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6 months in office: where is Biden most vulnerable?

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US President Joe Biden on jobs

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden will mark 6 months in office.  He has had strong successes, but there is much more to accomplish ahead

Biden’s popularity is positive and steady above 50 per cent.  His policy proposals have met with strong approval:  how he has managed the pandemic, the vigorous jobs gains and economic recovery, the direct financial support to families and workers, a more normal summer of being together with friends and family and travelling again, and an overall sense of optimism about the future. 

The troops have come home from Afghanistan, American leadership on the world stage is valued again by US allies.  There was direct engagement with President Putin. Biden is strengthening policy across Asia and will soon engage more directly with China. 

Biden’s Cabinet officials are performing well. His White House staff is viewed as exceptionally able.  Processes are orderly.  The chaos of the Trump years is gone. The press is no longer the enemy of the people.

While it has been an exceptionally good six months, there are many challenges yet to be faced and overcome

Partisanship in the capital is at poisonous levels. 

The Senate Republican leader says he is committed to “100%” opposition to what Biden is doing. Legislation that passes the House of Representatives faces death by filibuster in the Senate.

President Joe Biden speaks about his administration’s response to the coup in Myanmar in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

There is no movement on issues that tear at the fabric of American life:  voting rights, gun control, immigration reform. 

What is the Republicans game-plan?

While Biden supporters clamour for action but there is no clear road ahead.  The Republican game-plan is simple:  stop Biden from governing and take that failure to the midterm elections next year and take back control of Congress.

Former US President Donald Trump

The next crucial piece of economic recovery – rebuilding the country with a vigorous infrastructure program and advancing Biden initiatives on education, climate, and health care – are all in the balance in the Senate. Whether the bipartisan infrastructure agreement truly holds – will it die because of lack of sufficient Republican support? – will be the crucial test of whether any meaningful engagement between the president and the Republicans is possible. Votes are expected this month.

But where is Biden really vulnerable? 

Republicans have not been successful in attacking Biden frontally on his major legislative achievements:  curbing the pandemic, rolling out the vaccines, financial support, jobs and growth, infrastructure, education and skills.  

Instead, their focus is on cultural issues that tap into the raw emotions Trump unleashed throughout his presidency, and they are pushing these hot buttons:

  • Crime, and the rise in crime violence in American cities.  Over the weekend, there was a shooting outside National Stadium in Washington, where a ballgame was underway.
  • Immigration, and whether the southern border is “out of control.” There have been as million arrests at the border this year, and over 180,000 in June – a 20-year high.
  • Inflation, where there are sharply rising costs for petrol, housing, and some foods, and whether the massive Biden spending programs are fueling these price rises.
  • Instability in Cuba and Haiti, and whether this will trigger as wave of refugees headed to Florida.
  • Afghanistan, and whether the Taliban will take control over the country and threaten terrorism.

Republicans will take these culture war issues into next year’s elections.

Biden knows all this. He is focused.  He knows what he wants to get done. And he believes he can.

Bruce Wolpe is a Ticker News US political contributor. He’s a Senior Fellow at the US Studies Centre and has worked with Democrats in Congress during President Barack Obama's first term, and on the staff of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He has also served as the former PM's chief of staff.

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Sinema Paradiso – Biden loves this movie

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It was a shocker out of nowhere when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced a week ago that he had reached a deal with Senator Joe Manchin on a revival of significant pieces of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda for the American people:

  • The largest investment in clean energy and renewables ever undertaken by the United States, putting the US more firmly on track to meeting most of its 2030 carbon reduction targets
  • Reduced prescription drug prices for consumers and cuts in health insurance premiums – saving millions of households billions of dollars in the cost of medicines and health care
  • A national minimum corporate tax – with no tax increases for Americans earning less than $400,000

BEVERLY HILLS CALIFORNIA – It was less than a month ago that Manchin shredded Biden’s agenda, leaving the president’s party with very little to show voters this November that they can govern. 

Disunity among Democrats means political death, because if the party that controls the House, the Senate and the White House cannot produce the legislative goods for the American people, the Democrats’ half life going into the November midterms will be halved again.

Finally, the Democrats in the Senate fully understood this, from the socialist warrior Bernie Sanders, who decried what was left of the ambitious Biden agenda (this bill “does not address the major crises facing working families,” he said) to Ed Markey, the leader for decades on climate change. Markey said he would vote “to protect” the Schumer-Manchin-Sinema compromise — “which means voting no on amendments, even ones I support” on climate.  Both Senators understood it was better to get something real done than to be left with nothing for voters – that no Democratic Senator could let the best be the enemy of the good, as much as they hated settling for far less than they wanted.

Even Kirsten Sinema of Arizona finally came to the party she had helped wreck last December, when her vote for the Biden agenda was not certain. She stood firm on nixing one funding mechanism – taxing wealth industry managers on their capital gains – by accepting other taxes that would more than foot the bill.  

As they say here in Hollywood, Sinema Paradiso was a boffo performance.  And the president loved it:

“Today, Senate Democrats sided with American families over special interests, voting to lower the cost of prescription drugs, health insurance, and everyday energy costs and reduce the deficit, while making the wealthiest corporations finally pay their fair share.  I ran for President promising to make government work for working families again, and that is what this bill does — period.”

Behind the scenes, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who last year when everything was booming blew the whistle on the inflation that has been roaring across America for months, concluded that these social items, paid for in this way, would help curb inflation.  Other eminent economists concurred.

And to nail that point, this bill is called the “Inflation Reduction Act.”

The Senate vote on Sunday, with the 50-50 tie between Democrats and Republicans broken by Vice President Kamala Harris, capped one of Biden’s best months in office:  The killing in Kabul of the head of Al Qaida, the passage of the most significant industrial policy legislation in years to spur the strength and competitive edge of the US semiconductor industry, overdue legislation to care for veterans exposed to burn pits in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the new gun safety legislation. And this new legislation will build on the trillion-dollar infrastructure rebuilding program enacted into law last year. And Biden had Covid.

Suddenly, Joe Biden looks good in the Director’s chair.

One more vote later this week in the House of Representatives will crystallize all this.  The same political lesson re-learned by Senate Democrats now is staring House Democrats in the face.  They have a margin of four votes.  Unity will ensure victory; defections will bring down the curtain on dozens of their House colleagues – and themselves.

All this sudden legislative momentum, after months of paralysis, is occurring when the extremism of the Trump Supreme Court is causing a shift in the political tectonic plates.  Last week, in one of the most Republican states in the country, Kansas, voters decisively rejected a state constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion. That meant that a lot of Republicans in Kansas (!) thought the Supreme Court had gone too far. In Indiana late last week, the Republican legislature passed one of the strictest anti-abortion laws anywhere -and it was immediately signed by the governor.  This will happen in other states. 

Millions of women, and those who care about them, are angry that their constitutional right to reproductive health care has been taken away.  And they are mobilizing to vote in November.

Republican political hardheads are worried the anti-abortion zealots have gone too far.

For all these reasons, this is a moment for Democrats to show they can deliver on significant promises they made to the American people in 2020 and shift the polarity of these extraordinarily polarizing times.

If they fail in the House, this movie is over.

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China releases video to scare Pelosi from Taiwan

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The new broke mid-morning Monday in Washington.  The Wall Street Journal reported that House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi is going to Taiwan. 

SUMMIT COUNTY COLORADO – Neither the Speaker’s office nor the White House would confirm the trip, but spokesman John Kirby, speaking from the briefing room and seeking to frame what is unfolding ahead of the visit, said:

“There is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit consistent with longstanding U.S. policy into some sort of crisis or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile our actions are not threatening and they break no new ground. Nothing about this potential visit — potential visit — which by the way has precedent, would change the status quo.”

So Pelosi in Taiwan is on, after days of speculation and significant angst over what Pelosi’s visit would mean, especially in light of China’s exceptionally hostile words about Pelosi’s trip.  

As Australia knows from the bitter rhetoric and harsh punitive measures China has inflicted on Australia over trade, the messages from Beijing on this trip have risen to high-decibel levels. After the long telephone call last Thursday between President Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping, the official readout from Beijing was emphatic:

“Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the U.S. will be clear-eyed about this.” There have been clear intimations of  military displays near Taiwan to coincide with Pelosi’s visit.  There are even concerns that China might target her airplane as it headed towards Taipei.

Many see Pelosi’s visit as exceptionally provocative, and it is clear China expected President Biden to do something about it, particularly after Biden said to the media 10 days ago that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.”  

In this photo provided by Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, and Singapore President Halimah Yacob shake hands at the Istana Presidential Palace in Singapore, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. Pelosi arrived in Singapore early Monday, kicking off her Asian tour as questions swirled over a possible stop in Taiwan that has fueled tension with Beijing. (Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore via AP)

The White House and State Department almost certainly received messages from several foreign countries, including close allies, that the trip was ill-timed and would make a tense situation even more tense at a moment when many are hoping, given all the global shocks flowing from the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s alliance with Xi, that the objective should be to lower – not raise – the temperature on US-China strategic issues.

It was clear over the weekend, however, that the distilled consensus was that as long as the Speaker was intent on visiting Taiwan, buckling to Chinese pressure on the visit would set a most unacceptable precedent. 

Why?

It is not unprecedented for a Speaker of the House to visit Taiwan.  Newt Gingrich did it in 1997.

It would be unprecedented for a President to seek to block a foreign trip by a Speaker of the House. Biden can advise, but consent is not his to give. Under the United States Constitution, there are three co-equal branches of the government.

The Executive, who exercises power over foreign policy.  The Congress, which appropriates money to fund the government, and passes laws affecting all official activities, including foreign policy, and fully exercises oversight authority over what the Executive does.  And the Judiciary. No one branch is subordinate to the other two.

Biden can counsel but cannot tell the Speaker not to go Taipei.  She has every right to go to Taipei and assess the situation to inform what Congress should – or should not – do with respect to American foreign policy interests regarding China and Taiwan and new laws that may warrant enactment.

If China could muscle the Speaker from visiting Taiwan, then China can feel it can muscle the United States from any and all other actions it may undertake with respect to Taiwan.

In Washington, that would be an unacceptable precedent.

The White House has stressed, just before the Pelosi visit gets underway, that nothing has changed with US policy:  that the United States is committed, by law, to the “One China” policy and has said repeatedly that the United States “opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo.”

Translation:  China must not invade Taiwan.  Taiwan must not declare itself independent of China. “One China” must be fully realised peacefully.

The truly big question for today and tomorrow is:  What will Pelosi’s message to Taiwan and China be when she is there?  What signals will she send?  What she says will directly affect strategic calculations of how to further play out the long game over Taiwan.

I met Nancy Pelosi when she was in her first term as a member of the House.  It was days after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. We were at a small dinner in Washington.  All the talk was of the man before the tank – the lone soul stopping the beast in its path.  But the beat slaughtered those seeking more freedom.

Famous image of man in front of the tank in Tiananmen

 Pelosi talked with conviction and passion that what China did was wrong, and that Tiananmen had to inform the United States’ relationship with China.

That is where Nancy Pelosi was on the issues and who she was then.  That is where she is and who Nancy Pelosi is now.

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The “golden age” of travel was actually terrible

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Everyone loves the idea of travelling in the 50s, the so called “golden age” of travel. But the reality was far different and a lot more dangerous.

Imagine you’re half way into your flight to London. The plane lands, the aircraft door swings open, and the intense smells of India fill the plane. You look out the window and see lights from the fires still burning at the shanties overlooking the airport.

So why do people love the idea of old fashioned travel? After all, it was a lot of time in the sky. 

Is this a case of rose coloured travel glasses? Let’s go right back to 1947, when Qantas flew the kangaroo route all the way from Australia to London.

Today the flying kangaroo is flying direct from Australia’s mainland to London with no stops.

But there was a time, not so long ago, when it took 7 stops to kangaroo hop to London.

The original Kangaroo Route from 1947

And it was a huge deal to travel, and also hard for Qantas to pull it off.

After all, landing in some of these countries was pretty complicated at the time.

So let’s take a bite of our grapefruit and pineapple cocktail – the food they served on board at the time, and go back in history.

Qantas was flying to London for the Second World War, sort of. They had a code sharing agreement from Brisbane to Singapore as early as 1935, using the de Havilland D.H.86 Express, which could seat just 10 passengers.

When the plane landed in Singapore, passengers connected to a Qantas partner, Imperial airways, which took them on to London.

But it wasn’t a 15 hour flight like it is today. It was 12 and a half days.

By 1938, Qantas had taken up more of that journey itself, and by 1947 there were as many as 6 weekly flights between Sydney and England.

Flying into Singapore was part of the experience.

The fastest route was a pacy 78 hours

And then the Kangaroo Route was born. Qantas used the Lockheed Constellations, with ten crew on board, including three pilots, one navigator, one radio operator, two flight engineers and three cabin crew.

Between them, they looked after just 29 passengers. Enough to make today’s airline accountants weep.

And if you were one of the lucky few to get a seat on board, you were pretty wealthy. The flight cost from Sydney to London was around $40,000.

But for that price, you got to see the world, literally.

Qantas flight to the United Kingdom by constellation in 1935.

Starting in Darwin, on the northern tip of the Australian island, the flight would take off bound for Singapore, then on to Calcutta, before another stop in Karachi, Cairo, Castel Benito and then Rome.

Over the following decade, Qantas was pretty experimental. Adding cities like Frankfurt, Zurich, Rome, Athens and Colombo, as other cities dropped off.

Flying to London was the experience.

Passengers loved it, and before long, competitors came for the Qantas golden goose.

BOAC was running four Britannias a week both ways, Air India flew the Super Constellation between Sydney and London, and KLM ran a super constellation between Sydney and Amsterdam.

Then came the jet age! In 1959, Qantas turned to Boeing to build an aircraft that could swoop it past the competition. And Boeing delivered, with the 707.

The 707 was a game changer for the flying roo.

By now, Qantas was incorporating the Kangaroo Route into an around the world run.

With flights from Australia to the US and then on to London, in what became known as the Southern Cross route.

These were extraordinary times, and so exciting for passengers and those working in the airline industry.

By the 1970s, the 747 had changed the landscape once again. The queen of the skies could fly faster, and longer.

And with it, drastic changes to the kangaroo route.

As the planes got bigger, the routes got smaller, and the stops to places like Bombay were no longer necessary.

Airlines changed their marketing from an adventure, to speed and efficiency.

The photos look great, but the reality was much different.

Pretty soon there was just one stop, usually in Singapore, with its air bridges and air conditioning. Replacing the local smells and sights.

Now there are heaps of airlines flying the route, from Singapore to Emirate, Etihad, Thai and British airways.

The aircraft are more sophisticated, and depending on the wind, that flight to London is now 21 hours, rather than 12 and a half days.

And pretty soon, the kangaroo route wont hop down anywhere at all, flying direct from mainland Australia to London or New York direct.

But take a minute to think back to that era when travelling was an opportunity to see the world, to learn about new cultures.

But for those of us who grew up only in the jet age, it’s nice to imagine what it was like.

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