U.S. and the World. Keys to a Historic Moment

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The midterm elections confirmed the prospect of a “divided government” in the final stretch of Joe Biden’s presidency. With highly polarized domestic politics, Democrats and Republicans still share an agenda in their foreign policy regarding China and Russia, and they remain vigilant about the interference of extraregional powers in Latin American affairs. Relations with Europe seem to be tightening geopolitically, but trade disputes with the EU persist.

As is customary in U.S. midterm elections, the prospect of a “divided government” once again stirs the political waters in the world’s leading power. Even though the expected “red wave” – a overwhelming victory for the Republican Party – did not materialize as anticipated, the opposition’s progress will complicate President Joe Biden’s agenda in the last two years of his term. Although the ruling party will maintain its slim majority in the Senate – 51 to 49 – with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives – 222 to 213 – it won’t be easy for the White House tenant to advance his legislative projects and revitalize his administration, which has been heavily criticized in opinion polls. Meanwhile, the Republicans are far from forming a unified bloc capable of imposing their own set of priorities. The figure of Donald Trump, who has just launched his candidacy for the 2024 presidential elections, continues to divide opinion within the party’s base and among its leadership.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 65% of surveyed Americans believe that Biden will not be able to push his agenda forward in the next two years; however, 61% also do not expect Republicans to succeed in imposing their own program in the 2023-2024 biennium. Only 33% express confidence in the success of the current Democratic president, and just 36% believe that the new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives will be able to set its own agenda and hinder the final stretch of Biden’s presidency. “Most Americans expect the partisan divisions that have characterized U.S. politics in recent years to persist,” concludes the study by this prestigious social research institute. What is clear, according to the study, is that most citizens (75%) are dissatisfied with the current state of the country.

REPUBLICAN PARTY: A FAILED CAMPAIGN?

Conservative analyst Marc Thiessen, a columnist for The Washington Post, was unequivocal in his assessment of the recent elections, stating that the ballot verdict was a “harsh indictment against the Republican Party.” Even in the presence of an unpopular president like Biden, with the country experiencing the worst inflation rate in 40 years and – in the words of this commentator – “the highest homicide rates since 1996 and the worst border crisis in U.S. history,” voters rejected at the polls the alternative of an opposition too tied to the figure of Trump.
“The Trump base still firmly controls certain sectors of the Republican Party. But the extremism of many of its candidates – plus the moderation of some Democrats in especially important disputes – has been one of the main reasons why the predicted ‘red wave’ has not occurred,” said German academic Yascha Mounk, a visiting professor at St. Anthony College, University of Oxford, and a sharp researcher specializing in the rise of populism and the crisis of liberal democracy. “Ultimately – he argued in a post-election column – the more Republican candidates align with the MAGA movement (Make America Great Again, Trump’s slogan), the worse they fare.” In his view, the former president and newly minted presidential candidate “has become an electoral burden for Republicans.”
A clear example of this has been the weak performance of the Republican Party in a key state, Pennsylvania, where Trump had prevailed in the 2016 presidential election, and Biden in the 2020 election. This time, Democrats won both the Senate and gubernatorial contests, defeating Trump-backed candidates: the controversial doctor and television personality Mehmet Oz, and the current senator Doug Mastriano, respectively. The Senate race also delivered a bitter outcome for the Republican opposition in Arizona and Georgia, two states that are often decisive in the presidential contest. In the first of these two states, the Trump-backed candidate, businessman Blake Masters, was defeated by Democrat Mark Kelly, who retained his seat in the upper chamber. The same happened in Georgia, where the runoff on December 6 saw the narrow victory of the current Democratic senator Raphael Warnock over his Trumpist rival Herschel Walker.

RON DE SANTIS, THE NEW OPPOSITION STAR

With the ballot boxes still warm, the outlook is far from clear for the opposition heading into 2024. The figure of Trump is far from garnering monolithic support from the party base. In the meantime, a figure is emerging who is increasingly gaining support within the party establishment: the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. With an ideology not very different from Trump’s, during the COVID-19 pandemic, he became one of the staunchest opponents of health restrictions and kept his state open when others, like New York or California, were implementing drastic social distancing and lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the virus. This decision earned his state notably better economic outcomes than others from the pandemic.

This 44-year-old lawyer, who studied at Harvard University, served as a federal prosecutor and legal advisor to the Navy Seals. In 2015, as a member of the House of Representatives, he participated in the creation of the Freedom Caucus. Comprising about thirty lawmakers from the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, this collective served as a springboard for him to play in the political big leagues. In 2018, he was elected as the governor of Florida in a very close contest, winning by just over 30,000 votes out of a total universe of 8.2 million voters.

Reelected to the position with an overwhelming 59.4% of the votes on November 8, DeSantis managed to expand his support base and even won in a traditional Democratic stronghold: Miami-Dade County. “Many have asked me if I will run [for president]. I will now seriously consider it, but I have won very tough primaries and very close elections. I have always come from behind. I love it when people underestimate me. I have never lost an election, and I won’t start now,” he said during a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) at the end of the same month.

THE DEMOCRATS AND A STALLED AGENDA

In his first two years, Joe Biden’s plans to advance a mega-infrastructure plan and a package of measures to favor the energy transition were hindered in the Senate. This obstruction did not come from Republicans but from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who opposed raising taxes on the wealthiest and the climate change agenda due to the interests of the fossil fuel industry in his state. Manchin, along with his colleague from Arizona, Kirsten Sinema—who recently declared herself independent but is presumed to continue being part of the Democratic caucus in the Senate—sabotaged and sank the program known as Build Back Better, which envisioned investments of $3.5 trillion.

It was one of the most ambitious initiatives of the Biden administration, but its economic cost, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would have added $367 billion to the public deficit over the next ten years. Finally, in August 2022, thanks to an agreement with Senator Manchin, the government was able to push through an initiative known as the “Inflation Reduction Act.” The new law includes a decrease in the cost of medications for beneficiaries of the public Medicare program and a strong commitment to the “green economy,” as well as an increase in taxes on large corporations. With an investment of around $430 billion, the government expects to generate revenue of $740 billion over the next ten years.

Biden himself described it as one of the “most important laws in U.S. history,” and its approval gave some relief to an administration that was plummeting in the polls. According to the Gallup consulting firm, the president’s approval rating climbed from 38%, the lowest of his term, reached in July, to 44% in August. However, it is still far from the 57% he had when taking office in January 2021. Faced with the insistence on running for a possible second term, the British weekly The Economist recently suggested to the president that he carefully consider his decision. “The results of the first half of his government confirm the role Biden imagined for himself in 2020: to be a bridge to a rising generation of leaders,” the magazine noted in its November 10 edition.
In a quick review of the recent history of the country, The Economist pointed out: “Five sitting presidents during the post-war period faced serious challenges. Two of them retired (Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson), and three others lost the general elections (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Herbert Walker Bush).” In this regard, the recommendation to Biden was to avoid a new electoral campaign in 2024 since, without his figure, so scorned by the Republican opposition, “a wide-open Democratic [primary] contest would create space for a new party leader to launch a crusade against all old habits, including the bipartisan stupidity show looming in Washington.”

CHINA THREAT, A SHARED CONCERN

Amid internal strife and polarization characterizing U.S. politics, one of the few areas where there remains a common outlook between both parties is foreign policy, particularly the relationship with China. In 2017, during the Trump administration, the “Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” was launched. It referenced, among other things, China’s “unfair trade practices harming the global trading system” and called for “close collaboration” with allies in the region to prevent Beijing from acquiring “military and strategic capabilities” jeopardizing the region’s stability.
The U.S. vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is shared by Democrats and Republicans. In fact, during the recent pre-G-20 Summit tour held in Bali (Indonesia), Biden reaffirmed Washington’s alliance with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the primary regional forum excluding China. However, it is a delicate balance seeking to avoid a spark that triggers an unwanted conflict with Beijing. Biden made this clear after his recent meeting with Xi Jinping in Bali. The U.S. president remained open to working with the Asian giant on global issues of common interest: combating climate change, sustaining the global economic system, cooperation in health matters, and the planet’s food security.

One sector where it’s evident that the trade conflict initiated during the Trump era is irreversible is in the technological realm. The 5G mobile network and access to the sophisticated semiconductor industry are currently two major areas of dispute between the U.S. and China. This is demonstrated by the recent sanctioning of the CHIPS Act by the U.S. Congress, aiming to curb Beijing’s access to advanced chips, a market that is currently concentrated in Taiwan—considered by the Chinese regime as a “rebel island” and an integral part of its territory—with a secondary role for another regional neighbor, South Korea. Washington’s goal is to develop a “much more resilient” supply chain close to its borders, known as nearshoring. Among the countries where the provision of key services for the semiconductor industry is being revitalized are Mexico and Costa Rica, which have free trade agreements with the U.S., the former under the ex-NAFTA framework—now T-MEC—and the latter as part of CAFTA.

LATIN AMERICA: A TROUBLED BACKYARD

It is precisely in Latin America where the United States faces two major challenges today: China’s commercial advance and the political interference of two extraregional actors, the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which equally concern Democrats and Republicans. However, while during Donald Trump’s presidency, the rise of conservative-leaning governments allowed for automatic alignment with Washington’s goals, the arrival of left-wing administrations in different countries south of the Rio Grande has once again called into question U.S. influence in its backyard.

The clashes with the U.S. were evident at the last Summit of the Americas, held in Los Angeles in June. This time, the problem was not just the exclusion of governments that Washington considers “dictatorial”: Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—in solidarity with the three non-invited countries—and the three presidents of the Central American Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—also did not attend the meeting. The final document, which included a Declaration on Migration, lost strength precisely due to the absence of these countries, the starting point for population movements that put pressure on the U.S. southern border.

Since Trump took office, Washington’s immigration policy has hardened. While Biden shelved his predecessor’s flagship project—the divisive “wall” on the border with Mexico—the tone of controls and expulsions at U.S. entry points has not changed. In 2022, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures, a record number of detentions of undocumented migrants was set: over 2.7 million, 85% of them on the southwestern border. In this regard, the left wing of the Democratic Party has sharply criticized Biden’s continuity with his predecessor’s policy. Both Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who just secured her reelection as a representative from New York in the House of Representatives—and her former colleague Beto O’Rourke, who held a seat from Texas between 2013 and 2019, have expressed these concerns.

EUROPE AND NATO: A STRENGTHENED ALLIANCE

In geopolitical terms, a clear orientation of the Biden administration, strengthened after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has been the recovery of historic ties with its European partners. NATO, an organization that French President Emmanuel Macron had characterized as in a state of “brain death” in 2019, regained its centrality this year. The joint strategy of sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the supply of weapons to Ukraine allowed for the revitalization of relations with the Old Continent, which had been weakened during the years of Donald Trump, who was reluctant to continue investing U.S. taxpayer money in the security of European partners. “The world has changed, and Russia has made it change,” admitted Biden during the historic Madrid Summit in June, where the Atlantic Alliance defined the Russian Federation as “the most important and direct threat to the security of allies and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.”
While there are no apparent cracks among transatlantic partners on the military front, the protectionist measures approved by the U.S. Congress in its latest fiscal stimulus package do not satisfy its allies on the other side of the ocean. The main objections focus on consumer incentives for the purchase of electric cars manufactured on U.S. soil and incentives for companies to set up shop in the U.S., within the context of the energy transition policy launched by Washington. For now, there doesn’t seem to be a willingness to strain relations, especially when the war in Ukraine is prolonged and the unity between the U.S. and its allies is more necessary than ever.

Regarding the military effort in Ukraine, although NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized that the results of the U.S. elections will not alter bipartisan support for the invaded country, doubts arise about the Republicans’ real willingness to maintain the level of aid that has benefited Kyiv since the start of the war. For now, the future Speaker of the House, Republican Kevin McCarthy, stated that his party will not give a “blank check” to the authorities in Ukraine and will demand that every dollar from U.S. citizens reaches the right places and is used transparently.

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