DOMESTIC POLICY AND HEALING A DIVIDED NATION

This inauguration spoke to today’s—and tomorrow’s—America – William H. Frey

William H. Frey, Senior Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program

In contrast to the priorities of the previous administration—which harked back to yesterday’s older, whiter, and more rural nation in attempts to “make America great again”—the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris underscored the challenges and opportunities for both present and future America.
The powerful presentation of “The Hill We Climb” by Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman—a 22-year-old Black woman—along with the stirring renditions of “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful” by Jennifer Lopez more than set the stage for President Biden’s proclamation that America must come to terms with the long-standing issues encountered by its diverse citizenry. His pledges to confront systemic racism, repeal the Muslim immigrant ban, and enable new Americans to join the ranks of our population is consistent with the evolving social and demographic needs of our nation.

When finalized, the 2020 census will show that people of color—including many first- and second-generation Americans—will contribute to most of the growth of our nation’s population, especially its youth and younger labor force. The new president’s plans to invest in the well-being of these youth (comprised heavily of Latino or Hispanic and Black Americans) are essential to their prosperity as well as that of the nation. At the same time, Biden has promised to address the employment and health concerns of America’s older adult population, many of whom have taken large economic hits during the COVID-19 pandemic and have not benefitted from the pre-pandemic economic booms.
In recent years, the wants of different segments of the nation’s citizenry have evolved into competing voting blocs: old versus young, white versus Black, rural versus urban. This has led to sharply divisive politics. But the Biden-Harris inauguration, through its presentation and promises, made clear that this administration wants to unify America. They seem to understand the nation’s present and future citizenry demand it.


The courage to repair – Annelies Goger

Annelies Goger, David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program

“To heal, we must remember. And it’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal.”

– President Joseph R. Biden

The inauguration of Joseph R. Biden as the 46th president of the United States took place as many of us are dealing with the raw trauma of loss—the loss of loved ones, the loss of jobs, and the loss of the ability to relax with friends.

In his speech at the Lincoln Memorial on Tuesday evening, the night before his inauguration, Biden also hinted at a deeper sense of loss: the wounds going back hundreds of years—the loss of freedom for slaves, the loss of opportunity from segregation and discrimination, and the loss of homelands for people who lived here before Europeans.

In addition to containing the virus, healing means renewing our social and democratic institutions. Healing means addressing the root causes of the pandemic’s uneven impacts. We need structural reforms to achieve free and fair elections and to ensure that every American has representation in Congress.

As the granddaughter of survivors of Nazi occupation, to me healing means preventing—not just lamenting—the loss of dignity, rights, and opportunity. Healing means ending over-incarceration and ensuring people with a conviction record can find housing, get jobs, and rebuild their lives. It means more equal access to education, quality jobs, a living wage, and safety nets. If we remember history, we will stop excluding whole categories of workers from equal protection under our labor laws. Moreover, investing more equally in our “lost Einsteins,” Harvard researchers estimate, will quadruple innovation.

The hard work of healing lies not only in taking stock of the magnitude of loss before us, but also taking bold action. In the words of Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, “Being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into, and how we repair it.”


Beginning the uphill battle of climate change – Samantha Gross

Samantha Gross, Fellow in the Foreign Policy program and Director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative

What a difference a day makes. President Biden’s inaugural address focused on uniting the country around our shared values: opportunity, liberty, dignity, truth. These might sound like platitudes on any other day, but after the insurrection at the Capitol two weeks ago, the year of the pandemic, and four years of truth-challenged governing, they felt like a breath of fresh air.

Among the urgent challenges facing the country, President Biden included climate change, describing “a cry for survival from the planet itself.” Given the immediate life-and-death crisis of the pandemic, this is striking. The new president is backing up this promise with actions, rejoining the Paris Agreement on his first day in office and appointing an experienced array of climate experts in his White House and throughout the executive branch. Ambitious climate action faces an uphill battle in a polarized nation, but emphasizing our shared challenges and the possibility of united action feels like a good start to me.


We must discuss property if we are to achieve unity – Tracy Hadden Loh

Tracy Hadden Loh, Fellow in the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking

At Joseph R. Biden’s inauguration ceremony, Jennifer Lopez sang “this land is your land, this land is my land,” the lyrics to which were written by Woodie Guthrie. This song evokes a powerful sense of shared ownership and belonging that is an expression of patriotism—a common sense of unity that the Biden administration is seeking in order to heal America from the longstanding divisions and novel crises that defined 2020. In order to create this unity, we absolutely have to talk about property.

Through Republican and Democratic presidential administrations since 1970, we have seen a steady concentration of wealth in the hands of 1% of the U.S. population at the expense of everyone else. As Guthrie noted in a later verse of his song, “there was a big high wall there, that tried to stop me. The sign was painted, said: ‘Private Property.’” This unprecedented accumulation of capital is disrupting the geography of U.S. real estate, putting the fate of entire communities in the hands of absentee landlords.

In his address, President Biden acknowledged that there is “much to repair … and much to gain.” He is right. However, simply fixing the same policies will not yield the inclusive outcomes that we need to build back better. Without new structures and rules for expanding access to capital, we will see more of the toxic social and political dynamics that allow some neighborhoods to hoard opportunity and refuse change, while other neighborhoods are destabilized and burdened by stress, either left to stagnate or to be demolished and replaced.

We need a 21st-century set of policies to regulate the real estate industry and create new mechanisms for inclusive local ownership. These same policies can also advance the twin goals of racial integration and reducing economic inequality to truly create “a land made for you and me.”


Normal things – Mark Muro

Mark Muro, Senior Fellow and Policy Director, Metropolitan Policy Program

Never have the normal things seemed so reassuring, or so important.

In watching Joe Biden’s inauguration after four years of chaos, I relished as so many others did the relief of a return to normalcy—a return to the familiar traditions, the familiar words, the familiar rituals.

Sometimes, even most times, the norms of such moments feel tired, full of hypocrisy. Too often speeches and ceremonies like this feel false with their celebrations of a unity that doesn’t yet exist, a union far from perfect. But that was not how it felt this week. Instead, two weeks after a right-wing mob overran the Capitol, one week after President Trump’s second impeachment, the recent and continuing darkness made the reassertion of common American principles of human kindness and mutual respect feel precious in the wake of Trump’s heedlessness, selfishness, and resentment.

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President Biden’s speech did not shrink from calling out the current moment of “crisis and challenge,” beginning with the pandemic and recession, and continuing with today’s overhang of “anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, and hopelessness.” Biden confronted the current mess directly and made clear that the restoration of normalcy won’t suffice to achieve true change and transformation.

But even so, the inauguration brought a necessary summoning of civility, shared purpose, and shared facts to the work. Therefore, there is today—at least for a moment—a feeling of eased tensions; a reassertion of a shared commitment to basic liberal aspirations, such as toward fairness, civility, and equity. To be sure, American normalcy remains deeply, painfully flawed, but today it can be appreciated as the start toward getting back to work to make things better.


President Biden’s speech spoke to racial justice and unity—but will conservatives buy in? – Rashawn Ray

Rashawn Ray, David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies

“A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. … We can deliver racial justice.” President Joe Biden made these statements during his inauguration speech. It is clear that he aims to unify the country by acknowledging “the sting of systemic racism,” which was also a statement during his speech. Following the inauguration, President Biden signed an Executive Order on advancing racial equity.


Racial justice has been a theme for Biden since he announced his presidential campaign following the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. We should be honest that the same white supremacy ideology that led some Americans to burn a cross and run over Black Lives Matter protesters in Charlottesville is the same ideology that led some Americans to engage in the Capitol insurgency in a domestic terrorist rage to try and stop the certification of a president who proclaims unity and racial justice as hallmarks of his administration.


We have to admit that some people in our country actually do not want America to be unified and equitable for all. They consider America to be their birthright and theirs alone. Biden said it best: “Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart.”


In addition to speaking to the 81 million people who voted for him, Biden aimed to extend an olive branch to the 74 million people who did not. In fact, he mentioned unity nine times and truth and justice five times each. He also mentioned democracy 15 times and America or Americans nearly 40. The words Biden did not mention, such as science and government, were also interesting. Trust in government nears historic lows.


Throughout his career, Biden has been a compromiser. Despite having majority in the House and Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie breaker in the Senate, he will need these skills to heal the soul of the nation. However, the soul cannot heal without repairing the racism, particularly in policing, that has created the wound. President Biden’s Day One actions put America on the path to unity via justice.


Principles for rebuilding the middle class – Isabel V. Sawhill

Isabel V. Sawhill, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies, the Center on Children and Families, and Future of the Middle Class Initiative

President Biden’s address called for unity and truth. After it, I tried to walk the mile between my house and the White House. I was stopped by a high fence at 19th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue but was able to thank a number of police officers and National Guardsmen from around the country on the way. Given the needed lockdown, I’d have to call it a bittersweet day.


Now the hard work begins. In his speech, the new president called for “rebuilding the middle class” much as he did at an event at Brookings on May 8, 2018. At that event, he spoke of the need to raise wages, make taxes more progressive, empower workers, make college and childcare more affordable, invest in infrastructure, and invest in forgotten communities.


In our book, A New Contract with the Middle Class, Richard Reeves and I subsequently offered some principles and concrete ideas for achieving these objectives. Our first principle is partnership between citizens and their government. A specific example is what we call scholarships for service: two years of free college for every young person who provides a year of national service. Our second principle is prevention. Instead of spending almost twice as much on health care as other advanced nations, we need to get health care costs under control and improve our health by, for example, taxing the consumption of sugary beverages. Our third principle is pluralism. We are a diverse country and must learn to respect those who are different from us or with whom we disagree. Whether the new president adopts any of our ideas or not, we wish him well. Truth and unity are principles all Americans should embrace.


Nobody is surprised that climate change is a priority, but how will we make progress? – David G. Victor

David G. Victor, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy and Energy Security and Climate Initiative

President Biden’s inaugural address did what was essential for the moment: it articulated the nation’s woes and pledged government on behalf of the whole population. Brief, oriented to inspiration and healing—the inaugural address is rarely a policy plan. Nonetheless, we can learn a bit about where this administration will be headed in the areas where I work: climate and energy.

He outlined four defining challenges of “peril and possibility.” Along with the pandemic, racial injustice, and political extremism, a “cry for survival comes from the planet.” Later he elliptically added two more: inequality and America’s place in the world.

Nobody is surprised that climate change is a top priority, but how will we make progress? Every major policy effort on climate will be refracted through these other challenges that define why the nation voted for Biden and how, barely, he holds control in Congress. The $1.9 trillion stimulus package will include money for climate change, but the biggest funds will be linked to other goals as well—like racial and economic injustice.

Later in the day, Biden signed 17 executive orders, some linked to climate and environmental regulation—including rejoining the Paris Agreement (a process that will be complete in February), and canceling the Keystone XL pipeline. These are the easy things. Canceling Keystone is symbolically popular, but opponents are already sharpening their rhetoric about the impact on jobs. Rejoining Paris is smart, but the proof lies in what the U.S. actually does in Paris. The rest of the world will be watching our pledge—expecting something bold like a promise to slash emissions 50% by 2030, an unachievable goal. Thus begins the real world of climate policy and diplomacy—resetting America’s place in the world even as America, at home, struggles to get its house in order.


An important moment to invest in America’s infrastructure – Clifford Winston

Clifford Winston, Senior Fellow in the Economic Studies program

In his inaugural speech, President Biden underscored that we have much to restore and build in America and it will require unity to do it. One area that is ripe for renewal and bipartisan support is America’s infrastructure. However, it is important that we draw on science—in this case, economic science—to guide the revitalization of the nation’s infrastructure.

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For several decades, “America’s road system is deteriorating, and urban traffic congestion is worsening” has been a familiar refrain to motivate policy discussions about how to improve the performance of the nation’s largest civilian public investment. In a 1991 Journal of Economic Perspectives paper, I summarized the basic theory of optimal pricing and investment and the empirical evidence on the economic effects of the policy, which showed the potential for large annual welfare gains from more durable roads and reduced maintenance costs, less congestion and savings in travel time, and a significantly improved national highway budget balance. Thirty years later, America’s road system is still not being efficiently maintained, traffic congestion continues to worsen in more urban areas, and the federal highway trust fund routinely runs deficits, while economists have provided more evidence that strengthens the case for using efficient transportation infrastructure policy to improve the system’s performance.


Unfortunately, federal policymakers have repeatedly claimed that the United States has been experiencing an infrastructure crisis that can be solved only by raising large amounts of revenue to fund repaving and expanding the road system. Large-scale infrastructure spending has recently gained traction as a response to the impact of the coronavirus on the U.S. economy, with former President Trump and now President Biden calling for trillions of dollars in spending that would be used to restore the nation’s roads, bridges, tunnels, and ports. However, unless policymakers account for the vast inefficiencies that have compromised the performance of U.S. infrastructure, their vast expenditures will yield low returns.


In a recent paper, I provide perspective on the challenges to improving the current road system by updating and expanding the components of an efficient transportation infrastructure policy that I discussed 30 years ago and by summarizing the critical inefficiencies in current transportation policy that reduce returns from highway spending. I then argue that the politics of highway infrastructure policy, which have generally prevented constructive policy reforms, may change in the future as autonomous vehicles gain widespread adoption and use by travelers and trucking companies. This watershed moment in the development of transportation is likely to create potentially large political costs for policymakers by making the costs of inefficient highway policies that have compromised nonautonomous road travel for decades much clearer to the public. The Biden administration should take this possibility to heart and focus on efficient policy reforms and expenditures that usher in a new era of autonomous transportation.


Addressing the rot in America’s information ecosystem – Alex Engler

Alex Engler, David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies

In his inaugural address, President Biden said that “we must reject a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.” Later, opening a list of the myriad of crises facing the nation, he declared that “we face an attack on democracy and on truth.” He was right to include these lines so prominently. The decaying of our information ecosystem is a threat to our nation—one which began far long before the Capitol siege and will remain long after.

As I have argued before, President Biden has the political leverage and moral high ground to push online platforms to take more proactive steps against misinformation that undermines our health and our elections. In response to the violence at the Capitol, the platforms have already started to change behavior. The deplatforming of Donald Trump, paired with tougher treatment of white supremacist and conspiracy groups, may stem the disinformation tide. However, this should not be confused with a remedy for our underlying ills.

President Biden will have to think beyond the web to address the rot in the information ecosystem. Much of the misinformation seen on the web stems from political elites, as well as commercial interests such as junk news. This is especially prominent on the right, where a recent survey found that 69% of Republican voters reject the legitimacy of the presidential election. Other surveys have found Republicans less likely to accept scientific guidance on COVID-19. Academic research shows how right-wing media has become ever-more detached from objectivity and journalistic norms.

The government has no role in disadvantaging speech, but it can make its citizens more resilient to disinformation from politicians and junk news. To do this, the Biden administration should expand funding for local journalism and public education, especially with a focus on scientific and digital literacy, as well as civics and skeptical thinking.


FOREIGN POLICY AND THE RESILIENCE OF DEMOCRACY

Biden’s shared a message on democracy for the world to hear – Madiha Afzal

Madiha Afzal, David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Foreign Policy program, Center for Middle East Policy, and the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology

This was a soaring, soul-stirring inaugural address, and at the same time intimately connected to and cognizant of the multiple crises President Biden faces as he enters office. What struck me from the very beginning is how much of a message this was to the world as much as it was to America. Those three phrases—“Democracy is precious, democracy is fragile, and at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed”—were to me the crux of that message to the world, perhaps more even than the direct message later in the speech about how America would once again engage with the world and repair our alliances.

Those three phrases, spoken in the wake of the horrific attack on the U.S. Capitol just two weeks ago, standing exactly where the attack took place, were a clear recognition of the peril American democracy faced just this month—and in the months and years leading up to it—and an announcement that America has, for now, triumphed over it. Biden also spoke about what continuous work was needed to ensure that triumph. To countries and governments the world over who watched the events of January 6 with a range of reactions, those three phrases are not just a resounding reaffirmation of America’s commitment to better its own democracy but, in my view, a message to also take heart in their own democratic struggles, and to continue to strive for the betterment of their own politics.


A values-based approach to global challenges – Ranj Alaaldin

Ranj Alaaldin, Nonresident Fellow in the Foreign Policy program and Center for Middle East Policy

President Biden stressed making the U.S. a leading force for good in the world, which will be a welcome departure from former President Trump’s incoherent and impulsive foreign policy, one that was underscored by a focus on undoing Obama era policies or political gain on the domestic front. A values-based approach to global challenges and crises is absolutely imperative, and President Biden’s challenge will be finding a balance between reviving, repairing and maintaining America’s alliances and partnerships, and ensuring these do not come at the expense of long-term instability and the distortion of democratic values. Fundamentally, the particular focus in the speech on the imperative of reconciliation and democratic renewal at home in America will undoubtedly help begin the process of restoring America’s moral leadership across the globe and restoring the international norms that were diminished or suppressed by Trump, and by the events of the past weeks.


The limits of language in a democracy – Carlo Bastasin

Carlo Bastasin, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy program and Center on the United States and Europe

Beyond the obvious macro-political topics, President Biden’s inaugural speech raised an interesting issue about the limits of language in a democracy. Biden’s own restraint with words and polemical arguments has been no doubt a refreshing departure from the past four years. Language, normally the reflection of political arguments, can generate forms of heated antagonism that prevail on the substance and can easily degenerate into irrationality and violence.

The U.S. media landscape—and more extensively what Europeans call the “public sphere”—seems badly in need for at least a moment of awareness and amendment. Leaving it entirely and only to the goodwill of social media owners is not a good strategy, nor would it be a governmental intervention harnessing the media. In matters regarding people’s freedom of expression, politics should lead mainly by its own example. Calling for the importance of truth was an important first step by President Biden. However, truthfulness is the result of a dialectic process, which requires a final synthesis, that is a moment that clears the irrationality of the different theses. Using often unilateral legislative tools, like executive orders, is problematic from this standpoint. The parliamentary debates must rise up to the required procedural quality and something similar to the German parliamentary conciliatory chamber should become an option for making compromises more likely. Another German example comes from the “neutrality principle” enshrined in the Fundamental Law requiring public offices to act and speak in the interest of the whole nation. Partisan excesses are sanctioned by the Constitutional Court.

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A wide-ranging reflection on the relation between politics and the media should be kicked off in the first months of the new presidency.


How to tackle populism and extremism – Giovanna De Maio

Giovanna De Maio, Nonresident Fellow in the Foreign Policy program and Center on the United States and Europe

President Biden’s inauguration speech should be an example of how to tackle populism and extremism. In his call for unity, Biden chose not to identify a common enemy in a country, a political opponent, or immigrant, but rather in those behaviors that are anti-American such as white supremacy and disrespect for both democratic institutions and the truth. By isolating these extremist fringes that are toxic for democracy, society, and peace, and reaching out to those who did not support him but do not identify with the extreme right, he laid out his vision and strategy toward unity and healing a hyper-polarized country. Leaders around the world should take inspiration from the president’s speech, as it sought to de-personalize politics and shifted the focus on the goals to reach, rather than on the opponents to defeat. In this regard, President Biden also sent a strong message to U.S. allies, that he sees as crucial to address common challenges such as climate change, but also as a solid pillar for U.S. leadership around the world.


Repairing America’s reputation will take time, but this was a good start – David Dollar

David Dollar, Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy program, Global Economy and Development program, and the John L. Thornton China Center

The inaugural ceremony and speech were a breath of fresh air after four years of carnage culminating in a pro-Trump mob storming the U.S. Capitol. That attack severely damaged America’s global reputation and it will not be simple to restore it, but the inauguration was a good start. First, there was simply the peaceful transfer itself, with leading Republican figures participating. As President Biden said in his speech, “democracy has prevailed.”

Second, the ceremony showcased the diversity of our country. Biden recognized the problems of racial justice and white supremacy, but the event itself showed progress. Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first vice president who is a woman, Black, and of Asian origin. Among performances, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman stood out with her poem completed in the days since the January 6 insurrection.

Third, President Biden’s speech acknowledged the severe challenges that we face, with 400,000 dead from COVID-19, millions of jobs lost, and looming problems like climate change. In response he called for unity and civility: “Show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.” Restoring civility will not be easy, but much of the rest of the world will be rooting for the U.S. to succeed.

The speech had almost nothing on foreign policy, as befits a moment in which domestic challenges are paramount. But it did contain these hopeful lines: “America has been tested, and we’ve come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. And we’ll lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. We’ll be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.”


Biden emphasized democracy’s survival and its fragility – Douglas Rediker

Douglas Rediker, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy program, Global Economy and Development program, and the Center on the United States and Europe

President Biden’s inaugural address emphasized democracy—he used the word 11 times, including five times in the opening minute. But, unlike past presidents who used democracy in their speeches as a means of projecting American values and leadership to the world, Biden’s emphasis on democracy was to highlight its fragility to a wary domestic public in need of reassurance that, after unprecedented threats, democracy, ultimately, survived.

President Obama promised America would “support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.” President George W. Bush promised America would “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” President Bill Clinton assured “those on every continent who are building democracy and freedom [that] their cause is America’s cause.”

Biden’s speech was historic, but it was not the one he wanted to give. Steeped in foreign policy, Biden no doubt would have preferred to give a lofty address including reference to democracy as an American inspiration to the world, reasserting U.S. global leadership through alliances and multilateral institutions. But in order to do so effectively, American democracy itself could not be broken.

Biden noted “the world is watching. … America has been tested and we’ve come out stronger for it.” He concluded by expressing hope that America could once again serve as a beacon to the world. But projecting American international leadership appears at risk of taking a back seat, at least temporarily, to the need to re-establish fundamental tenets of American democracy at home. That is a shame. America’s standing in the world is desperately in need of being renewed through leadership and engagement. Democracy can no longer be taken for granted at home, but its role in projecting American leadership and values abroad should remain a top Biden priority.


Accountability needs to be the outcome of telling the truth – Bruce Riedel

David Dollar, Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy program and Director of the Intelligence Project

In his inaugural address President Joe Biden promised that his administration will speak truth to the American people. His confirmed Director of National Intelligence Avril Haynes told the Senate in her testimony Tuesday that the administration will tell the truth about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi two years ago in Istanbul, Turkey. Specifically, she promised that the American intelligence community will deliver an unclassified report to Congress on who was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Despite legislation mandating such a report, the Trump administration never delivered one. It was abundantly clear that such a report would identify Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) as responsible for the murder. The Crown Prince was the Trump administration’s favorite Saudi and has been the champion of the disastrous Saudi war in Yemen which has produced the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. The Biden administration has promised to end all American support for the war. Now Biden’s team has promised the truth about Khashoggi and the Crown Prince. Next they will need to tell us how MBS will be held accountable for murdering a Washington Post columnist and then hiding his remains. Accountability needs to be the outcome of telling the truth. It is a welcome change.




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