The Last Best Hope? Understanding America from the Outside In
The My Whole Soul Episode
Series 3 (Hilary term 2021)
Published 24 January 2021
NB the text below was transcribed automatically by https://otter.ai.
Joe Biden: This is America's day. This is Democracy day, a day of history and hope of renewal and resolve. Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew, and America has risen to the challenge.
Adam Smith 0:26
Hello, and welcome to the Last Best Hope?, the podcast that looks at America from the outside in. I'm Adam Smith.
Joe Biden: Today, we celebrate the Triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause. The cause of democracy, the people, the will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been heated. We've learned again, that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.
Adam Smith 1:04
So the US has had its transfer of power peaceful sort of, but maybe only because Washington has been turned into an arms camp. And with the outgoing leader behaving like a deposed desk bot, and inauguration matters, it's the highest right in America's civil religion with its prayers, invocations hymns. And of course, the sermon in which the new head of state reminds the congregation of their faith, duty and mission as we look ahead, and are uniquely American way. restless, bold, optimistic, and set our sights on the nation we know we can be and we must be. Joe Biden sermon was reassuringly normal, bromide filled, steeped in boundless confidence in the American project. It was a soulful, heartfelt speech delivered in plain and direct, very Joe Biden ish language.
Joe Biden: I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future as fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs. I understand like my dad, they let awake at night staring at the ceiling wondering, can I keep my health care? Can I pay my mortgage? Thinking about their families about what comes next? I promise you I get it. But the answer is not to turn inward to retreat into competing factions. distrusting those who don't look like look like you, or worship the way you do, or don't get their news from the same sources you do. We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, or rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this. If we open our souls, instead of hardening our hearts if we show a little tolerance, and humility. And if we're willing to stand in the other person's shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes. Because here's the thing about life. There's no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days, when you need a hand. There are other days when we're called to lend a hand. That's how it has to be it's what we do for one another. And if we are this way, our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future. And we can still disagree.
Adam Smith 3:56
The speech was unavoidably framed by the attack on the Capitol two weeks before. Much of its impact as a piece of political theatre came from the assertion of normality. In the face of abnormality. The familiar rituals were re consecration of that place from the vandals of January the sixth, and in a larger sense, from the last four years. It was also a quintessential piece of American rhetoric. It was about what America was and what it must become.
Joe Biden: We will rise to the occasion is the question Will we master this rare and difficult hour when we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world to our children? I believe we must. I'm sure you do as well, I believe we will. And when we do. We'll write the next great chapter in the history of the United States of America the American story, a story that might sound something like a song that means a lot to me. It's called American anthem. There's one verse that stands out, at least for me, and it goes like this. The work and prayers of century have brought us to this day. What shall be our legacy? What will our children say? Let me know in my heart. When my days are through America, America, I gave my best to you. Let's add, lets us add our own work and prayers to the unfolding story of our great nation. If we do this, then when our days are through, our children and our children's children will save us. They gave their best. They did their duty, they heal the broken land.
Adam Smith 5:52
This was also the theme of the 22 year old Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate who ascended to the inauguration pulpit after Biden and recited her poem, the hill we climb.
Amanda Gorman: So let us leave behind the country better than one we were left with every breath of my bronze pounded chest we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one, we will rise to the gold limbed hills of the West we will rise from the windswept North East where our forefathers first realised revolution we will rise from the lake rim cities of the midwestern states, we will rise from the sunbaked South we will rebuild, reconciled and recover and every known nook of our nation in every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful. When they come through we step out of the shade of flame and I'm afraid the new dawn balloons as we free it, for there was always lights if only were brave enough to see it, if only were brave enough to be it.
Adam Smith 7:08
To talk about all this, I caught up with two of my Oxford colleagues, Kate Gaia DPhil candidate, lecturer in International Relations at Oxford and a senior fellow with the Centre for climate and security in Washington, DC. Hi, Kate.
Kate Guy 7:20
Hello, good morning.
Adam Smith 7:23
And my colleague at the RAI, Dr. Mitch Robertson. Mitch is running our future of American politics series of the RAI, this term. Hi, Mitch.
Mitch Robertson 7:34
Hi Adam, and good to be back with you both again.
Adam Smith 7:37
So let's begin by talking about this inauguration. Kate, you're there in Washington, DC. In some ways, this was a very familiar set of events, it followed the same kinds of rituals that we have seen in many, many inaugurations in the past. in other ways, of course, it was startlingly different. How did you experience the inauguration day?
Kate Guy 8:02
Sure, yeah, here here in Washington, just a few blocks up from the White House actually off of 16th Street. And it was an interesting and historic day for so many reasons. And I think that history really started actually a few weeks ago, when we here in DC sort of had to witness firsthand this attack on our Capitol building our democracy and the just sort of awful sites that I know the whole world saw an angry mob and those who were not happy with the results of the elections, sort of bringing that to bear on our dear city. So that was, I suppose, the backdrop for so many Americans. And the recent sort of passed in that building, that Joe Biden, President Biden now was speaking in front of and was viscerally I think, present with so many of the legislators that were there for the inauguration speech, and just so many of us so it was a bittersweet moment. I think a moment so many of us and you know, I worked for a democratic politics, I'm certainly biassed, but to really feel the sun sort of come out over that building, as we were all watching the inauguration, it did feel a bit like Morning in America, at least for us and potentially the start of a new way forward and charting a new course after what was a quite brutal few past days.
Adam Smith 9:33
Mitch Is it is it morning in America?
Mitch Robertson 9:36
It's It's morning in Biden's America I think I think he said in the you said in the introduction how American it was, to me it was so Joe Biden as well, like from from the speech from the performance for the acts from the celebration afterwards. It was very much we are living in Biden's America now. And I think there was that that sense of optimism that has been has been so lost, but also the thing that struck me the sense of joy is back in American part. There's enough to this, perhaps more so on one side than the other. But just even though America is in the grips of a terrible health crisis, terrible financial crisis, the sun was shining, and people were smiling again, I think there's just been this absence of joy. I think we probably don't want to limit too much on Donald Trump. But he just seemed like a man who didn't enjoy anything. And just to say, Joe Biden, like, because of the security circumstances, there had to do so much of the inaugural parade in the car, but just when he was going out and fist bumping people and saying hi to the mayor of Washington, DC, it just, it was nice to see a president smile again. And there's a lot of hard work to do, which we'll which we'll get to him in the in the back half of this podcast, I'm sure but it was nice just to have a happy, happy day for a change.
Kate Guy 10:42
But in a way, I actually did have the feeling though, that because we weren't allowed to be there because DC wasn't in the sort of fanfare of inaugural balls and and celebrations in person that it normally was. It was potentially the most accessible inauguration we've ever had. And I say that because it was all sort of scripted to include the American people, you know, that message of unity and the the face and vision of America in a really different way. It wasn't just, you know, the, the beautiful sort of fancy regalia that you normally see it was concerts, and it was, seems sort of brought in from the whole world. And Mitch spoke about the joy of that I felt such joy at seeing the artistic face of America back at the centre of our government. Again, if anyone watched the sort of poetry and dance and music and the the sort of arrival of the theatrical stage sort of back, it was something that you didn't realise how much we were missing both because of Coronavirus. And because of these past four years when art was sort of the furthest thing that Trump administration wanted to to spotlight.
Adam Smith 11:57
Yeah, that's an interesting point. So it became it was less a Washington occasion and it was focused on an audience at home, it felt like a more inclusive national events. I think that's very true. I mean, let's talk about the speech, the inaugural address itself. And it was as I think, I mean, Mitch is already kind of alluded to this, it was a very Biden esque speech, in many ways. But it also it struck me that this was a kind of classic of the genre in that what it did, first and foremost, as almost every inaugural address has done apart from the one that we had four years ago, was to set this occasion in the American tradition with a capital A and a capital T. What are your comments? What are your thoughts about the Kate about the inaugural address?
Kate Guy 12:46
I actually so I think you're right, and I'm sure Mitch will jump in and say sort of how this really speaks to the canon of, of Joe Biden speeches. But it was quite different. You know, I heard a take from John Favareu, who's speechwriter for Obama, who said, what this wasn't, which is what many inaugural addresses are trying to be was an echo of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. You know, it wasn't trying to be that moment of soaring rhetoric and, you know, storming people with inspiration, instead, it was sort of that solemn, simple remark on where we are and call for unity. What I was really sort of struck by the power of in that moment, was how much of what he was saying was echoed what he said on the campaign, you know, restoring the soul of America, the fragility of democracy. But I think those those words, and that rhetoric took on a whole new meeting and seeing what we saw just two weeks before the inauguration. And I don't think any of us really, truly believed how fragile our democracy was, as Joe Biden had been saying, until we were able to overcome that. But Adam, as you said, that it harkens back actually to a tradition of presidents speaking of that fragility, of democracy in their roles, I looked back at George Washington's and he he speaks of the experiment interested in the hands of the American people, and how important it is to to constantly fight for and we're new that democratic tradition. And that never was more viscerally real. I think then then with Joe Biden sort of having to potentially pull democracy back from the break. And I know he really felt that and then wanted to express that.
Adam Smith 14:35
This is democracies day was his kind of key starting line. Mitch, what were the themes that struck you in this speech?
Mitch Robertson 14:44
I think the thing that struck me most was, this was laying out as you said, Joe Biden's vision of America, but it's also Joe Biden’s vision of unity. And I think some people have been quite quick to sort of say that Joe Biden is naive in thinking that you can you can work with Republicans and I think this was the speech. I've heard him speak longest about how he how he sees unity. And it's not. It's not naive like I was looking back over this this great line where he says politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war. Now he's not saying that everyone says this is everyone is going to believe the same thing. He's not saying he's gonna get 100 votes for Medicare for All. It's about saying that Americans can work together. We this famous line that he said we must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban conservative versus liberal. And that struck me thinking back to Obama's 2004 DNC speech in which he said, There is not a liberal America, there is not a conservative America, there is the United States of America. Actually, Biden's take on it. He's not denying those categories. He's saying that there are liberals and conservatives, there are blue interests and red interest, rural interests and urban interests, but that they can work together. And he is not is not saying as I said that 100% of American here together, when he laid out those crises, he was very careful to say that they were overcome by enough of us came together to carry all of us forward. Like he was not saying that there was total unanimity. And I think that was the thing that I really took from this speech was, this is his vision of what unity looks like in Washington. And I think people who said that he was naive, like they are a bit naive themselves. I mean, Joe Biden is a man of Washington, like he he knows how the system works.
Adam Smith 16:24
Who was who was a speech aimed at Mitch?
Mitch Robertson 16:28
I think speech was aimed at some of the people behind him, I think, depending on which which cut Have you had, you know, when he said we can work together, they would cut two visions of Ted Cruz and say, I think part of it was aimed at older people like him, but it was also aimed aimed at the independents. I think that's, that's who it is. And we'll get back get later in there to talk about who approved the speech, but I think it was really targeted the independent saying, Give me a chance. When he said, ally, three, three little words, I thought were just absolutely beautiful. He said, I get it. And I think so many Americans have been longing to hear those words that have seen Trump, you know, obvious guide have seen him sort of deny the pandemic, just to hear a president say, I get it. I think that was really where he was trying to speak to America. And I think that's always been joe biden's great skill, I think in the debates with with Trump, that Trump would always look at Biden and sort of try and sort of go straight for Biden, Biden would always look straight down the barrel of the camera and and sort of pass through that and say, I'm going to speak to the American people. At the end, I think that's probably who the inauguration just was, was, was targeted and was received by I mean, it was the most watched inauguration, I believe, of the recent era.
Kate Guy 17:37
Don't tell the former president.
Adam Smith 17:41
Kate, what did it.. it seemed to me that even by the standards of inaugural addresses, which I of course, are not like a State of the Union speech, and they're certainly not intended to be policy documents, and they're not even kind of campaign speeches, but even by the standards of inaugural addresses, it seemed to me that it was strikingly lacking in any specifics, there was an allusion to the importance of climate change. There was no mention specifically of the vaccine, it was pitched at a very abstract level, wasn't it?
Kate Guy 18:13
It was, but I as a policy wonk really welcomed that I think it was not a moment, Biden has put out hundreds of pages of policy plans. He spent the afternoon after being sworn in signing a huge stack of executive orders and documents, the policy is there, the policy was ready. Americans needed a moment of release from those policy fights and a moment of unity. And speaking to your question of audience, I think there is actually a very important second audience in joe biden's mind with this address. And that is the world. You know, he actually calls it out in a speech and said, you know, to the world who I know was watching, America has been tested in America has prevailed. And Joe Biden is somebody who speak of policy, who foreign policy is really his thing, and has been his thing for decades on the Senate. And then as Vice President, I think so deep in his mind, throughout his run, and in this moment, was what the American Experience means for the rest of the world for struggling democracies around the world for activists around the world for people trying to build up their own societies in a similar sort of partnership. So he speaks to rebuilding our alliances, he speaks to supporting our democratic values around the world. And I think that was actually an incredibly important pillar of the speech that's often left out, you know, if you're speaking to the American people, they might not want to hear about the rest of the world. But President Biden cares so much about the image we are projected beyond our borders.
Adam Smith 19:49
This speech seemed to me to be written very much very much in the shadow of what happened two and a half weeks ago at the Capitol, I wonder whether with a little bit of distance that that will seem like an overreaction. One argument about what happened to enough weeks ago was that it was a, it was a security mess. There was a predictable bunch of Trump ease, who behave like that when they're in some at a rally in a suburban shopping mall or in some Airport. The difference here, obviously, was that it was in the heart of Washington, DC, and they should never have been allowed to get into the Capitol. And if they hadn't, we might not really be thinking about it very much. Trump didn't do anything particularly different on that day than he done at any point in the whole of his relatively short political career, maybe in a way, Biden has given this, these nasty events, more important than they really deserve. What would be your reaction to that?
Kate Guy 20:48
I Gosh, yeah. Yeah, that's, uh, I can see the thought behind that. I just must say, I think that's certainly not how things feel here on the ground. And that's because it was this sort of awful moment that that I know, a lot of my family and friends harken back to what things felt like on on 911, where, in the days afterwards, you know, I think we all woke up with that, that feeling here in DC, like, Oh, these annoying, Bob, they're, they're going to be silly and stupid and rough each other up. But in the days sort of after that attack, more and more has come out that showed the true gravity of what happened there and and how close we were to just horrible, even more horrible and even more tragic things happening. And it was really just by by the grace of a few individuals, and by luck that they they didn't go that far. And so I think that it is a moment that must be addressed as well, because it was a culmination of so much of what we saw,
Mitch Robertson 21:56
I'd very much like to echo what Kate said, but I think Trump is actually going to be in more trouble as the days come on, I think because I think there are really two tracks to what happened on the sixth of January, the two groups of people that were the sort of the yahoos that were there. So as we saw the person who was in the speaker's podium, the person who stole the speaker, sorry, the person who stole the speaker's podium and the person who stood in the in the well of the Senate, but the more investigation has been done by the FBI, you see that there is this really sinister element to it. And these are the people that had that had the cable ties and the handcuffs and they had military planning. And the sense of this could have been a lot worse. I think this wasn't just a bunch of Yahoo's, you know, just out for their jollies. I think there is an element to it, which is undercover and more and more with reporting. This was a really dangerous planned attack. And there were weapons and there were there were plans and I think it will only look worse in hindsight.
Adam Smith 22:50
So, Mitch, how big a crisis Do you think the United States is facing that in historical terms? Because to read this speech, you think this is up there with, you know what, what FDR was facing in 1933? What Lincoln was facing in 1861? Is it really in that league?
Mitch Robertson 23:08
I think it is. I think if you look at these four, the four crises that Biden Biden has talked about the scale of them, the coronavirus pandemic, I mean, this is this is unparalleled. I think that's a that's a tick for being unparalleled. The climate. We haven't talked much about that for four years because of the Trump presidency. But the the climate was in a very bad way, in 2008, when Obama won, and not a lot has really been concretely achieved. And we've seen steps with the with the Paris Climate accord, but there needs to be serious action on that front, the economy is in a very bad way, and what he termed equity. And we can talk about that in racial inequity, economic inequity, gender inequity, there are these big crises. But the bigger problem is that we saw on the sixth of January is this crisis of democracy. And if there isn't legitimacy to the governance and legitimacy to government action, if there isn't a belief that politics works, and none of these crises will will be addressed. And they're only going to get worse. I think that that is the bigger meta problem that was that Biden began the speech with.
Adam Smith 24:06
I'm slightly I'm obviously slightly playing devil's advocate here. But you know, rereading the speech, just before our conversation, you know, I was looking for ways in which what what is it about America that Joe Biden is going to use to tackle these massive problems that you've just listed there? And I'm really struggling in the speech to see it. I mean, America is so much better than this. He says, you know, here we stand in the shadow of the Capitol dome, and we went through the Civil War, and yet we endured, we prevailed, and he refers to Dr. King and we prevail there. But why did we prevail? It's really not clear. You know, don't tell me things can't change because vice president Kamala Harris, first woman to be sworn into that office first person of colour, but why have things changed? It's all very unclear. It's a better question of faith that we're better than this,
Kate Guy 25:02
I will speak from a very American perspective, because I think there are, of course, were it was a subtext to all of the remarks that were better than this. And that subtext is that America has not always been better than this. Right? We have deep, deep divisions and inequities, horrible histories of of slavery, and colonialism and and all the rest. And I think when you hear that shining, at least for Democrats, when they speak, that of that shining rhetoric of being better, and progress and improving, it is because they can also hold in their heads. At the same time, this image of America has not always been great to so many people. And so, speaking with that kind of idea of you know, look at that vice president Harris here who overcome so many of the darkest impulses of this country to lead it, what that image is showing is that we cannot let up we must have the resolve to to continue to progress that these awful, awful visions that we saw on the sixth and saw for the past four years, and beyond that, you know, before that are such a deep strain of American history, that without sort of continuing to work beyond that America will not improve, but we have improved and that that coming back from the brink of the Civil War, even you know, Washington's book speaks of this as well in the fragility that he speaks of in the country is always there and always present. And so it's just it's it's my fault that that was quite hopeful place to take this is that we can do better because we as America have constantly forced ourselves to the brink of division and and hate and misinformation and all the rest. And yet we've risen above it. And so this time might not be unique, because we've been there before, but at least we have examples to sort of pull from to to progress.
Adam Smith 26:58
Mitch, there are many we use this phrase American exceptionalism because it is so embedded in the way in which Americans think about themselves. We talked about this, I think the three of us when we when we were last on this podcast together, but of course, there are many different kinds of American exceptionalism aren't there and and what Kate has outlined, there is a confidence in the special capacity of the United States, which nevertheless recognises potentially, its huge sins and problems. So it's not it's not inherently a triumphalist exceptionalism. It's just an extra what, you know, we might think looking in from outside is just an extraordinary capacity for faith in renewal. And that does feel like a very Joe Biden kind of exceptionalism, doesn't it?
Mitch Robertson 27:53
Yeah. So I was just about to say provide that answer. I think that it feels natural. I mean, it obviously is something I think American exceptionalism is the two of us on this discussion are not American, but have chosen to sort of pursue a study of America as their as their career. And I think, probably scratching that some way there is American exceptionalism, this idea that America is somewhere different than it, it kind of confounds people who are not American, and maybe confound some Americans as well. But it is something that makes the study of America so interesting and, and ask so many questions, but I think it rings true with Biden, I think he genuinely believes that I think a lot of people, a lot of presidents you kind of have to be I mean, we can talk about whether it's true or not. But it almost feels like you have to believe in American exceptionalism to be president of America. But Joe Biden actually believes that Joe Bob believed in it was in the Senate, he believed in it when he was vice president. He believed in it for the past four years as a private citizen,
Adam Smith 28:43
his predecessor really didn't believe in American exceptionalism in that way. He wanted to make America great. And then as the language he kept on using, but I mean, he went round, he spent the last four years going round, talking, levelling, putting America on the same level as Russia and Turkey and China, pulling back in every way rhetorically, and in policy terms from the sense of American global mission.
Mitch Robertson 29:12
But it's a it's a gut, like American exceptionalism, a gut feeling, right. This is not an intellectual thing. This is a gut feeling when he, you know, when when Trump said, you know, one of probably one of the most revealing things he said, as President when he said, You know, I think it was Fox News, interviewing, and he said about Putin being a bad guy, and he says, a lot of bad guys out there. And it's like, that's, that is what I teach in US foreign policy. But US presidents Don't say that. And, you know, you can have an intellectual argument, where is the place with most social growth, and we can measure that with metrics and indices and whatever. But it's a gut feeling. American exceptionalism is a gut feeling. I don't think you can ask Joe Biden to sort of provide numbers for this. It's just, it's just a instinctual feeling. And he's an instinctual politician, and I think it'd be an instinctual president.
Kate Guy 29:55
Yeah, he speaks so often and and sorry, he he also always returns to this sort of sentence and his stump speeches and whatever is there's never been anything America can't do when we pull together and confront it. And I think that is what he believes in his gut from from, you know, the early sort of days of World War Two to the Cold War, which defines much of his career, like he sees the history of America in these moments of overcoming horrible crises. And to have him at the helm of one of those moments, I think, is an interesting poetic echo.
Mitch Robertson 30:30
I mean, and also just, if I can jump in there with those couple of hours line at the celebration, I think afterwards when she said, America shoots for the moon, and then we put our flag on it. Like that's a that's a good law that is like that, you know, rah, rah, if we're in the middle of a depression, middle of a pandemic, like that is that will get Americans feeling good again.
Adam Smith 30:49
What were the lines in the speech that you think would have gone over best, Kate?
Kate Guy 30:54
Yeah, the one that sticks in my mind. So I'm just trying to find it was actually one that that probably won't get a lot of attention. But it struck me because I, I work on the issue of climate change. And I'm always sort of trying to track how it comes, he says, we have a planet that's crying out to us. And that that struck me in part because of climate, in part because of, you know, that's what my work shows me too. But I think it also speaks to hearing that cry, which which our former president really didn't care to both in terms of the cries of other populations, the cries of our own populations, and putting it in those deeply sort of emotional terms that that with, if you're somebody with empathy, if you're a country with empathy, you must respond to that. And you must fix that. And then it spoke to, I think, a lot of the cries that all of us had in the US for many different reasons for the past four years, and he was here to respond. So I like that line.
Mitch Robertson 31:54
I think the two of the really, really stuck out with me, one was just there's just 10 words that he said, there is no accounting for what fate will deal you. And I think that is the whole biography of Joe Biden and just just 10 little words that you hear that and, you know, you know what that means, you know, what he's overcome, and can present I think that resonates with a lot of people in even ordinary circumstances that they've had bad luck fall their way, obviously, in the middle of a pandemic that has killed over 400,000 Americans and just rip through the economy rip through lives. I think that was just a way of sort of Biden as this empathetic president of the prisoners, the healer, in chief, he doesn't need to doesn't need to talk about the car crash, he doesn't need to talk about bow again, another one that I really loved. And I'm sure you did, too, Adam paraphrasing Lincoln, when he said, My whole soul isn't bringing together and uniting the nation.
Kate Guy 32:41
It was just gonna say it harkens to something we spoke about on the on the last podcast, which is the soaring rhetoric of restoring the soul of the nation, right? And like, how do you think about the soul of this nation and restoring it, and it brings it to the most simple, genuine statement, which is, Biden's whole soul is in that and the soul is something he cares about so much as a religious man, as somebody who has experienced a lot of loss of a lot of souls around him. And just to, like, simply pledge his soul to this task is something that I think everybody feels is incredibly genuine and moving.
Joe Biden: Another January, New Year's Day, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put pen to paper, the President said, and I quote, if my name ever goes down into history, it'll be for this act. And my whole soul is in it. My whole soul was in it. today. On this January day, my whole soul is in this bringing America together, uniting our people unite in our nation. And I asked every American to join me in this cause.
Adam Smith 34:04
There's a brilliant line in a fantastic essay by Fintan. O'Toole, I don't know whether either of you've read that essay by Fintan O'Toole in The Guardian a week or two ago. But he has a fantastic line about Joe Biden. He says, and this is in this is in relation to the issue I want to turn to, which is what's going to happen in Congress and how can they administration advance its agenda. Fintan O'Toole writes of Biden "he is a horse whisperer, who has to deal with mad dogs". And and he's obviously alluding there to Biden's years and years in the Senate and understanding Washington polls and understanding that you got to, as he as he said, in the inaugural address, quoting his mother, you got to stand in the other person's shoes. And I guess that, you know, specifically in politics terms in political terms, that means understanding what the other person needs, what they want, what you need to get, give them in order to get what you want them to know tools point is well, you know, that worked very well back in the 70s and 80s and 90s. But how do you how what is the relevance of those kinds of skills when you're dealing, you know, in the senate with Senator Josh Hawley. Mitch, Can you think of any specific policy questions on which the prospect of genuine common ground with Republicans?
Mitch Robertson 35:25
That's a big question. that's a that's a very big question. But, I mean, maybe I'm naive and optimistic. I mean, I don't think that Republicans think that America isn't a great way now. Like, I don't think that the mitch mcconnell's does not believe that like every social problem in America has been fixed. Now. There's obviously some disagreement over which way to do it. But I think, staring down the barrel of a crisis, something needs to be done, and there does seem to be Republican votes in initial response to the Coronavirus. I mean, you can't just have an extension to the face of this. I mean, that is very, that's a very difficult question. I think. I'd like to be able to just reel off five and say, okay, there's five, five quick wins for Joe Biden.
Adam Smith 36:08
I don't think I can reel off five. But I could, I mean, I could reel off some issues where at least in theory, you'd think that there would be plenty of common ground. But the question is, so infrastructure, for example, potentially even immigration reform, potentially regulation of big tech, I mean, as well as the the crucial question of the virus. These are all issues on which I imagine if you could sit down with a reasonably sensible Republican and a reasonably sensible Democrat, and you could somehow suck out the politics of it, you could probably hammer out an agreement. The question is whether the political incentives are there. But Kate, sorry, you wanted to…
Kate Guy 36:48
Yeah, I was actually going to say infrastructure as well, if anybody watched Pete Budaj edges. hearing yesterday, confirmation hearing on the hill, you'll see, I've seen many chummy republican wanting to give him platitudes and give him well wishes, because they wanted in their state, don't they? It's poison old fashioned pork barrel, right, which, which is Joe Biden stick, right? He loves that sort of relational negotiation. And so I and especially if so much of what he wants to do from from sort of building back America better is going to be in terms of stimulus and transport and infrastructure and all the rest it, it actually makes it a much easier ground for him to just sort of emerge on. And I think you will also see his team focusing on those issues. First, it's it's sort of been distracted, I think, by other crisis language of his four crises. But in focusing on those things, and focusing on things that I also think that they he thinks there's common ground on, you know, at least in the American public climate, and racial justice and economy and virus are things that that the polls say the country is actually quite united on. So focusing on those things, keeps you sort of away from bigger sticking points, like the overall healthcare system, right, the overall immigration system. And it's been an interesting sort of dance to watch them do. Like we're focusing on these crises. Now. We'll get to the the more difficult sticking positions later. And so that it's an important sort of thing to draw out. The other thing that Republicans and Democrats, at least on the hill are quite united on, actually, is not doing away with filibuster power. Right. I think both the senators at least who are in charge, and the Republicans, of course, in the Senate, do not want that important sort of guardrail as they see it done away with. So what that means is that the democrats as they have been doing through through now, Majority Leader Schumer and others can ratchet up that threat. And and act like they are willing to sort of pull that that fire scrape tool and get rid of the filibuster in order to force Republicans to come to the table. Because it's something that I think actually both sides really don't want to do. But one side will use as that that sort of credible threat in negotiations quite forcefully.
Adam Smith 39:11
It's a real challenge to prioritise all this, given the number of challenges facing the new administration, Mitch, and on top of all of that he's got the problem, potentially the problem of a senate impeachment trial. How do you see that playing out? And how distracting is that going to be a big problem?
Mitch Robertson 39:31
I think in some ways, if the word Trump was never mentioned, again, divided ministration actually be very happy. I mean, there's two ways they could take this. I mean, he is an object to beat up on that would be one way to play this, but it's been quite clear from the first few days that they just kind of want to leave that in the past. They don't want to re litigate these issues of the last four years. They want to get on with a positive Biden agenda.
Kate Guy 39:53
In terms of how you prioritise and balance, the Trump years and justice for the Trump years. I actually The Biden administration would be smart to use Trump as an important foil for them as they move forward, you know, not put all of the attention on him. They we've had enough of that for the past four years. But you saw this a little bit with with Dr. Fauci sort of triumphant return to the briefing room last night, all smiles. And speaking of being liberated, you know, there is there's certainly a feeling in the Biden worlds that we want that foil you know, we want that that person who showed us how bad things can be to give us impetus and perhaps even joy for what we want to do. And Trump was also an incredibly uniting figure for the left, that we will start to see the absence of as a leftist, potentially returns to infighting among itself. So if you can wield that that power of Trump or perhaps potentially the Trumpian base, skilfully I think it would be, it would be good for the Biden team to think about that.
Adam Smith 41:03
I just want to ask you both about Kamala Harris. And I mean, we need to you know, we haven't really spoken very much of her in this conversation, but we obviously need to underline the fact that her swearing in was itself an extraordinary moment, a historic moment in American history. But I really want to ask you both what kind of vice president you think she's going to be? I mean, we know that vice presidents have play very different roles across different administrations. She's in a particularly there's going to be a particular amount of attention on her not just because she's a woman, but because the person who's the president is 78 years old. What do you expect from her? What do you think we'll see from her and what will be the nature of her influence?
Mitch Robertson 41:47
Well, I think particularly after the events of Georgia, with the Democrats, retaking 50 seats, and then with the vice president as Chair 51 seats, I think we'll see her she was sitting in that senate, Senate speaker's chair on election day, I think we'll see her there. See, a lot. I mean, she'll be used as this 100. And first 101st, enter, I guess, 51st. Democratic Senator, I think that will be a key part of her role. But I also think that in some ways, the Biden Obama relationship changed, changed how we think of presidents and vice presidents. I mean, they are often not a team. They they're a team for the election, but they're not a team governing. I mean, George HW Bush used to say that his job as vice president was wake up, have someone tell him if Reagan was still alive, and then roll over and go back to sleep? Because that was the that was his whole job doing that. But whereas Biden, you know, he asked as part of the deal becoming president was that he would get a meeting with lunch with President Obama every week, and I believe he's continuing that tradition with with Kamala Harris. So I think you will actually see them even in the branding, I think we saw a lot of talk of the Biden Harris transition, the Biden Harris inauguration, the Biden Harris administration. So I think that that language will be used. I mean, she, they're, they're a great team. They are they are, they are different. And they appeal to different different parts of the different parts of the public. And they have different strengths and different weaknesses, but I think they, they work well together. They are a good team, and we'll see them actually operate as a team.
Adam Smith 43:11
Do you share that optimistic view, Kate?
Kate Guy 43:15
I do, in part because of how good a politician vice president Harris is and of course, like, I cannot be underscored how deeply moving and symbolic for me as a woman her her swearing in, was, in part because you know, the first woman to take office is also a woman of colour is also a woman who is the daughter of immigrant parents. All of this speaks to you know, so much of what we're speaking to earlier, but it's just like just a remarkable testament for her that she was able to overcome the sexism and awfulness of so much of the campaign and, and rise to this level and her grace. And that was just something that men and women I think should should learn from. But I don't want to sort of remove that from her as a person because she, as we saw, sort of throughout the day, of the inauguration in the campaign is an incredible speaker and incredibly empathetic woman. And, and that comes through and she's able to, I think, remake the image of women in politics through that and the image, the image of leaders in politics in general that she's able to dance and be joyful, but also be an incredibly skillful prosecutor and incredibly smart whip smart politician.
Adam Smith 44:33
Okay. In the In your opinion, you two, Is there a plausible scenario whereby the democrats do not lose seats in the midterm elections in 2022, because we you know, we know that historically, there have been some occasional exceptions. 1934 was an exception when the democrats advanced after the impressive first 100 days of FDR administration, but generally speaking, the party in power loses ground in the midterm elections. And if they lost control of both houses of Congress, which is perfectly plausible, in 2022, that would dramatically dramatically clip the wings of the Biden Harris administration is what is the scenario whereby that can be avoided? Mitch?
Mitch Robertson 45:21
I think the one thing that can be done in which we've seen some promising signs for the democrats in the early days, is this emphasis on party building, as Kate alluded to, in her last in their last answer, I think with the appointment of Jamie Harrison as the chair of the DNC with this 50 to 50 state strategy, saying they want to build the Democratic Party, not just in key swing states, and not just in key states where the democrats do well, but states where the democrats don't do so well, and building for the future. And I think we saw even with the huge success of the Obama administration, a sort of backsliding with how the Democratic Party performed across across governors across state races, the what I think Joe Biden realises is that they need to perform well in 2022, to crush Trumpism. They've beaten Trumpism in 2020, and they've got to crush it. And that I think, will be the uniting factor of the Democratic Party to push forward in the midterms. And then onto 2024.
Adam Smith 46:14
Kate Guy 46:16
Yeah, I am slightly depressed by this, because I feel like we just barely ended the 2020 electoral season and are already on to the next campaign. But I think that the the feel here among folks is the only way we potentially win in what will, as you said, be incredibly tough midterm season is if we produce real quick wins for for the Biden team, and really deep sort of changes for the American people in the next year, right, in the next year and a half. And that is a very tough thing to do, especially when you have as I said, so much to sort of, like clean up and rebuild from the Trump years just in the workings of government itself, those things that most people, you know, maybe not the listeners of this podcast, but most normal people don't care much about those institutional problems. So I think you'll you'll see a very diligent and and focused strategy by the bottom ministration to produce things that people feel that people know, was there to help them just today they're announcing even more aid and and including food aid for people struggling in this in this economic crisis. And so I think those sorts of things will be, for better or for worse, what would define the legislative agenda? You know, what can we do in terms of Transportation and Infrastructure? What can we build in places? How can we put people back to work? How can we sort of take credit for those things as well, something the Obama administration was was not as good at doing.
Adam Smith 47:55
Mitch, we've been living through a long political era from the late 1970s through up until some unspecified time in the 21st century, in which the role of government and especially the federal government was seen to be on the retreat. You know, the famous Reagan line from his first inaugural address, "government is not the solution to the problem. Government is the problem", which is sort of echoed by Bill Clinton in 1993. And are we now -- in the light of what Kate is just saying, -- is there now a possibility that we're into a new political order, but the Biden Harris administration has an opportunity now, if he can pull it off, and I don't know if it's possible, if it's humanly possible, because the structural obstacles are so severe, but not just to display competence, but through the display of competence, to restore faith in the federal government's capacity to solve people's problems in the way that the federal government did in the 1930s? And 40s?
Mitch Robertson 48:53
Absolutely speaking, my language now Adam. How long have we got, another couple of hours that I can can riff on this about? But I think No, I think this, you make an excellent, excellent point there. I think there is the chance and you are correct, emphasises the chance to reassert the good that government can do. And I think we'll see that with the 100 days with with vaccinations, it's about letting what you've seen the the sort of intellect of intellect and capability of government smothered by the Trump administration deliberately. I mean, this is, this is not something that's happened by accident, Reagan said, you know, government is bad, and then did things to make sure government was ineffective, so people would think it's bad. So this is this is a project that the republican party has been involved in for four decades. And I think Biden may well be the man to lead it and Biden has to be the team to say that government action does work. I mean, they're not you saw in the campaign. Trump try to portray Joe Biden as a socialist, he's not a socialist, but he does believe that like government programmes work. He believes that government can do good. He believes that government can can cure cancer. He believes that government can help alleviate hunger. And I think I believe in government and someone who's actually willing willing to say it willing to say that they believe in government and that they believe that government can do good which Democrats have have often retreated from even if they've supported government programmes they've not they've tried to almost obfuscate that they are federal government programmes. And I think Joe Biden has does have a moment to to plant a flag here and say, government can do good. The pandemic, one of the many reasons that the pandemic went unchallenged in America for so long was the weakness of public services, the weaknesses of, of health care, how that had been allowed to erode the weaknesses of infrastructure, all these all these sort of things and say that no government government is good government can do good things. No government can be a place where people come together to do good things. And I think that is, that is Biden's opportunity.
Adam Smith 50:49
If that's true, then there's it's a it's a fantastic bookend to the so called neoconservative era to have elected a president who was first elected to public office in the kind of the era of the just in the afterglow, of Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, and it's so old, that he imbibes, those pre 1970s values and attitudes to government.
Kate Guy 51:18
But one of the silver linings for me of this moment, and this sort of crisis moment that we're in is not one of the past is actually one of the future of the progressive movement, because I think the real people and energy behind a new deal are young people, the real energy really forcing and and potentially making it possible for Biden to do any of the things he wants in an FDR style, our youth activists pushing for green New Deal pushing for overall healthcare, revitalization, pushing for big stimulus and big money. And that to me, is, as I said, I think a silver lining of the Trump years, especially if we're thinking about revitalising government, is that these poor young people who most of their political life has been your the Trump years or some of the rancour of the last four years of the Obama administration is that they are in sort of newly interested in see themselves in politics and in government. And that is something that is an energy that that the Biden team needs, if it wants to do the big things that it wants to do. And the democratic party needs if it wants to sort of remain an important force beyond this moment.
Adam Smith 52:32
So as the President said in his inaugural address, then in effect, you need to kind of see the dark side before experiencing the light and that kind of sense of relief that you know, you're radiating now, Kate, I can see this from across the Atlantic. You're radiating this sense of relief, and Kate Guy and Mitch Robertson, thank you both very much, indeed.
Kate Guy 52:53
Mitch Robertson 52:54
Thank you very much.
Adam Smith 52:55
I was talking to Kate guy and Mitch Robertson. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln said that four years earlier, Confederates would make war rather than let the nation survive. In 2021, the young poet Amanda Gorman said, we've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it. So is this a new page in America's story as Joe Biden would have it? Is this a time when the mystic chords of memory are again touched by the better angels of our nature? This podcast is called the last best hope with a purposeful question mark at the end. We don't swallow the American myth wholesale. But nor do we dismiss its power. On which note, because when else can I do this, please welcome Lady Gaga. Let's end with Lady Gaga. Goodbye.