james debate
james debate

Saturday 9 January 2021

On January 20th, Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States. He takes the reigns of a country in free-fall, reeling from a seemingly unending litany of crises, many of which were self-inflicted by the previous administration. The new President needs to hit the ground running in order to get this house in order. With this post I will run through what should be the early priorities of this administration, many of which can realistically be achieved through this new Democratic majority.

2020 2021 joe biden 46th president new administration priorities legislation policy plan first year trump election inauguration

1. Get Coronavirus under control
This one goes without saying. The first and main priority for any President at this time should be getting this pandemic under control and putting an end to the catastrophic and ongoing loss of American life. 

Of course, we need to be realistic. There is only so much a President can do, it's not going to be a case of snapping his fingers and making everything better. Even with the best leadership, this is going to be a long and hard fight. That being said, there is an awful lot that the President can do to improve the situation, whether it is through mask mandates, lockdowns and tighter restrictions. Joe Biden will also establish a much needed Covid-19 task force and prominently feature medical experts in his response strategy, as opposed to the political strategists who have mystifyingly been put in charge of the Trump plan.

But perhaps the single most important thing the President can do to help handle the pandemic is educate the public. Set the right example, explain the need to wear a mask, the need to wash your hands and observe social distancing. For the past year, our Government has been officially telling people that the virus is no big deal and that they did not need to take any measures to slow its spread, and surprise surprise the virus has spread out of control. Simply changing this approach and educating people on the simple, easy steps they can take will do much to slow the spread.

2. Re-commit to the Paris Climate Accord
This is something that the new President can and should do on day one of his presidency. The Paris Climate Accord was a historic agreement that implemented a sensible and achievable strategy in order to protect our environment and safeguard the future of this planet. 

Donald Trump's announcement to withdraw from this agreement, making his pariah state the only nation on Earth not to commit towards solving this actual existential crisis, has been much overshadowed by the many scandals and more marketable crises since, but will nevertheless go down as one of the more reckless and unfathomable policy decisions of his presidency. Fortunately Joe Biden will reverse the previous administration's decision to leave the accord and can do so unilaterally as soon as he enters the White House.

3. Undo Trump's healthcare sabotage
There are few instances in which one can point to an actual belief or ideological stance among Trump's various policy endeavours. If there is a single unifying thread through most of the, admittedly few, things he attempted to accomplish as President, it would be the desire to reverse any actions taken by his predecessor Barack Obama (and in doing so provide his base with the validation they so desperately craved). Prime among these initiatives was the push to repeal Barack Obama's signature healthcare expansion.

The attempt failed, so instead Trump decided on an even more pathetic and underhanded strategy: attempt to legally sabotage the law so that it would be vulnerable to being overturned in the courts. The specific mechanism here was to reduce the non-compliance tax to 0%, and then argue in the courts that a 0% tax was unconstitutional and therefore the rest of the law must be repealed because it needs the tax to function. It's a nonsense, a fact made clear at the very least by the fact that the law has been functioning perfectly fine for years without it. Nevertheless, with the high number of extremist judges that Trump has managed to pack onto the courts, there's a very real chance of this insane endeavour working. While this would actually do very little to undo everything that Obamacare accomplished (after all, if you repeal a law to build a bridge, it doesn't un-build the bridge) it would remove many of the regulations and protections that hold the American healthcare system together, plunging the sector into a death spiral and almost certainly costing many American lives in the process. 

Fortunately this is also something that can be easily undone by the next President. A bare majority would be sufficient to reinstate the tax, thus rendering the entire case moot. President Biden should move to do this in his first week in office and he should follow it up by passing additional legislation to make the law less vulnerable to such cynical attempts at undermining in the future.

4. End gerrymandering & Electoral reform
If we have learned one thing from the past four years, it is that American democracy has a number of major flaws. The Trump administration began with the President and both chambers of Congress having been elected by a minority of the votes and shockingly this was in no way abnormal. Indeed, the Republican Party has only won the national popular vote once in the past thirty years, despite having controlled Government for most of that time. American democracy is shockingly undemocratic. It has been twisted and corrupted into a system that, as often as not, permits the preferred minority to defeat the majority. Clearly this should not be the case if America wants to continue to represent itself as the heart of democratic values. 

There are a number of steps that can be taken to help fix this system. One that has been in the news a lot over recent years is the abolition of the electoral college, the outdated system that allowed Donald Trump to take power despite losing the 2016 election by several million votes. This is extremely unlikely to be something that happens through Congress, as it would require a two thirds majority to amend the constitution. A more realistic alternative is the national popular vote compact, an initiative that calls on the states themselves to agree to award their electoral votes to whomever wins the national popular vote. There is actually a realistic proposition of this coming to pass eventually. It has currently been signed by states representing 196 electoral votes, with bills pending in states representing an additional 77. If those states sign (unlikely to happen in the immediate future) then the initiative will pass and the electoral college, while not technically abolished, would be rendered irrelevant.

A more immediate, and potentially even more important, step that can be taken to fix American democracy is a ban on gerrymandering. Gerrymandering, in short, is an undemocratic process by which politicians draw their own district borders so as to lump unfavourable voters into as few districts as possible, essentially to choose their own voters (this, for example, is why the Democratic Party currently needs to win nationally by historic margins just to squeak a narrow majority of seats). Congress can and should pass a law to end this practice, mandating that states establish independent and non-partisan commissions to draw their borders. This is actually something that Biden could move pretty quickly on, requiring only a bare majority of votes. It would also be largely immune to judicial challenge, given that the question of gerrymandering has been sent to the Supreme Court on many occasions, only to be dismissed as a question for Congress to resolve on each occasion.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention the shocking disenfranchisement problem that Americans currently face. This includes the long and surprisingly open attempt to exclude minority voters (in some extreme cases, by incarcerating them on minor charges) as well as less subtle initiatives such as voter purges and reducing the number of polling stations in urban districts. There are a few laws that Congress could pass pretty quickly to reduce the impact of these shameful practices: make election day a national holiday, re-enfranchise convicted felons who have served their time, as well as strengthening the federal electoral commission and other similar regulatory bodies.

5. Statehood for Washington DC and Puerto Rico
Along these lines is another national disgrace that, quite frankly, we have ignored for far too long. There are millions of American citizens who currently have no representation and no right to vote nationally. 700k people in Washington DC alone, a further 3million in Puerto Rico, as well as others. That's more people than live in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota combined, and yet they do not enjoy the same rights as those citizens. 

But this is more than just a crisis of democracy. The shocking events in America's capital this week laid bare in striking fashion the very real toll of non-statehood, with DC officials lacking control over even their own national guard (which unlike every other state, is controlled by the Federal Government). The citizens of DC were unable to defend themselves from an attack, all because a capricious and hostile President refused to deploy DC's national guard. I expect this will inspire a renewed push for statehood, and rightly so. It is a national embarrassment that so many people are treated as lesser citizens for purely political reasons.

6. De-radicalisation of American extremists
Nobody wants to say it, but after this week's violent attack we really need to. It's easy to watch the recent news clips of these unhinged insurrectionists screaming about socialism or muslims or how Joe Biden is a Chinese child-rapist and just think to yourself "oh well those people are just crazy". But this is a much bigger problem than we want to admit. These types of wild, completely fictional beliefs are shockingly widespread. These are not bad people, they are not crazy people. Despite what many on the left like to believe, they're not even necessarily stupid. There are many completely normal, completely rational and otherwise intelligent people who have inexplicably turned into wild conspiracy theorists and I'm sure many of us know a few. 

We need to call it what it is. These people have been radicalised. Just like any other extremist movement anywhere else in the world, otherwise normal people have over time been twisted and manipulated to a worldview that is angry, fearful, and completely untethered from reality. It's not even necessarily their fault. The tools that liars and propagandists use to manipulate and poison the minds of the receptive have grown more subtle, especially in the mass media and digital age. The documentary The Brainwashing of my Dad does an excellent job of shining a light on this problem and I'm sure there are others. This is the biggest problem that America doesn't even realise it's facing. This extremism has led to our current state of division, anger and violence. It will only get worse if we simply continue to ignore it.

So what can we do about it? That's the question and it's more of a longterm project for this new President, but one that he will need to address at some point. It could take the form of campaign finance reform to prevent the unlimited and anonymous funding of propaganda, or greater regulation of the media to prevent people from spreading propaganda under the guise of legitimate news. Election security, to prevent hostile actors from targeting and manipulating the vulnerable (as we saw in 2016) would be a good move. Longer term it may require additional efforts through education, a greater emphasis on teaching our children about critical thinking and making sure they are mentally equipped to resist manipulation in the digital age. In the most extreme cases, we may need to consider a fully fledged program of de-radicalisation, similar to what we saw in the wake of World War II, or that we currently employ in the fight against terrorism.

I appreciate that this is a difficult topic to discuss and controversial in many ways. But mark my words, if we do not address this problem directly the violence will only get worse.

7. Crack down on corruption in law enforcement
Now let's be clear, I have never been part of the "defund the police" crowd. I think that's a stupid idea and one of the worst political hooks I have ever heard. That being said, it is clear that the police needs to be reformed in many ways, a fact that has been plainly thrust into the spotlight in the wake of this week's attack on the Capitol.

Some of the most shocking footage from the attack has been that of police officers aiding the attackers, allowing them through barricades and waving them on to the Capitol building. Posing for pictures with them and turning a blind eye to their criminal actions. The fact that the police force was so lacking for this attack compared to the Black Lives Matters protestors last summer is shocking enough, even more so when you see footage of police officers escorting the attackers away from the Capitol and letting them go on their merry way rather than being arrested on the spot. 

Nor is this an isolated incident. Many of us still remember the footage from Kenosha last year where police appeared to endorse armed vigilantism, even when those vigilantes went on to shoot and kill peaceful protestors. We may not need to defund the police, but they certainly need much greater oversight and accountability.

8. De-politicise the courts
This is a tricky topic, but one that needs to be addressed in some form. The rule of law in America has become increasingly politicised. In recent years we have seen the courts get packed with politically minded appointees, turning the judiciary into a de facto third legislative chamber, but one over which the voters have practically no influence. This has been a problem for a long time, but it reached an entirely new extreme during the Obama years, with the Republican Senate obstructing the judicial appointment process at an unprecedented level to the detriment of the country, culminating in the still-shameful theft of Merrick Garland's seat on the Supreme Court. 

We saw the problem in all its absurdity last year with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For an octogenarian cancer patient's life to be turned into a political football, for the wellbeing of so many to rest on a single individual forcing herself to continue a job at the expense of her own health rather than retire and seek care, is an absurd and unacceptable situation for so many reasons. A member of the judiciary falling ill or dying should not cause a political crisis or endanger the healthcare of millions, that is ridiculous. It is medieval. It is clearly an unsustainable way to run a modern democracy. One way or another, we must address the political dynamics that gave rise to so appalling a situation.

So what can we do? Many have suggested simply expanding the court. I do not favour such an approach on its own. This may at least recoup the two ill-gotten Trump Court seats, but without real structural reform there is nothing to stop future administrations simply doing the same ad infinitum. It kicks the can down the road and creates a self-fulfilling death spiral for the court. More substantial reform is needed. 

I am not sure what form that reform should take. Term limits would seem to be a sensible suggestion to avoid the absurdity of RBG's sorry plight. Pete Buttigieg had a decent suggestion that only some of the court's seats could be political appointees, with the others appointed by members of the judiciary. But the best suggestion I have yet heard comes from Andrew Yang, who points out that there's no real reason to have a single Supreme Court bench of just a few Justices. He advocates a wider bench of many Justices who sit on different cases according to their expertise and standing. This would increase court efficiency and allow the court to handle a larger number of cases each year. Most importantly it would reduce the significance of any single individual Justice since, if one dies or retires, they could just be replaced by one of the other Justices. This de-escalation of the significance of every single court appointment is the best solution I have yet heard for how to de-politicise the process, and ensures that the death or illness of a Justice does not also become a political crisis. 

9. Salvage the Iran nuclear deal
One of the most significant foreign policy accomplishments of the Obama administration was the Iran nuclear deal. It ended decades of brinksmanship between the Middle East's foremost powers, ensured stability free from the spectre of nuclear war, and provided an economic pathway for Iran to shift away from extremism and towards becoming a true global partner.

The Trump administration's betrayal here has increased the likelihood of a nuclear Iran and plunged the region into chaos. Most importantly, it dashed the internal credibility of Iran's reformers, setting back by years the movement to de-radicalise and moderate the nation. It's a disaster for the region and for the planet as a whole. If that wasn't enough, it also calls into serious question the trustworthiness of the United States. Why would anyone commit to any kind of international agreement with the country if they can just unilaterally break that agreement? If the global community was not so dependent on the United States, they would surely (and rightly) have been slapped with sanctions over this move.

For these reasons, it is absolutely essential that Biden do what he can to reverse the damage caused by the Trump administration. It may be too late to salvage this deal, especially without making some major concessions, but for the sake of peace and regional prosperity, it is an urgent crisis that requires attention.

10. Hold the previous administration accountable for its criminality
Many will disagree with me on this point, but this is something that I feel strongly needs to happen. The past four years have been a very dark period in our nation's history, a period of deep corruption and lawlessness. From financial crimes to foreign collusion, from obstruction of justice to extortion and abuse of power, from bribery-for-pardons to attempted electoral fraud, the last administration has committed a number of actions that appear to be criminal in nature. Several members of that administration have already been charged with crimes relating to these actions and there are still criminal contempt charges that were passed against Bill Barr and Wilbur Ross that have been just sitting there waiting to be actioned. All this before we even mention the sedition and violent coup attempt that came to a head this past week, an effort that was participated in not only by Trump but by many members of his own party and supporters. And these are just the things that are publicly known. Given this administration's penchant for lying and obstructing investigations, there could be much more beneath the surface of which we are not even aware.

When Richard Nixon resigned his office he was granted a blanket pardon in order to help the country move on and unify. Already there have been calls to do the same here, mainly from members of Trump's party. This is a terrible idea. This is not burglary or petty crime, this is an attempt to violently overthrow the United States Government. This is a widespread insurrection movement consisting of thousands of Americans who currently believe that their cause is righteous. Simply ignoring the problem will do nothing to bring those people back from the brink, if anything it will empower and perpetuate their cause. The only way to bring this country back together and end the division is to hold the criminals accountable and take away the legitimacy of the movement. There needs to be a massive effort (a special prosecutor or a political crimes commission) to enforce justice here and send a loud and clear message that these people are criminals and that their conduct is not acceptable. Every single one of them must be held accountable.

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list of everything the next President should or will do. He will no doubt have his own legislative agenda and things that he wants to accomplish. This is merely a list of the items that I feel are either so urgent that they require immediate attention, or that are important and quickly achievable enough that there is no good excuse not to get them done. 

Whatever targets Joe Biden sets in his first 100 days, it is clear that he faces great challenges, many from within his own country. I would hope that most Americans will join me in wishing him luck and hoping that we can look back on the next administration as one that was able to repair the great damage that has been done to our country, and finally take us forward in the right direction again.

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