After US President Donald Trump finally agreed to allow the formal transition process to begin nearly three weeks after the presidential election, President-elect Joe Biden has managed to speak about the possible policy direction of his incoming presidency and has declared that his presidency would not be “a third Obama term.”
Trying to emerge from the shadows of his former boss, and after announcing a slew of cabinet nominees who are veterans from the Obama era including secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state, and secretary of homeland security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, who served as deputy chief of the department, Biden is trying to emphasise that the challenges facing him are unique.
In his own way, he has acknowledged the fact that Trumpism is alive and well by arguing that “President Trump has changed the landscape.” This despite Biden repeatedly emphasising his and his administration’s credentials as foils to Trump and Trump’s administration.
Biden underlined the credentials of his nominees in their fields during his announcement address, but he also promised they would “reimagine American foreign policy and national security for the next generation.” He is clearly aware of the challenges he faces as he shapes a foreign policy agenda post-Trump and the rapidly evolving domestic and global political context in which he will have to operate.
The Democratic Party’s internal challenges are the first ones he will have to navigate. The so-called Progressive Democrats seem unhappy with Biden’s initial picks, calling them “Clinton and Obama retreads,” and are openly voicing their criticism of Biden’s Obama connection as they feel cheated after helping Biden win but finding him reverting back to old establishment hands.
There are still a number of appointments yet to be made so perhaps they can be satisfied. But this fault line between the left wing of the party and the centrists will remain a major one for Biden to straddle. And then there is the Trump factor. Despite all the predictions of a Republican meltdown, the election results were not the kind of sweeping endorsement that Biden would have liked.
Instead, Trump managed to hold his own and with his plans for 2024 already shaping up has been successful in reshaping the Republican Party in his own image, with a seeming endorsement for populist nationalism which will continue to constrain Biden’s policy options both on domestic and international fronts.
As the debate on the future trajectory of American foreign policy gets underway, it is certainly clear to Biden that the world he confronts and the challenges he faces are going to be significantly different from the ones Obama administration faced, in which he served as vice-president. In many ways, it was Obama’s failures that paved the way for the rise of Trump and everything he represents. And Biden has sharp political instincts.
He understands that the Obama era template is no longer suited or perhaps needed in a world that has been transformed in the past four years, partly due to Trump and partly due to underlying structural shifts. For all the talk of America being back “at the head of the table once again,” it won’t be easy to restore the liberal international order to its original sheen.
Biden is right in his assessment that he faces “a totally different world than we faced in the Obama-Biden administration” and so the choices he will have to make will be a function of this unique moment in American politics as well as the global order. The rise of China and its willingness to challenge the extant order is the single most important global reality that Biden will be confronting. Trump’s lasting legacy in this regard is the way he has managed to transform the discourse on China in the West in a relatively short period of time.
During his campaign Biden was playing catch up on China as Trump forced him to take a more robust stance on confronting China. Much in the mould of Trump’s ‘America First,’ Biden has talked of a foreign policy that works for the middle class and that means continuing with a China policy that challenges Beijing on trade and technology.
Certainly for Biden and his team, America’s allies will play an important role, even in managing the rise of China. And many allies of the US in the Indo-Pacific are already watching warily if Biden might be tempted to dial down Washington’s strong posturing vis-à-vis China. With western Europe already beginning to challenge China more robustly than before, America under Biden will have to follow suit if multilateralism and alliances are to once again gain traction.
Members of the Obama team might be back but neither the US nor the world they will have to engage with has stood still. As the Biden team comes to grips with real world policy issues, the challenges they face are quite substantive – from intra-Democratic Party contestation and a Republican Party increasingly being shaped by Trump to an external environment transformed with Covid-19, the rise of China and fragmented multilateral structures. How effectively they manage these challenges will determine if Biden 1.0 will be able to maintain its independent identity beyond just being assessed as Obama 3.0.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.