The Long Run
Two weeks ago, Lyon Tyler Jr. passed away in Tennessee, aged 95. He is survived by his brother Harrison, aged 92. The two Tyler brothers are remarkable because they are the grandsons of John Tyler, US President from 1841-1845. When President Tyler was 63 (in 1853) he conceived Lyon Tyler, the fourth son of his fifteen children. Then, in 1925, Lyon at the relatively ripe age of 72, fathered Lyon Tyler Jr, and then Harrison Tyler in 1928.
President Tyler is generally seen as occupying a low rank in the league table of great Presidents. His Presidency was not a success – his nickname was ‘His Accidency’. He took over the role in 1841 when President William Harrison died, only 31 days into the start of his term (Tyler was his Vice President).
Given then that Tyler’s Presidency is synonymous with Presidential ill health and poor stewardship, and of course longevity, his example echoes today in the light of the US Presidential election. It also serves to show how relatively young America is and we might also draw the conclusion that one firm trend through the lives of the two generations of Tylers above, the USA has generally seen steady upward progress, something that may now be running out of steam.
At this stage – and granted we have already had a couple of October surprises – it looks highly likely that Joe Biden will be President. In a recent note (July 18, https://thelevelling.blog/2020/07/18/the-restoration/), I have predicted that his Presidency will be a ‘restorative’ one – re-establishing order in government and allowing capable people back in control of the likes of the State Department. It is however doubtful that a Biden Presidency will automatically reset the damage done by President Trump, notably in relations with Europe, though Russia will come under much greater pressure.
In other parts of the world, the reality on the ground has changed. For instance, Turkey is emboldened, nurturing a growing arms manufacturing sector and replacing its former foreign policy maxim of ‘no trouble with neighbours’ with ‘trouble in the neighbourhood’. More importantly, China has grown its navy and has become manifestly more belligerent with its neighbours, especially those that like Australia and India are democracies.
In the eyes of Europeans and surely many Americans, the risk is that Biden merely slows the forces acting to pull America apart (Trump accelerated them) and that in four year’s time, they manifest themselves – in speculatively, a more extreme election contest between a hard right Republican ticket of Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, versus an Elizabeth Warren/AOC (Alexandria Ocasio Cortez) ticket.
For now, the best that Biden can give the world is calm. A sense that we will no longer be disturbed by tweets, that violent extremists will no longer be egged on from the White House, that diplomatic relations will no longer be torn asunder on a whim and that greed and corruption will no longer be rewarded.
More broadly, Biden’s potential role, and I feel I am exaggerating a bit here, is as a Gandalf type President, who can take the new, younger generation (people in their 60’s?) to the start of a new path. If his presidency is to be remembered as one that will have a long run appeal, he can perhaps do at least three things.
The first is to delve beyond the idea of a ‘Green New Deal’ and craft a long-term policy program that targets a sustained improvement in human development (healthcare, education and civil society). A ‘New American’ rather than ‘new deal’ program may well touch a chord with the lives and problems of Americans and would help reverse the deterioration in human development that has been witnessed across the US in recent years and that clearly, has produced political dislocation.
A second theme might be to launch a strategic competition with China (and Europe) on reversing climate damage and investing in transformative environmental technologies. Framing the race to repair the climate vis a vis China (whose commitment to be carbon neutral by 2060 has perhaps not got enough attention) will help build momentum and coherence to the US’s commitment on climate change.
A third way in which a Biden presidency can have a long lasting impact is to reclaim its geo-political hinterland. For many years now, Latin America has been the ‘Forgotten Relationship’ in terms of the relative lack of attention that American politicians and policy makers have paid to Latin America. Washington needs to refresh its engagement and relationship with Latin America, from an economic, security and political point of view. The region is crucial in terms of food security, demographics, and the encroachment of China’s Belt and Road strategy and deserves greater policy energy from the next occupant of the White House.
Given expectations that a Biden presidency might only be an ‘interregnum’ the challenge to him is to sow the seeds of policies and structures that will carry America through the next fifty years.
Have a great week ahead