third, the cultural conflict in America hasn’t been confined, as it largely has here, to the destruction of statues and the “cancelling” of dissenters – ominous though these developments are.
Look at the murder figures in some of the country’s major cities last year. Up by 54 per cent in Boston, a stronghold of the Irish-America of which Biden is a product; by 58 per cent in Atlanta; by 74 per cent in Seattle.
It would be simplistic to tie the lot to George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and America’s ineradicable legacy of slavery. But if you want to understand why the Republicans polled so well last November, bear all that in mind.
Our media’s reflexive hostility to and bewilderment at the country’s Right, with its guns and God, long preceded Trump, and is a serious barrier to understanding why a vast swathe of middle America fears the Democrat activists who chant: “defund the police”.
It would take a political genius of Mount Rushmore proportions to restore civic calm and bipartisan neighbourliness amidst this chaotic public square. Biden doesn’t even begin remotely to match that description.
Indeed, other than his appointees to date being chosen to “look like America”, observers in the States are struggling to see a consistent pattern to them.
“Former National Security Advisor and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who built her entire career on foreign policy, is to be chief domestic policy advisor. Denis McDonough, who has never served in the military, will head Veterans Affairs.”
And a recently retired U.S. Army general, Lloyd Austin, has been nominated to run a Defense Department meant to be led by civilians,” writes Michael Hirsch.
Andrew Sullivan says that Biden has capitulated to the Far Left on immigration. How much a grip will the new President have? After all, it’s not as though America saw much of him on the campaign trail.
Trump at least delivered a boom, unsustainable as it may have been. When push comes to shove, the Democrats will want to spend, tax and regulate more, which augurs badly.
At the end of El Cid, the dead hero is lashed to his horse, and his enemies flee in terror. We hope that the enemies of liberal democracy do likewise when they see Biden come thundering towards them.
Unlike the legendary Spaniard, the President-elect is alive and, as far as we know, well. But we fear that, like him, Biden may present a noble spectacle but will nonetheless turn out to be a prisoner of events.