May 20, 2021

President Joe Biden is trying to model a normal presidency as he stabilizes the nation after the drama of the past four years, rebuilds from the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, and deals with crises around the world.

Today, Biden signed into law a bill to combat hate crimes, especially against Asian Americans, sparked by Covid-19. After former president Trump began blaming China for the coronavirus pandemic—calling the virus the “kung flu” for example—hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders spiked to more than 6600 between March 2020 and March 2021. “Hate has no place in America,” Biden tweeted.

Vaccine rates are up: more than 48% of the population has gotten at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and in 19 states, more than half the population is fully vaccinated. This week, for the first time since March of last year, the seven-day average of deaths from Covid-19 has fallen below 500.

The economy is healing. Fresh claims for unemployment insurance fell again last week, by 34,000, showing an improving job market. Now at 444,000, they are still higher than they were before the pandemic. Nonetheless, more than 20 states have announced they are rejecting the $300 a week boost in federal unemployment benefits, insisting that the extra money is keeping people from going to work.

Biden is also dealing with foreign policy crises, to which he brings a longstanding interest in foreign affairs, including 34 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and 8 years in the vice presidency, dealing with foreign countries. He is the president most experienced in foreign affairs since at least George H. W. Bush, who had been U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In managing foreign affairs, Biden appears to favor private pressure over public statements, leaving room for other governments to change direction without losing face domestically by backing down to the United States in public, a tendency he showed when he declined to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, instead increasing pressure on MBS by imposing penalties on 76 of the people around him.

Private pressure over public statements appears to have been Biden’s approach to the recent crisis between Palestinians and Israeli military that broke out on May 10, killing at least 230 Palestinians in Gaza (the 25-mile-long, 4- to 8-mile-wide strip on the Mediterranean side of Israel) including 63 children, leaving tens of thousands homeless, and badly damaging hospitals, schools, roads, and water and electrical systems. Twelve Israelis, including two children, have also been killed.

Biden has pressured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end Israel’s bombing campaign against Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza. Through allies, especially those in Egypt, which borders Gaza, the administration has told Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel. Today Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire brokered by Egypt. It is not clear if the cease-fire will hold: after similar hostilities in 2014, it ultimately took 9 truces to end the fighting.

But while there is a normal—and largely successful—presidency underway, politics in America is not at all business as usual. The Republican Party is radicalizing into a pro-Trump force that is throwing the country under the bus to defend their leader.

Dramatically, Republicans have come out this week against an investigation into the January 6 insurrection. This is a transparent attempt to protect former president Trump, as well, perhaps, as some of their own members; House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) today refused to say whether he thought members of his caucus had communicated with the January 6 rioters.

This objection to an investigation of an attack of such magnitude is breathtaking. We have always had investigations of attacks on our country; Republicans themselves held 7 congressional investigations and 33 hearings about the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, that killed 4 Americans.

Today, journalist David Freedlander reminded us that in January, a number of Republican lawmakers, including McCarthy, argued against impeaching then-president Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection because, they said, a “fact-finding commission” was important. “I believe impeaching the president in such a short time frame would be a mistake,” said McCarthy. “No investigations have been completed. No hearings have been held….”

And yet, McCarthy and the Republican leadership are now opposing the creation of a bipartisan commission, although the Democrats gave them all their demands: equal representation on the commission, the power to subpoena witnesses, and a final report before the end of the year.

The story is the same in the Senate. On February 13, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), tweeted: “The 1/6 attack on the Capitol was horrific & appalling. Those who planned & participated in the violence that day should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I agree w/Speaker Pelosi—a 911-type investigation is called for to help prevent this from happening again.”

And yet, Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), whom Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman intercepted and led away from the mob on January 6, today told journalist Manu Raju that he wasn’t sure whether he will block debate on the commission bill. This indicates there will not be enough Senate votes to break a filibuster on the bill.

Today, Senator Angus King, Jr. (I-ME) came out and said it: “We need answers on the 1/6 insurrection—but many of my [Republican] colleagues are indicating they will vote against an independent investigation. When people start moving heaven and earth to block an investigation, I have to wonder if there is something to hide.”

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Notes:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-05-20/initial-jobless-claims-in-u-s-decline-to-fresh-pandemic-low

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/i-m-very-fortunate-hero-officer-capitol-riot-also-saved-n1257384

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/26/us/politics/biden-mbs-khashoggi.html

https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/20/health/us-coronavirus-thursday/index.html

https://www.wsj.com/articles/israeli-palestinian-conflict-gaza-11620825247

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/20/world/middleeast/israel-gaza-ceasefire.html

https://www.npr.org/2021/05/20/998599775/biden-to-sign-the-covid-19-hate-crimes-bill-as-anti-asian-american-attacks-rise

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