Biden’s big decision

The choice of running mate is next on the agenda for Biden

After Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders withdrew from the race for the Democratic nomination for president, Joe Biden, the former vice-president, became the presumptive nominee. He still has a tough row to hoe if he is to win over the disaffected Sanders wing of the party and defeat incumbent President Donald Trump.

If the global financial establishment had a vote in the US election, Biden would certainly get it. He stands for the status quo ante – the postwar United States as champion of free trade, multilateral organisations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the European Union, and whatever else former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton had in mind.

American voters have a different agenda, however, and Biden and his promised female running mate are anything but shoo-ins despite the visceral dislike of Trump among wide swaths of the electorate. The former vice-president has been leading in one-on-one polls against Trump, but so was Hillary Clinton with even wider margins.

Voters are more aware than ever that this election is not just about a president, but about a Congress, an administration and future court appointments. Biden’s team will be mindful that he needs to put his best foot forward to be a credible front for Democrats eager to return to power.

The party has rallied around Biden, as first erstwhile rival Sanders and then Obama endorsed him. There are still hurdles. Primary votes have been postponed and the nominating convention itself is being delayed by at least a month to mid-August. There is a fierce debate about the use of mail-in votes for the general election on 3 November that casts a cloud even over that sacrosanct date.

Biden’s performances in streaming videos from his basement in Delaware have been uneven at best and provide ample ammunition for opposition advertising. In one clip that went viral, Biden stumbled when his teleprompter went down and he was unable to express himself. He will have to do better if he wants to win the election.

In any case, the outcome of the coronavirus pandemic and the ability of the US economy to recover will largely determine this election. How Biden positions himself to carry his party’s banner is nonetheless an element in the contest. His choice of possible appointees will be a determining factor.

The top priority for Biden is picking a vice-presidential candidate. Biden is deeply beholden to South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn, the majority whip in the House of Representatives and the most senior African American in Congress, after he resurrected the former vice-president’s campaign with a timely endorsement ahead of his state’s primary in late February. Clyburn has urged Biden to choose a black woman as running mate and his wish will weigh heavily in the final decision.

Clyburn’s picks include Kamala Harris, the California senator whose campaign for the presidential nomination never really got off the ground; Susan Rice, the controversial former national security adviser for Obama; and Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia state representative who lost that state’s election for governor.

Biden has pledged to pick a woman as running mate, so former rivals Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar are also possibilities. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has risen to prominence amid her pandemic press briefings.

The choice of a vice-president for a nominee who would be 78 when he takes office is of the utmost importance. Even in the best of times, the wrong choice can sink a campaign. Arizona Senator John McCain found this out to his sorrow when he picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008.

Persistent reports suggest that JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon is in the mix for a Biden administration position, perhaps as treasury secretary. But a number of progressive organisations that have been supporting Sanders wrote a letter to Biden begging him not to appoint a Wall Street figure to a high position.

Likewise, persistent talk of a slot for Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire who briefly joined the race for the nomination before a catastrophic debate performance forced him to retire, is anathema to Sanders’ supporters. Bloomberg is most often mentioned as a candidate for treasury secretary or as head of the World Bank.

With regard to the Federal Reserve, Biden has been critical of Trump’s pressure on the central bank. He called it an ‘abuse of power’ in a December television interview and said he would never interfere with the Fed’s independence the way Trump has.

In the meantime, the coronavirus crisis has prompted the Fed to pump more stimulus into the economy than in Trump’s wildest dreams. It is flooding the country with trillions of dollars in emergency facilities. Trump has even conceded that he is happy with Jay Powell at last.

US presidents are generally inclined, at least in recent times, to extend the term of a Fed chair even if he or she was appointed by a president of the opposing party. Trump broke with that trend when he didn’t reappoint Janet Yellen after her single term despite her willingness to stay.

The Biden campaign was flatlining before things turned around in South Carolina. His staff had hardly any policy people as the focus was on organising in the primary states. The worry among progressives is that Democratic perennials like Larry Summers or Jason Furman, members of the Clinton and Obama administrations, will want to get back in the game. The presumptive nominee will have to walk a fine line in his choices if he is to get the whole party behind him.

Darrell Delamaide is US editor of OMFIF.

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