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If Joe Biden is elected, he must narrow his priorities

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This week’s news in America will be dominated by the first ever virtual Democratic and Republican nominating conventions that will choose Joe Biden and Donald Trump as the two presidential candidates.

But fallout over last week’s electric stories about the United Arab Emirates-Israeli agreement for mutual recognition and the contested Belarus re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, after a quarter-century in that office, could easily spillover into this week. Reaction in the Arab world to this recognition is still percolating. And Lukashenko has asked Moscow for help if the Belarus public reaction against the electoral results becomes a second Ukraine.

While Biden’s acceptance speech will rally the party in a life-and-death political struggle to unseat Trump, the larger question is how he and his running mate Kamala Harris will govern if elected. An insight comes from a piece Biden wrote for the March/April 2020 edition of Foreign Affairs journal, titled “Why America Must Lead Again.” The article was largely aspirational, setting out a very long list of noble objectives and priorities a Biden administration would strive to achieve at home and abroad.

Biden wrote:

“The global challenges facing the United States…have grown more complex and more urgent, while the rapid advance of authoritarianism, nationalism and illiberalism has undermined our ability to collectively meet them. Democracies — paralyzed by hyperpartisanship, hobbled by corruption [are] weighed down by extreme inequality…Trust in democratic institutions is down. Fear of the Other is up. And the international system that the United States so carefully constructed is coming apart at the seams…The next U.S. president…he or she will have to salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership and mobilize our country and our allies to rapidly meet new challenges.”

Most Americans would agree with many of these broad objectives representing traditional principles and values that have guided U.S. policies since the end of World War II. The rest of the article is filled with Biden’s aspirational priorities. That list raises one of two major questions. The first is what are Biden’s top one or two priorities. The other is how Biden proposes to implement his aspirations.

Having so many “priorities,” understandable given the number of constituencies needing representation, is practically equivalent to having none. Biden must set one or two top priorities to ensure these can be successfully implemented. Second, the Biden team has more advisers expert in devising policy rather than in implementing and achieving concrete results. The best theoretical strategies and policies are no better than how both are executed and put into practice.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign was encapsulated by the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.” Biden should emulate that clarity with two priorities. The first is saving the economy through a massive infrastructure program. The second is to restore American global leadership abroad. This is what both priorities should include. His other aspirations can be incorporated under both.

The infrastructure program should be a public-private partnership funded to at least $2 trillion to $3 trillion. The objectives are to rebuild key infrastructure modernizing America for the 21st century. Highways, roads, bridges, airports, power grids, broadband, healthcare, education and research and development fall into this category. Making broadband ubiquitous would have the impact of how electrification of the nation in the 1920s and 1930s empowered the economy.

The partnership would be funded by long-term bonds, underwritten by the U.S. government and paying 2% over prime and collateralized by user fees and tolls collected from modernizing infrastructure. In the process, millions of jobs would be created not only in construction, but in healthcare, education, telecommunications and environmental projects.

Regarding reasserting global leadership, the Biden article sets out the agenda for NATO, rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, the World Health Organization and possibly the Trans Pacific Partnership and returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and the P-5 Plus One and the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty. But how a Biden team would accomplish these aims, possibly with a gridlocked Congress, is left unstated.

The majority of Biden advisers come from strong policy and political backgrounds. Yet, few have any real hands-on practical experience in business or implementing large government and private sector programs. In a world that Biden describes as “more complex and urgent” and as he knows from the battle over Obamacare, accomplishing anything in Washington’s hyperpartisan environment is a Sisyphean labor.

If the Biden team can address these shortcomings, what the Financial Times U.S. correspondent Ed Luce labels “the mediocre against the catastrophic” can become “the competent trouncing the catastrophic.”
Harlan Ullman is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, “The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age.”

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