Letters From an American

Leaving Loaded Dice on the Table for Biden

Leaving Loaded Dice on the Table for Biden

November 27, 2020

As he lays out his plans for his first hundred days in office and begins to fill positions, President-Elect Joe Biden is making it clear he intends to rebuild the institutions and alliances Trump has gutted. At the same time, his focus on rebuilding the economy for ordinary Americans as a community, rather than as individual men, is new.

The emphasis on the first hundred days is artificial and simply reflects the flurry of activity that Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched to deal with the Great Depression when he took office in March 1933. Pundits now use the hundred-day measure to judge how effective a president is early in his term. Biden is a very good negotiator, but he will be facing Republicans determined to prevent any government action, so just how successful he will be in getting legislation through is unclear. He will at least move a number of pieces around through executive action.

As he explains his plans, Biden is beginning in the obvious place: we simply must get the coronavirus under control in order to stop the devastation it is causing across the country. With that success, the economy can rebound. The United States just suffered a million cases of coronavirus in a week; since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 264,000 of us have died of it. In the entirety of the epidemic, the United Kingdom has suffered 1.6 million cases; Germany, 1.02 million. Our hospitals are stretched, our health care professionals and front-line workers exhausted.

In an interview with journalist Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News on Tuesday, Biden indicated he will also take action on immigration, climate change, and health care in the first 100 days. As always, he maintains that these issues can all be adjusted in ways that build the economy.

He also said he would not interfere with the Justice Department, as his predecessor has done. Traditionally, the Department of Justice is not political, but Trump and his attorney general William Barr have used it to advance Trump’s political interests. Biden vows to return it to its normal independence.

Biden told Holt that he wants to rebuild the economy for ordinary Americans. “I’m focused on getting the American public back at a place where they have some certainty, some surety, some knowledge that they can make it,” he said. “The middle class and working-class people are being crushed. That’s my focus.”

The emphasis of Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris on rebuilding economic security for ordinary Americans is an old promise with a new definition. Since World War Two, politicians have tended to define the primary unit of American society as based in a breadwinning white man who supports a wife and children.

This image has never reflected the majority of households. Biden and Harris are changing the old pattern, visibly reaching out to communities of color and people who do not live in nuclear families. On Thanksgiving, it was a small thing, but a very noticeable one, when Harris urged her followers on Twitter to “check in on your single friends.” The new administration’s focus on ordinary Americans has grown out of our history, but its emphasis on community, rather than male-centered nuclear families, is new.

Biden has also indicated he will reclaim our place at the international table as a strong ally to Europe, rather than trying to force new alliances with autocratic leaders in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and similar countries.

Meanwhile, Trump seems to be trying to tie Biden’s hands and leave him with messes both at home and abroad. In addition to the fences Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has tried to put around coronavirus relief by clawing back congressionally appropriated money, Trump has tried to burrow loyalists into the government to stop its normal operation.

In October, Trump issued an executive order that created a new category of federal employees who could be appointed without going through normal civil service channels, but could not be removed for political reasons. This will enable him to fill government departments with Trump loyalists. And this is no small deal: Real Clear Politics obtained a memo saying that the Office of Management and Budget, which under Trump has been a vehicle for implementing the president’s plans contrary to law—it was the OMB that held up appropriated money to Ukraine in 2019, for example—is planning to put 88 percent of its employees into this new category.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced a purge of longstanding members of the Defense Policy Board, a group of foreign policy experts who advise the Secretary of Defense and his team about specific issues when they want outside opinions. Those removed were former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, who served under Democratic President Bill Clinton, and Henry Kissinger, who has been a stalwart of Republican foreign policy since the Richard Nixon administration, as well as former leaders of Congress and the Pentagon. They will be replaced by Trump loyalists.

This change comes after the purge of civilian leaders in the Department of Defense shortly after the election. In addition, according to Defense News, 24 of the 60 positions at the Department of Defense that require Senate approval are not occupied by confirmed appointees. Increasingly, our foreign policy ranks are filled with people loyal to Trump.

These purges may or may not have something to do with the assassination today of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whom US.and Israeli intelligence services say was behind Iran’s push for nuclear weapons. Fakhrizadeh was killed when gunmen ambushed his vehicle near Tehran, Iran. Iranian officials called the attack terrorism and vowed revenge.

Former CIA Director John O. Brennan was appalled at the attack. “This was a criminal act & highly reckless,” he tweeted. “It risks lethal retaliation & a new round of regional conflict.” American officials have unofficially said that Israel was behind the killing. Although the US has not been associated with the attack, it is well known that America and Israel are allies that share intelligence about Iran, and just two weeks ago news broke that advisers had to talk Trump out of attacking Iran when inspectors reported that the country had at least 8 times the uranium it would have been permitted had Trump stayed in the 2015 nuclear deal that limited Iran’s acquisition of nuclear material. Both the White House and the CIA have declined to comment on Fakhrizadeh’s death.

If this assassination was indeed an attack by a foreign government, Brennan said, it is “state-sponsored terrorism” “far different than strikes against terrorist leaders & operatives of groups like al-Qaida & Islamic State, which are not sovereign states.” Those groups, considered illegitimate combatants under international law, can be targeted to stop terrorist attacks. Citizens of foreign states cannot.

Recognizing that this attack will likely limit Biden’s ability to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, as he has promised to do, Brennan noted: “Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage & to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits.”

Trump is also withdrawing US troops from postings around the world. Troop removals from Afghanistan appear to offer a window for the Taliban to retake key positions there, and as it appears we will withdraw 700 military personnel from Somalia, observers there worry extremists affiliated with al-Qaida will gain the upper hand just in time for elections, which take place in December and February. Suddenly withdrawing troops makes the US look like an unreliable partner, which will further weaken our traditional alliances.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty of 1992 is another way to hamper Biden’s attempt to strengthen our European ties. The treaty permitted the 34 signatories to it to fly over each other’s territory to observe their military operations. The administration plans to sell the planes it used for its inspections, and rejected plans to build more. Biden has said he will rejoin the treaty, but that would require the approval of the Senate which, dominated by Republicans, is unlikely to agree. It is possible that Biden could sidestep the Senate by Executive Order.

Trump has also indicated he will veto the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the military, unless a bipartisan provision to rename the ten military bases named for Confederate officers is stripped from it.

Trump is looking out for friends, though. On Wednesday night he pardoned his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak during the transition period before Trump took office.

So, while Biden is trying to return the country to something like a pre-Trump government, it seems the administration itself has come full circle. It was then-FBI Director James Comey’s refusal to stop investigating Flynn’s Russia dealings that led Trump to fire Comey in May 2017, which led to the Russia investigation that Trump still blames for undermining his administration. Four years later, Trump is still stuck in the same quagmire.

Flynn, Trump said in a statement defending the pardon, is “an innocent man.”

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.