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Opinion: The perilous journeys of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris

Homer’s Odyssey bequeathed to us the model of a nightmare travel story — along with the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” to vividly describe the dilemma of choosing between two dreadful alternatives.
No comparable terrors awaited President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris as they set out on high-stakes, official trips this past week — he to Europe and she to Latin America — but there were indeed political dangers lurking amid their travels.
“No US President has ever left the nation’s shores with democratic values under attack as broadly and systemically at home as they are abroad,” observed CNN’s Stephen Collinson.
David A. Andelman noted that Biden arrived in Britain, the first stop on his trip, with “a single, unified theme — one he’s enunciated at virtually every opportunity since his arrival and that he clearly intends to repeat at the G-7 summit this weekend and the NATO summit that will follow. That message? America’s back. And you can count on us.” First lady Jill Biden’s “Love” blazer — a sharp contrast to Melania Trump’s “I really don’t care, do U?” jacket, which she wore on a trip to visit immigrant children in McAllen, Texas, in 2018 — helped drive home the point.
Andelman, who conferred with some European diplomats, wrote that “it will take a lot to convince them that Biden represents a return to normalcy and not simply a peaceful interregnum before America snaps back to a toxic nationalism.”
At the outset of the G-7 summit, Jill Biden and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, met in Cornwall with experts on education, a subject in which both women have taken a special interest. “Early childhood care and education should be seen as among the defining, strategic issues of our time,” they wrote for CNN Opinion. “What would happen if we really followed the science of early childhood and started focusing on the things that would make the biggest difference for children and those who guide them? We could transform the prospects of an entire generation.
Ahead for Joe Biden lies a politically volatile meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Switzerland, along with potentially fraught sessions with US allies who differ with the US government’s stances on Russia and China. Still, the trip has offered the President an opportunity to demonstrate international leadership amid the pandemic: In remarks from the seaside village of St. Ives in Cornwall on Thursday, Biden committed the US to donating to the world 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine against Covid-19.
In 1940, with the UK fighting for survival against Nazi Germany, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called America the “great arsenal of democracy,” producing “planes and ships and guns and shells” for its own defense as well as for the British. Biden talks of the US being an “arsenal of vaccines for the rest of the world,” noted historian Thomas Balcerski. “If he is successful, a new Covid-19 Marshall Plan that simultaneously saves lives and stimulates the global economy may be on the horizon,” he wrote. “At stake may also be America’s role as a world leader.”
During Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Mexico and Guatemala, she warned potential migrants, “Do not come.” Those three words dismayed progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as Raul A. Reyes observed. “Harris was wrong,” he wrote. “By law, asylum-seekers are required to be present in the US when they make their case. This is as true now as it was when Donald Trump was President. So advising people simply to stay home is brushing aside what could be legitimate fears of persecution in their own countries.”
Then Harris “swatted away” a question from NBC’s Lester Holt on why she had not visited the US southern border. “To some observers she came across as flippant and ill-prepared for what should have been an easily foreseeable question,” wrote Reyes. Republicans are targeting the vice president, partly because their attacks on Biden have not resonated. “It may well be that as a woman of color and a daughter of immigrants Harris is being held to an impossible standard for success,” Reyes added. “Multiple administrations have wrestled with problems at the border, and people expect Harris to solve it in a matter of months?
Even before the President’s trip began, Biden faced an attack at home — by a cicada on his neck. “Watch out for the cicadas. I just got one, it got me,” he warned reporters. The insects, part of a brood in the middle of their once-every-17-years emergence, also swarmed the engines of the White House press pool plane, forcing its grounding. CNN commentator Elliot Williams spotted a cicada on his pants just as he was about to go on Wolf Blitzer’s show. “Am I the only one who thinks we might be mere days from submitting to the rule of our sentient insect overlords? When we’re all put to work harvesting tree sap, don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Williams wrote.

Secret surveillance by Trump administration

Donald Trump’s presidency ended more than four months ago, but the full picture of his administration’s abuses is still emerging. On Wednesday, CNN’s executive vice president and general counsel David Vigilante revealed that he had been placed under a secret gag order last July by a federal judge as the Trump Justice Department sought email records of CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. In December, Vigilante recalled, a judge hearing an appeal filed by CNN described the Justice Department’s explanation of why it needed the records as based on “speculative predictions, assumptions and scenarios unanchored in any facts.”
Vigilante wrote, “History teaches us that secret tribunals are ripe for abuse by even well-intentioned officials. Given recent revelations about other (William) Barr DOJ abuses, it is fair to question whether the very high standard for requesting these secret orders was ever satisfied.”
On Thursday, CNN reported that the Trump Justice Department secretly compelled Apple to turn over data from the accounts of Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, their staff and family members.
“These new reports are another reminder of the extreme exercise of presidential power that took place under Trump,” wrote Julian Zelizer. “Although it is easy to dismiss his four years in office as defined by a lot of loud Twitter noise and vicious political invective, this period also witnessed the aggressive deployment of presidential authority, sometimes conducted in secret, and in ways that threatened our fragile balance of power and the rights of American citizens.”
It’s no surprise that Barr “politicized the Justice Department,” wrote former federal prosecutor Elie Honig. The new disclosures show he went a huge step further. “Barr used the staggering power of his position to selectively pursue Trump’s perceived political rivals. This is eerily similar to former President Richard Nixon’s ‘enemies list’ and his efforts at retributive action.”
Inside Trump’s administration, White House counsel Don McGahn refused the former president’s instructions to seek the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential campaign, McGahn confirmed in testimony this week to a House committee. Michael D’Antonio concluded, “Don McGahn proved that truth-tellers can be found, and his testimony confirms Trump wielded the power of his office with little regard for truth, democracy, impartiality or the law. For millions of Americans who bought into Trump’s lies, we’ll need a lot more of that McGahn-style truth in order to move forward.”
For more on politics:

First-class perk

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It’s nasty up there. Airline crews have been taking abuse from passengers, one of whom punched a Southwest Airlines flight attendant in the face, causing her to lose two teeth. Southwest and American Airlines reacted by calling off plans to resume serving alcohol. But American made an exception for first-class and business-class travelers, noted neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky.
Research does show “a substantial increase in the likelihood of ‘air rage’ among coach passengers when boarding required that they walk through the first-class section to get to their seats” but “having coach passengers board through the first-class section also increased belligerent behavior in the FIRST-class passengers,” Sapolsky observed. “So, maybe airlines haven’t made their alcohol exception because of the exemplary behavior of first-class passengers. Instead, it could simply be the bottom line — keep the booze flowing or the high rollers will take their business elsewhere.”

Joe Manchin’s decision

Democrats’ efforts to pass a sweeping voting reform bill and greenlight trillions in social spending came to a screeching halt last Sunday, when Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia wrote in his home state’s Charleston Gazette-Mail, “Do we really want to live in an America where one party can dictate and demand everything and anything it wants, whenever it wants? I have always said, ‘If I can’t go home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.’ And I cannot explain strictly partisan election reform or blowing up the Senate rules to expedite one party’s agenda.”
Many fellow Democrats blasted Manchin. Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York wrote, “The senior senator from West Virginia either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the stakes of this fight. Democracy is fragile, and right now, ours is hanging by a thread. Not too long ago in this country, someone who looked like me had to take a literacy test or pay a poll tax before they could vote in many states.”
Arick Wierson and Bradley Honan argued that Democrats are making a mistake in lashing out at Manchin, who represents the reddest of red states. The party holds the thinnest of majorities in Congress and “America is not an overwhelmingly progressive country … If Democrats are to have continued success as a viable national coalition, they need to maintain a party — in red states as well as blue states — that is inclusive and welcoming of a much wider array of political viewpoints — even those that might be right of center, as is the case of Manchin.”
Biden’s negotiations with Republicans in the Senate for an infrastructure package broke down Tuesday. “It’s too bad,” wrote Scott Jennings. “There was more value for both parties in striking a deal than in winning yet another Washington blame game over why nothing is happening. Biden should have taken the last GOP offer and run with it — nearly $1 trillion, most of it paid for by repurposing unspent Covid relief funds, and limited largely to roads, bridges, highways, airports and seaports. The progressives don’t like it, but there’s nowhere else for them to go.”
The world’s richest person, Jeff Bezos, posted on Instagram Monday that he will board one of his company’s rockets for a brief flight into space on July 20. The next day, ProPublica revealed that it had obtained from an unknown source a “vast cache” of confidential IRS data showing that billionaires often pay little or nothing in federal income taxes — Bezos paid zero in 2007 and 2011, for example, according to the non-profit journalism site.
Economist Jeff Sachs wrote, that “not only is our tax system not collecting taxes from America’s richest individuals — it’s designed not to do so. Suppose that in a given year Bezos’ shares rise by $20 billion and, instead of selling those shares, he borrows $1 billion against them to fund his luxurious consumption. He won’t owe or pay a penny of income tax.”
Bezos is stepping down as CEO of Amazon, the company he led to dominance of online retail. He owns The Washington Post, Whole Foods and MGM, wrote Kara Alaimo. “Jeff Bezos seems to have run out of things to colonize here on Earth,” she observed. “For a better model of what to do with his money, Bezos might look at his ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott — who, along with her new husband, Dan Jewett, has signed the Giving Pledge, promising to donate the majority of their wealth. In 2020, Scott gave away almost $6 billion. Recently, she has focused on supporting historically Black colleges and universities, proving that she has the ability to empathize with people whose experiences are different from her own.”
In The Washington Post, Megan McArdle raised a question about the tax story. “ProPublica’s reporting suggests they didn’t pay taxes in years when they made no money, and the deductions they were taking seem to be largely legitimate ones you’ve heard of — think charitable donations, not hidden offshore accounts. The main complaint is that ProPublica thinks the ultrawealthy ought to be taxed on a broader definition of income than the IRS uses.”
“ProPublica’s formulation makes it sound like a loophole. In fact, that’s how everyone’s taxes work: Ordinary Americans don’t pay income tax every time our stock portfolios go up or our homes appreciate a bit. We pay the tax when we sell. Why should American billionaires be different?

Handshakes … and hugs

Many people are emerging from Covid lockdowns haltingly — sometimes anxiously — as they try to relearn the basics of social skills in a changed world. Dr. Megan Ranney and Elizabeth Stuart wrote, “who among us hasn’t had the recent experience of running into a friend we haven’t seen in a year and not knowing what to do. Our social interactions these days so often start out with an awkward question: ‘Can I give you a hug?’ Or, ‘You OK with a handshake?’ Or even just, ‘Vaccinated?'”
It “remains frustratingly difficult to figure out what’s right, what’s safe, and what’s respectful.” Read their advice.
David Holtgrave, dean of the University of Albany School of Public Health, wrote that people should be mindful of the more transmissible Delta variant of the virus that causes Covid-19. It “first devastated India, and still poses a major international health threat,” Holtgrave wrote. “There should be an expanded and urgent campaign to encourage mask use and social distancing among partially and unvaccinated persons, while encouraging vaccinations for those who have not yet received them. National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins recently said that states with low vaccination rates are ‘sitting ducks’ for the next Covid-19 outbreak. He is correct — and I would add that this is true not only for states but also for smaller geographic areas with low vaccination rates.”

Don’t miss

Birds are telling us something

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If you thought Odysseus had a tough journey going home to Ithaca, consider the Blackpoll warbler. It weighs “less than an empty soda can,” wrote Dr. Elizabeth Gray, the National Audubon Society’s first woman president. The bird “travels more than 12,000 miles round trip every year from Alaska and Canada’s Boreal Forest, across North America and the Atlantic Ocean, to South America where it spends the winter.”
“Just like change is a necessary part of our lives, these migration journeys are necessary for the survival of birds. Yet, they are getting harder and harder. Birds face shrinking habitats, more extreme weather, like droughts, and poorly managed industrial activity,” Gray wrote.
“We have lost three billion birds in North America since 1970 — and two-thirds face the threat of extinction if we do nothing to manage climate change. Birds are a bellwether of what is happening in the environment. They are telling us they are in trouble. And if they are in trouble, so are we.”
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