General Meeting

Program time:
Speaker: Gerald Loftus
Gerald Loftus
Gerald Loftus
CHÂTEAU SAINTE-ANNE Rue Du Vieux Moulin 103 1160 Bruxelles

Joe Biden, the first post-Trump American president, was sworn in two weeks after the assault on the US Capitol. One year later, what are we to make of the first quarter of his presidency? His report card is important, as it will help determine how the Democratic party will fare in the Congressional midterm elections in November. But more importantly for the United States and the world is this: what is the state of American democracy? Under the radar, what changes have been happening in the very decentralized American electoral system? How has the world's view of the United States been affected by the events of the last five years, and how is the Biden administration dealing with foreign and domestic crises?

Gerald Loftus' diplomatic career began in 1979 in Barbados as Vice Consul, and ended in Luxembourg in 2002, as Chargé d'Affaires of the American Embassy. Passing through posts in Alexandria, Tunis, Muscat, Algiers, Oran, Mauritius, and London, as well as at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Since his retirement from the US Foreign Service, he has continued in international relations, and has organized conferences in Africa for ACSS, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies of National Defense University in Washington. Between 2010 and 2014, he directed the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies - TALIM - a research and conference centre. A frequent contributor to the monthly Foreign Service Journal, he is the author of Lions at the Legation & Other Stories: Two Centuries of American Diplomatic Life in Tangier (2018, Fondation Jardin Majorelle). In Brussels, he is spokesperson for Democrats Abroad Belgium..

Joe Biden image credit: Andrew Harnik-Pool/ Getty Images

A Review
by Larisa Doctorow

The monthly lecture of the ISG was given by Gerald Loftus, an American diplomat who spent 22 years of his career in many different countries of North Africa, working in Alexandria, Tunis, Muscat, Algiers, and Oran, before moving to London and Brussels. Since his retirement, he has headed the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan studies and worked in international relations, organizing conferences in Africa.

In the view of Loftus, the start of Joe Biden’s term was striking. He was sworn in two weeks after the assault on the US Capitol. Dramatic events continued without stop. Firstly, there was the Covid pandemic, then the humiliating withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Last autumn brought serious friction with Russia and a worsening situation in the Ukraine, where the US and its European allies invested a lot of money and resources. As for today, the situation does not remain calm. The confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, now military, is bringing new challenges for the US. On the international arena there are high tensions in the relations with other foreign countries as well, in particular North Korea and Iran.

At home things are not placid either. Ever since Donald Trump’s presidency the country is sharply divided, while the economy is under threat from inflation and rising interest rates. Having in mind these facts, the speaker said that he wanted to broaden the scope of his lecture and go beyond the first 12 months of Joe Biden’s presidency. Midterm elections in the US will be important. This November one third of the Senate and all House members are up for election. No one can predict what will be next. What will happen if the Republicans regain control of the Senate? This would not bode well for Biden’s legislative program.

Biden beats Trump

In the 2020 presidential election, there was collective relief among many Americans when Biden won. It was the opposite feeling from how voters felt when Donald Trump in 2016 won. During the primary elections there were several other candidates from the Democrats, but Joe Biden won the nomination and then won the November ballot. However, on the morning after the elections Donald Trump went before journalists to say: “I am the winner”. He tried to interfere. As our speaker said, “It felt like the premonition of the worst to come. We knew from before the vote that Trump would not accept being a loser. Now we all know what happened on 6 January 2021”. During the transition period between November and the inauguration on the 20 January, Donald Trump never invited Biden to the White House on a courtesy visit as is tradition.

Gerald Loftus likened some of Biden’s domestic legislative projects as being similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s projects and of a continuation of policies from the Obama administration. For example, health care in the US which Obama managed to change was a follow-on to the social reform legacy of Roosevelt from the 1930s. Another issue, the revitalization of the US economy was in line with what Roosevelt did. Many similar issues are discussed now. The speaker asked: does Joe Biden resemble Roosevelt? His answer: No, he does not. But when the speaker described Biden’s achievements in the first year of his presidency, one can start thinking maybe, he is a Roosevelt-like figure with the exception of Biden not having an overwhelming majority in congress.

The speaker compared Biden in some aspects to Eisenhower, who was the US president for eight years. He was influential in shaping a Supreme Court which supported freedoms. Biden has been a stutterer all his life and he knows how people with disabilities feel. Even now these people can be laughed at. He spoke about the handicapped and about the necessity to defend their voting rights.

Biden’s achievements are considerable. Roosevelt came in the middle of the Great Depression. In his first year Biden did many similar things even without a proper recession like:

1 Great pandemic relief

2 Kept unemployment low

3 Large investment in infrastructure

Nevertheless, Biden has been blamed for many things. The headlines in many newspapers have been negative. Everyone complained about the big numbers of Covid infections and deaths. But what can you do when around the country only 28 % of Americans received their 3rd vaccination? Is this his fault? Republicans try to blame Biden for everything. Trump’s son called those who are vaccinated “traitors”.

Now the country is deeply divided, and the electoral system in the States is highly polarized. The divisions can be seen as weakness. People often call the Republicans the party of Trump. This represents a sea change in the political thinking of Americans. The Republicans started making gains in the South, now what? The US is heading for another showdown in November. American democracy may be subverted. Inside the country there is fear. Racial issues remain headline news. In many American schools, children of colour are in the majority, and this becomes an issue. White supremacy advocates still speak out.

The Republicans want to rewrite the election laws. They use different tools such as gerrymandering to choose the voters who will vote for them. They study where the Democrats’ supporters live and make it difficult for them to go to the polling stations. They use inconvenient hours. They put the polling stations far from public transportation, or in the locations where no parking is available.

Other tricks of the trade of electoral manipulation include the requirement that you get a registration number to vote. Many people registered a long time ago and don’t remember their numbers. It takes a lot of effort to restore your number. In the USA it is easier to buy a gun. The preparation for the next presidential campaign has already started. Trump supporters are already on the road. This is where the day-to-day reality in the US stands at present. The Electoral College of the US used in presidential years is changing. More and more people discuss the necessity of changing the discrepancy between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote. For example, Mrs Clinton won the popular vote, but Mr Trump won by electoral numbers he picked up in the South. There are states with less than one million citizens, for example, Wyoming. They have just two representatives. These states are unbalanced. Definitely, the time has come to clean up the existing ambiguity between popular vote and Electoral College numbers.

There is a question about whether Biden will run for re-election. We have to admit that he has saved the American democracy. If he had not won, we would be talking about Trump’s admiration for Putin and closure of NATO and continue living with old infrastructure. The lecturer thinks that if Biden picks up the fight for majority rule, his legacy will be great.

In March Joe Biden will make his annual State of the Union address.

Questions from the audience

Q: Can Americans overthrow the tyranny of money?

By way of an answer, the speaker talked about the price tag of the election campaign.

Q: Who will be Democrats’ next presidential candidate?

A: “I don’t know.” The speaker added that if Joe Biden declares now that he is not running, he will lose his power and some support.

Q: The situation regarding American media.

A: “Fox News is in the Trump camp. He spent little money for his electoral campaign because Fox News always promoted him. He knows how to manipulate the Media.”

Q: Do American voters living abroad have any impact on the results of the elections?

A: “A lot. Sometimes the results are decided by one vote as happened in the state of Virginia.”

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