At 4am Thursday AEDT, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be inaugurated as president and vice president of the United States, replacing Donald Trump and Mike Pence. What follows is a discussion of US political events over the past two weeks.
On January 5, Democrats won the two Georgia Senate runoffs. Raphael Warnock (D) defeated Kelly Loeffler (R) by 2.0%, and Jon Ossoff (D) defeated David Perdue (R) by 1.2%.
After November’s elections, Republicans held a 50-48 Senate lead, so these results enabled Democrats to tie the Senate at 50-50, with Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote. Democrats gained a net three Senate seats from the pre-November Senate.
On January 6, pro-Trump rioters stormed Congress as it met to certify Biden’s Electoral College victory. The rioters were clearly influenced by Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud. Despite the riots and the courts’ resounding rejections of Trump’s claims, two state certifications were contested: Pennsylvania, which Biden won by 1.2% and Arizona (Biden by 0.3%).
Seven Republican senators out of 51 objected to Pennsylvania’s certification, as did 138 Republicans in the House of Representatives, with smaller numbers objecting to Arizona. The House objectors included House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy.
Just 64 House Republicans opposed the objection, so of those who cast a Yes/No vote on objecting to Pennsylvania, 68% supported the objection. Democrats were unanimously opposed.
It is not just Trump or the rioters, but also these Republicans in Congress who objected to the certifications on baseless election fraud claims who deserve to be condemned for anti-democratic behaviour.
I had two articles for The Poll Bludger about Georgia and the anti-democratic nuttiness of Trump and Republicans. The first was a preview, while the second was a live blog on the Georgia results and the events in Congress the next day.
In response to the riots, on January 13 the Democrat-controlled House impeached Trump for the second time by a 232-197 margin. All Democrats and ten Republicans supported impeachment. It requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict. Trump’s Senate trial will not start until after he leaves office.
Since the riots, social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have blocked Trump’s accounts. But for two months after the election result was called by the media, Trump was able to use his Twitter account to rant that the election was stolen from him.
It is not surprising Trump’s supporters believe him: in a recent poll for the US ABC News and the Washington Post, over 70% of Republicans do not believe Biden was legitimately elected.
In the wake of the riots, Trump’s ratings have slumped. In the FiveThirtyEight aggregate, 38.5% approve of Trump’s performance and 57.9% disapprove, for a net approval of -19.4%. His net approval has dropped nine points since the riots. Trump’s net approval is his worst since December 2017.
FiveThirtyEight has charts of presidential approval since Harry Truman (president from 1945-53). Two previous presidents (Gerald Ford and John F. Kennedy) did not reach Trump’s four years as president. Of those who had at least four years, Trump’s final net approval is worse than all except Jimmy Carter at this point in their terms.
In a Marist poll, 47% thought Trump would be remembered as one of the worst presidents, while 16% thought he would be remembered as one of the best.
After results are finalised, I have published a detailed report on every US presidential election since 2008. My 2008 and 2012 reports are at The Green Papers here and here, and my 2016 report is at The Conversation. My 2016 report had a massive surge in views in October and November last year.
My 2020 election report, published December 11, is at The Poll Bludger. Here are the highlights:
Biden won the Electoral College by 306 to 232, but he only won the tipping-point state (Wisconsin) by 0.6%. The tipping-point state is the state that puts the winning candidate over the magic 270 Electoral Votes needed to win.
Biden won the national popular vote by 4.5% or just over 7 million votes. So the tipping-point state was 3.9% more pro-Trump than the popular vote.
Trump’s vote held up well with the non-University educated whites who had given him his upset 2016 win. Biden owed his Electoral College victory to gains in the suburbs, where there is a higher amount of university education.
Trump improved greatly from 2016 with Hispanics, leading to large swings in his favour in diverse places like Miami-Dade county, Florida and New York City.
There was disappointment for Democrats relative to expectations in Congressional races, although the Georgia runoff results have improved this.
In an age of hyperpartisan politics, the Biden presidency offers a welcome centrism that might help bridge the divides.
But it is also Biden’s economic centrism that offers a chance to cut through what has become an increasingly polarised approach to economic policy.
On the Republican side of politics, there is strong support for neoliberal economic policies – that is, economic policies that don’t just emphasise the importance of markets but represent a kind of free-market fanaticism. Ronald Reagan aptly expressed this view in his 1981 inaugural speech, in which he said “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem”.
On the Democratic side, the centrism of the Bill Clinton era (1993- 2001) has given way to much more left-wing policies. Indeed the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been in the ascendancy for several years.
If you have any doubt about this, consider two facts.
First, Sanders came very close to being the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 2016. Second, the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries were dominated by candidates with similar views – such as Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Biden, of course, ran on a much more centrist economic platform.
This was perhaps best captured by his approach to health care – seeking to build on Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) and insure more people, rather than adopt the “Medicare for All” policy advocated by Sanders and Warren.
In a whole range of areas Biden and his nominees for important cabinet posts have signalled the new administration’s economic policies will be responsive to the demands of the left but still be sensitive to the concerns of the right.
Who’s who in Joe Biden’s cabinet
One of the most important things the administration will do in its early days is to orchestrate a large spending package to help deal with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
This will include spending on the vaccine roll-out, helping schools reopen, extending unemployment insurance and cheques to households.
So the spending package is likely to be huge. But the administration is not going to spend with complete abandon and without acknowledging constraints.
As Biden’s pick for Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, said in her confirmation hearing:
Neither the president elect, nor I, proposed this release relief package without an appreciation for the country’s debt burden. But right now, with interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big. In the long run, I believe the benefits will far outweigh the costs, especially if we care about helping people who’ve been struggling for a very long time.
Sanders and others’ “Medicare for All” plan involves single-payer (i.e. the government) universal coverage and ending private health insurance. This would be similar to the approach in Scandinavia, Canada and Britain.
Biden has strongly resisted this on two fronts.
One, it would be incredibly expensive, costing US$30-40 trillion over a decade. Two, it would involve more than 150 million Americans losing their current insurance.
Instead, Biden wants to expand the Affordable Care Act with more incentives to push towards truly universal coverage. This is something Mitt Romney (the Republicans’ 2012 presidential candidate) might easily have proposed. Don’t forget that as governor of Massachusetts (from 2003 to 2007) he enacted a plan almost identical the Affordable Care Act – an idea championed by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Biden’s tax plan certainly involves raising taxes but not to anywhere near the levels called for by the democratic socialist wing of his party. Nor will he embrace a wealth tax like Warren championed. Under her plan, people with assets of more than US$50 million would be taxed 2% of that amount a year (and 3% for more than US$1 billion).
But he does plan to raise the top income tax rate (on income more than US$400,000) from 37% to 39.6%. He will raise the flat 21% corporate tax rate introduced by Trump to 28%.
US companies will need to pay a minimum tax of 21% on foreign income – addressing the issue of companies avoiding taxes through legal set-ups in low-tax overseas jurisdictions (such as Apple in Ireland).
Biden will even introduce a tax penalty on companies that move jobs overseas if their products are sold in the US.
This is not a package any Republican administration would be likely to introduce. On the other hand, it falls dramatically short of what Sanders, Warren and Ocasio-Cortez want.
The Biden economic plan is responsive to the current – almost shocking – state of the US economy. His health care and tax policies are sensitive to concerns about inequality.
His approach acknowledges, rightly, that with interest rates at historic lows there is room for considerably more spending than in the past, despite already huge deficits. But it also acknowledges there are limits to what the government can or should do.
In that sense it is something even conservative Republicans ought to be able to live with – and common ground is something the US desperately needs to find.
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