The Forum for Partners in Iran's Marketplace

March 2021, No. 96


The Presidentís Priorities

Many problems will carry over into 2021.
The economy will be shaky as long as the virus remains rampant.

The year ahead in America will be a big improvement on its awful predecessor. The country was wracked by such a series of scandals and disasters in 2020 that, by the time voters limped to the polls, Donald Trumpís impeachment trial ten months earlier barely warranted a mention. A quarter of a million Americans were dead of covid-19. Over 10m jobs had been lost. The racial grievances highlighted by the Black Lives Matter protestsósome of the biggest in American historyóhad been inflamed by the presidentís race-baiting on the trail. Mr Trumpís refusal to accept the election result then put even the countryís democracy in doubt.

Many of those problems will carry over into 2021. The economy will be shaky as long as the virus remains rampant. The mistrust of the electoral process that Mr Trump has encouraged among his supporters will be long-lasting. Yet the simple fact of his ejection from the White Houseóafter he became the fourth president in a century to fail to win a second termóhas transformed Americaís prospects of managing its troubles. Mr Trump saw covid-19 as a communications problem to be spun into irrelevance. He saw Americaís racial divisions as a political opportunity. In Joe Biden, America will have a competent president who respects expertise and is committed to bringing people together.

Mr Biden will signal this in an opening flurry of executive actions. He will cancel Americaís withdrawal from the World Health Organisation, rejoin the Paris climate agreement and reinstate the Obama administrationís protections for illegal immigrants brought to America as children. He will scrap Mr Trumpís ban on travellers from some majority-Muslim countries. Mr Biden will end his predecessorís policy of separating illegal child migrants from their parents and launch a mission to find the missing parents of 545 migrant children in custody. He will issue a national mask mandate.

Despite the constraints on his power, 2021 could turn out well for Mr Biden.

His administration will also take rapid steps to rebuild Americaís Trump-bruised institutions. It will restore credible scientists to the Environmental Protection Agency and reintroduce firewalls to protect the independence of the Department of Justice. Mr Bidenís secretary of state will need to restore confidence and order to Americaís muchabused diplomatic corps as much as to its alliances.

These measures will have added significance because of the Democratsí failure to capture the Senate in November. They are unlikely to correct that by winning the two Senate run-off elections due to be held in Georgia in early January. That means Mr Biden will be unable to pass almost any of the economic, health-care, climate and tax policies he promised on the trail. One of his first priorities had been to pass an expansive $2trn economic stimulus package, including investments in green and other infrastructure. Getting a much skinnier stimulus package past Mitch McConnell, the veteran Republican Senate leader, will be a struggle.

Mr McConnell will try to deny the Biden administration any wins and re-establish his partyís reputation for fiscal conservatism (a dogma that only seems to concern its lawmakers in opposition), with a view to making gains in the mid-term elections in 2022. Blocked on Capitol Hill, Mr Biden will have to take more ambitious executive actions to make progress at home, as did the Obama administrations in which he previously served. Expect him to institute further curbs on pollution from coal- and gas-fired power stationsóthough whether such measures will survive the scrutiny of an increasingly activist conservative majority on the Supreme Court bench is unclear.

In foreign affairs, the new administration will represent a dramatic change in tone from its predecessoróand more continuity than many expect. Mr Biden will soothe Americaís traditional allies and restore American leadership to the multinational efforts to contain climate change, Russian aggression and Iranís nuclear programme (see Middle East section). But he will maintain the Trump administrationís adversarial posture towards China, and some of its tariffs. He will slow, but not reverse, Americaís disengagement from Afghanistan. And in Americaís accelerating shift in focus from west to eastówhich Mr Biden will not interruptóthose same old allies may detect more than a hint of Mr Trumpís transactional style.

Despite the constraints on his power, 2021 could turn out well for Mr Biden. This will rest above all on his administrationís ability to make a covid-19 vaccine quickly and widely available. If that goes smoothly, the economy will rapidly make up its lost ground and Mr Bidenís popularity will surge. If it does not, the hope stirred by the end of Mr Trumpís misrule will soon dissipateóto the former presidentís advantage.

The degree to which Mr Trump retreats from public life is another great question for the year ahead. Members of the Republican establishment fear that, by looming over their defeated party on Twitter and television, Mr Trump will be a barrier to reforming it. Their fears will probably be realised. 

James Astill: Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist, The Economist, WASHINGTON, DC


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  March 2021
No. 96