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analysis

U.S. president-elect Joe Biden delivers a speech at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 25, 2020.JOSHUA ROBERTS/Reuters

He hasn’t taken the oath of office yet, his Inaugural Address is a work in progress, his Cabinet hasn’t been formally nominated. And yet the broad contours of the Joe Biden presidency increasingly are becoming visible.

It has similarities to the Barack Obama administration; some of the faces that will be in that first group portrait around the oval conference table that Richard Nixon first placed in the White House Cabinet Room will be familiar. It has some similarities to the first Justin Trudeau ministerial team; it approaches the 1991 Bill Clinton pledge that his government would “look like America,” which Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau independently riffed on and made their own.

It even has some similarities to the Donald Trump administration, particularly in its outlook on international trade agreements (Mr. Biden is in no hurry to forge new ones) and on the tarnished notion of “globalization” (Mr. Biden in the general-election campaign ingested the critique of Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts that the benefits of globalization have not been shared equally).

And with fresh warnings this week from the American intelligence community that China poses the gravest threat to the nation’s security, Mr. Biden will almost certainly assume the skeptical if not aggressive tone that his predecessor employed toward the world’s second-biggest economy and second-largest military budget.

But the similarities end there.

“This team Biden is bringing in is experienced and has respect for the institutions of government,” Andrew H. Card Jr., George W. Bush’s White House chief of staff, said in an interview. “Trump came in with the expectation that those institutions and the bureaucracy were all bad.’'

Mr. Trump honoured only the latter half of the Theodore Roosevelt foreign-policy dictum that American presidents should “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The 45th President’s big stick was tariffs, which he brandished as a tool of persuasion and pugilism, targeting trade rivals such as China (US$558-billion in two-way goods in 2019) along with trade partners such as Canada (US$612-billion). Janet Yellen, the former Federal Reserve Board chair and one-time head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, whom Mr. Biden will nominate as his treasury secretary, is skeptical of tariffs as a tool of economic policy, believing that they are “not the proper focus.”

Moreover, Mr. Biden and his vice-president elect have warm feelings for Canada. A month after Mr. Trump was elected in 2016, Mr. Biden told an Ottawa audience, “We are more like family. That’s the way the vast majority of Americans feel about Canada and Canadians.” Kamala Harris is a graduate of Montreal’s Westmount High, where there are murmurs of renaming the school on St. Catherine Street after her. The pair are exceedingly unlikely to regard trade across the 49th parallel as a threat to American national security.

The appointment of Ms. Yellen may be the most important indicator of the direction of the Biden administration – and the most reliable signal that Team Biden will veer far from the Trump portfolio.

Given her scholarly attention to the wealth gap, Ms. Yellen almost certainly will give far greater emphasis to reducing the economic divisions between America’s rich and poor. Additionally, she advocates far more coronavirus relief than Mr. Trump could stomach.

The Biden team believes it owes its presidency to Mr. Trump’s failure to acknowledge, and then to address, the threat posed by the virus, and thus there are strong signals that the new president – who will urge in his Inaugural Address that Americans wear masks for the next 100 days – will make the fight against the virus his first priority. The incoming president, who this week signalled he may wrap other priorities – such as enhancing Obamacare into broader virus legislation – has made it clear he believes the vaccine should be free to all. There is a possibility he and Ms. Harris may heed suggestions the two of them be vaccinated on live television.

The role that Ms. Harris will play in the administration still is unclear. Vice-presidents since Walter F. Mondale (1977-1981) have had weekly meetings with the president, and Mr. Biden prized his close relationship with Barack Obama (“I told him I wanted to be the last person in the room before he made important decisions”).

So the new president is predisposed not to allow Ms. Harris to be isolated like Harry Truman (who didn’t even know of the Manhattan Project to create an atomic weapon) or frustrated and depressed the way Lyndon Johnson was (George E. Reedy, a Johnson press secretary, said in an oral history for the LBJ Library that the lanky Texan “just looked lugubrious,” adding, “He reminded me of one of those Tennessee bloodhounds, you know, with the drooping ears”).

Ms. Harris will be first among many women in the Biden circle. Late last month he announced an all-female senior communications staff and will have Center for American Progress leader Neera Tanden, the daughter of immigrants from India, as budget director; Princeton labour economist Cecilia Rouse as chair of the influential Council of Economic Advisers; and Heather Boushey, head of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, as another member of the council.

Mr. Biden faces new pressures to increase the diversity of his team, which, along with his pledge to rejoin the Paris climate pact and to re-enter the Iran nuclear agreement, speaks for a new direction in American domestic and foreign affairs.

“This group – competent and experienced – suggests that this administration is going to be in a lot lower key than what we have seen in the past four years,” Leon E. Panetta, who was White House chief of staff in the Bill Clinton administration and secretary of defence and director of central intelligence in the Barack Obama years, said in an interview. “We need that to take on the challenges we face now.”

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