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December time crunch – variants, deadlines and wild cards

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Let’s look ahead to the end of the year in Washington.  There are enormous issues, tests, and challenges across the board.  There is no certainty of the outcomes

Bruce WOLPE ON TICKER NEWS

The variants

The eruption of Omicron is a rude shock to a world struggling to recover from the pandemic.  For President Biden, while the quantum of this new health threat itself is not yet clear, the political danger is clearly visible. 

More people have died from Covid in the United States this year than in 2020.  Americans are still dying at a rate of around 1000 per day. 

The vaccination crusade has stalled at about 70 per cent of the population fully vaxxed.  Even before Omicron, the difference between the US at 70 per cent and the most populous states in Australia at 90 per cent+ is the very visible difference in overall public health. 

BIDEN CALLING FOR CALM

America’s vaccine deficit has been fuelled by the rancid politics spawned in the Trump days.  Biden’s appeal on taking office was that he would bring Covid under control.  It is under control for the vaccinated but not for those naked to the virus.  

Biden’s message of reassurance to the American people that the US can face this new threat, and manage it successfully without lockdowns, is designed to counter the uncertainty, fear, and choppiness across an economy infected with inflation and clots in the supply chains. 

The new variant – and all the uncertainties it presents – poses further tests for any rebound in Biden’s approval in the short term 

And that means that for the moment he has less political capital in shaping public opinion to get his legislative agenda done this year.

The deadlines

Funding for the Federal government runs out on December 3.  Unless Congress approves money for government operations (“supply” in the Australian context) the government will shut down next Saturday. 

While President Trump and Senate Republicans in the Obama presidency saw some virtue in playing the government shutdown card, there are no winners from such an exercise.  

The logical outcome is to punt and extend government funding until next March. This is what should happen, will likely happen- but simple logic is in short supply in Washington these days.

The debt limit of the United States expires any time after December 15.  This is the ceiling authorised by law for the United States to pay its debts – to its citizens and to creditors worldwide. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to the press after a lunch meeting with Senate Democrats at the Capitol on November 16.

The United States has never defaulted on its debt, but there have been many moments when this issue has been taken to the brink. Debt limit fights have in recent years been the played with the hardest of hardball tactics. 

Republicans have made clear there will not be any votes from their side on the debt limit; Biden and the Democrats have to own it all.  Tensions on this issue between the Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate this year have run extremely high. 

It may be that the only alternative to passing the debt limit is to include it in the Biden mega-package on social programs and climate, now pending in the Senate.

The Biden package offers universal prekindergarten, generous subsidies for childcare, expanded financial aid for college, hundreds of billions of dollars in housing support, home and community care for older Americans, a new hearing benefit for Medicare and price controls for prescription drugs.

On climate there is more than half a trillion dollars to migrate the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels

In the words of one of President Nixon’s aides, this is “the whole enchilada” – Biden’s defining social and climate legacy.

But the only way this legislation passes the Senate is if every Democrat – all 50 – vote for it.  And those votes are not yet assured.  At least two Democrats – Manchin of West Virginia and Sinema of Arizona – are yet to pledge they will vote for this bill. 

If Democrats remain divided, the legislation will fail with immense damage to both their president, their party and themselves.

Wild Cards

Israel’s war in Gaza suddenly exploded in May. Biden’s expert management of the Gaza crisis may be tested again.  There are other ticking foreign policy bombs. 

There are heavy indications that Russia’s Putin wants to move on Ukraine, possibly occupying the country and overthrowing its president.  And in Iran, the European powers and the United States are at a make-or-break point as to whether negotiations to halt Iran’s nuclear program will continue or end.  

By Christmas, either issue could lead to a real fear that there will be military confrontation for the United States – perhaps imminently with Russia, perhaps in 2022 with Iran.

All of this – the course of the pandemic, the ability of the US government to function and pay its debts, the strength of the Biden presidency, and the state of peace in the world – is at stake this coming month.

Everyone still says this Christmas will be better than last Christmas.  Let’s hope so.

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.

Tech

Are foldable smartphones the next big thing?

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Samsung has wrapped its latest Galaxy Unpacked event, announcing two foldables, new smartwatches, and an update to its Galaxy Buds Pro line

Tech commentator Trevor Long, who was at the event, and tech expert Greg Nibler unpack the biggest announcements

What’s changed?

Taking a look at the Galaxy Zed Flip 4, Samsung hasn’t changed the overall design – but new features include the ability to see selfie previews on the cover screen and fast charging.

At a slightly higher cost, there’s the Galaxy Zed Fold 4.

This design remains largely the same, but Samsung has made some big changes to the cameras.

The Galaxy Z Flip 4

What’s probably most interesting about this latest product launch is Samsung’s wearables push.

At the Unpacked event, the tech giant finally unveiled its Galaxy Watch 5 and Galaxy Watch 5 Pro.

After serious battery life complaints, the new devices both boast bigger batteries, faster charging, and increased durability.

What was the actual event like?

Tech commentator Trevor Long joined TICKER NEWS live in New York to detail the experience.

“It was still a bit of a hybrid experience. Because this wasn’t a fully in person thing. So basically, all the gathered media were were in a room together. But there was still just a visual presentation or a short introduction from one of their executives to the same visual presentation is pretty much everyone saw on their live stream,” he says.

“But of course, we then got the opportunity to go and go hands on with all the devices. And it’s fascinating in both London and New York, they’ve set up large experience areas where the general public will be able to come through over the next few weeks and actually touch and feel and experience these devices,

“I think it’s a very smart move from Samsung, because the category is still so new. It’s been around for a few years.”

Are people warming to foldable smart phones?

Tech expert Greg Nibler says there were a lot of issues that came out and some kind of bad publicity with Galaxy fold phones, “but it feels like they’ve worked on that quite a bit”.

“Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of people that have been purchasing these overall so far. But I think just the fact that Samsung keeps on pushing this there, regardless of anything that happens, they are going to keep on making these foldable phones because they believe that this is something that people are going to want.”

Meanwhile, Trevor longs believes foldable phones won’t go mainstream.

However, he is in New York with Samsung Australia and was talking to their executive vice president about the demand.

“And he (Aus VP) said they’re seeing nearly 300% demand. Now that’s not purchasing, but they see interest at a peak, the amount of searches and things that are going on. So it there’s definitely demand there.”

But the VP also told Trevor that there will come a time (he didn’t put a date on it) but there will come a time “when the folding format is the primary format”.

Long also commented on the more refined general design.

“I think people will have trust in the fact that they are durable too.”

When is Apple going to come out with their own foldable device?

“I don’t even think it’s going to be this year, probably next year, maybe sometime Apple will do it,” Long says.

Apple

“Apple doesn’t really have something to compare directly. But we’re coming to the watch side. I do think you know, the Galaxy watches certainly made some improvements with this five and the five pro you mentioned the battery life. That’s pretty impressive specs, they said I believe was 40 hours for the watch five and up to 80 hours for the five pro if you’re not using everything on it. That’s, that’s really great..

But is that going to be enough to convince somebody who’s an Apple Watch user to switch out of that ecosystem? Long says “I doubt it.”

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Ticker Views

Who would win a war between the U.S. and China?

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The U.S and China are in the grips of an arms race, which has not been seen since the depths of the Cold War era

Chinese President Xi Jinping wants his armed forces to become a modern powerhouse by 2035.

In his eyes, they should be “fighting and winning wars” by 2050.

It’s an overt and confronting military strategy, at least that’s how the West perceives it.

In May, a reporter asked U.S. President Joe Biden if he would come to Taiwan’s aid militarily if a conflict ever arises. He answered “yes” at the time because “that’s the commitment we made”.

The answer was a change in the U.S.’ history of strategic ambiguity, and likely caused a stir among Chinese officials.

So, when U.S. House Speaker visited the democratically-ruled island last week, China was hardly going to stay silent.

“We take this trip at a time when the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.”

NANCY PELOSI, U.S. HOUSE SPEAKER

Pelosi is the most senior U.S. official to visit Taiwan in 25 years. This is an issue for Chinese officials who are committed to the ‘One China’ principle.

As China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying said “there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China.”

China has responded to Pelosi’s visit by test firing ballistic missiles near the island, which is home to over 23 million people. Taiwan has also simulated its defence capabilities, as Chinese Navy vessels remain in the Taiwan Straits.

The U.S. House Speaker meets with Taiwan’s President.

China’s live fire drills sent ballistic missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone for the first time.

“Those who play with fire will perish by it and those who offend China will be punished.”

WANG YI, CHINA’S FOREIGN MINISTER

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen said the military exercises were “unnecessary responses”.

How does China’s military stack up?

While we don’t know much about China’s military, we do know it is growing at a rapid rate.

In 2014, China overtook the U.S. with the world’s largest navy.

“The crisis will end at a time and in a manner of China’s choosing,” said Dr Michael Sullivan, who is an international relations practitioner at Flinders University.

The U.S. Congressional Research Service, which advises lawmakers and strategy, predicts Chinese navy ships will increase by nearly 40 per cent between 2020 and 2040.

“Some U.S. observers are expressing concern or alarm regarding the pace of China’s naval shipbuilding effort and resulting trend lines regarding the relative sizes and capabilities of China’s navy and the U.S. Navy”

U.S. Congressional Research Service

Of course, the sheer size of a military does not necessarily correlate to its strength. For example, the U.S. has 11 aircraft carriers while China has three.

The U.S. also has more nuclear-powered submarines and larger warships.

As such, it’s hard to imagine President Biden risking a rather expensive aircraft carrier to end the current situation in the Taiwan Straits.

The Chinese Navy is growing at a faster rate than any other fleet.

Beijing does not publish its military spending data but analysts believe the nation is seeking to fast-track its military capabilities through hypersonic missiles.

As the name suggests, these weapons are known for their speed. In fact, they can travel at more than five times the speed of sound.

China denies using these weapons but the West remains concerned because of their speed, and limited detection on radar systems.

“The Chinese government is demonstrating that the era of the U.S. calling the shots militarily in the Taiwan Straits is over.”

Dr michael sullivan, flinders university

The U.S. Pentagon increased its budget requests to $3.8 billion to develop hypersonic weapons for this fiscal year.

The nation currently uses cruise missiles but these are inferior to hypersonic weaponry because of their slower speed, shorter range and tracking capabilities.

How will this end?

China has not fought in a war since 1979 after a tense battle with Vietnamese forces.

This means Beijing’s forces have not been on show in the modern era, and it seems the West would very much like it to keep it that way.

“We await further political fallout between Beijing and Washington. Though there is no direct indication of what form that may take, diplomatic retaliation is one possibility, ranging from recalling the Chinese Ambassador in Washington to expelling US Embassy staff from Beijing,” Dr Sullivan said.

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Business

Why airline executives are being forced to face customers

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As frustrated customers take their anger out on the remaining airport checkin staff, airline executives are being forced onto the front line to face customers.

The return of summer in Europe has been overshadowed by travel chaos, leaving passengers frustrated and often out of pocket.

Thousands of people have been left to battle airport queues that last hours, long delays and thousands of cancellations.

Airports and airlines face staff shortages forcing them to reduce the number of scheduled flights – often at short notice. 

It’s a global problem, with airports and airlines rushing to hire back the thousands of positions they axed at the start of covid.

But how do you do it, and how long until things return to normal?

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