Interstate 495, the highway that encircles the city of Washington DC and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, is more famous as a state of mind than a piece of urban engineering. Better known as the Beltway, the road has become a shorthand around the world for the bubble of privilege and political power that surrounds the federal government of the world's most powerful nation.
In the 1970s, when Richard Nixon's presidency was coming apart under the strain of the Watergate crisis, administration insiders reassured themselves things would only get really serious if the story "got outside the Washington Beltway". Since then the term has become entirely pejorative. "Inside the Beltway" means cut off from "real" Americans or, worse, actively conspiring against them. It's hardly surprising that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announced in 2016 that he was "not an inside the Beltway guy".
But what happens inside the Beltway affects all of us. A Pew Research Center poll published this week showed a leap in enthusiasm for American leadership among the populations of 16 of America’s traditional democratic allies, with 62 per cent now expressing a favourable view of the US, compared with 34 per cent a year ago.
In some countries the figures are starker: only 10 per cent of Germans had confidence in Donald Trump, while 78 per cent have confidence in Joe Biden. There's a longstanding pattern of Europeans (including Irish people) preferring Democrats to Republicans but what may be more telling is that only 17 per cent of respondents across those 16 democracies said the US offered a good political example for others to follow.
Like any imperial capital, Washington has its courtiers and cliques, salons and scandals, hucksters and hangers-on. It’s home to the biggest, best-financed political lobbying industry in human history. It’s also the location of the Swamp that Donald Trump swore to drain, of the Deep State his supporters still believe stole the presidency, and of the Blob of foreign policy elites – both Republican and Democrat – who former Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes claims are responsible for the US’s never-ending 21st-century wars.
Amid all this power, wealth and intense politicking, one of the most colourful figures is Maureen Dowd. West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, her former boyfriend, described her Georgetown home as a cross between the New York Public Library and the House of the Rising Sun.
Viewed from the outside, Joe Biden seems to have kept his promise that voters would not have to think about him every day
The "flamehaired flamethrower", who former president George W Bush called "the Cobra", writes a weekly column for the New York Times that also appears every Monday in this newspaper.
The last time we talked, for an Irish Times Inside Politics podcast on the eve of last November’s momentous presidential election, she made no bones about the fact that, as far as the New York Times and the US media were concerned, Donald Trump had been terrible for America but great for the newspaper business.
In an upcoming discussion that will be part of The Irish Times Summer Times festival, I’m looking forward to finding out what the mood is like in DC now. Viewed from the outside, Biden seems to have kept his promise that voters would not have to think about him every day. The political temperature seems to have fallen to a more temperate level. But the events of January 6th, when a mob of Trump supporters violently invaded the US Capitol and ran amok, still cast a long shadow, and the world continues to watch nervously.
The question of whether America's international standing has suffered long-term damage goes beyond the shocks and surprises of the Trump years. Inside and outside the US, credible voices are sounding the alarm about issues such as blatant partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression and the long-term consequences of a system which has twice in two decades handed the presidency to the party with the fewer votes, and which gives a built-in advantage in the Senate to more conservative, white rural voters.
That's before even considering the fact that more than half of Republican voters still believe the "Big Lie" that Trump actually won the last election, and that their hero, even more untethered from reality than they are, is telling people that he will be reinstalled in the White House by August.
Grand claims that Biden would be the 21st century's Franklin Roosevelt already look overblown
Who better to cast a caustic eye over all this than Maureen Dowd? Washington born and bred, from a staunchly Irish-American and Republican-voting family (she famously gives over her column once a year to her Trump-supporting brother), Dowd is both a Pulitzer Prize-winner and a grande dame of the city’s social scene.
And she's unusual among insiders in a politics-obsessed town in seeming happier talking with Kate Winslet about Mare of Easttown than asking House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi about infrastructure spending.
Some will see Dowd as tilting towards the blue side of the American political divide, but some of her most cutting comments have been reserved for Democrats, such as her barb that 2000 presidential nominee Al Gore was overdoing his empathy shtick so much that he was “practically lactating”.
She received her Pulitzer for her highly critical coverage of the behaviour of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their cabal during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which led to Clinton's impeachment (though, like Trump two decades later, not his removal from office).
More recently, though, as liberal America starts to reckon with the way it enabled and excused Bill Clinton’s behaviour towards women, Dowd has had to defend herself against accusations that she joined the pile-on against Lewinsky at the time, pointing out that her columns exposed the internal Clinton-world campaign to discredit the young intern.
Asked in 2004 about perceptions of her own personal politics, she said: “The only difference is that I’ve gone from Democratic readers going ‘Dear Media Whore’ to conservative readers going ‘Dear Liberal Slut’.”
Despite the lowered political volume right now, this is a key moment for the Biden administration. The trillions of dollars of additional expenditure which the new president proposed have been whittled down by an evenly split Senate, where conservative Democrat Joe Manchin holds the whip hand.
Grand claims that Biden would be the 21st century's Franklin Roosevelt already look overblown. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expects Republicans to regain control of both houses of Congress in next year's midterm elections, and flagged this week that, once that happens, the White House can expect zero cooperation on its policy programme. Meanwhile, the country remains bitterly polarised and the Republican party is still in thrall to Trump.
We’ll have no shortage of subjects to talk about.
Maureen Dowd and Hugh Linehan will discuss Biden’s America and the legacy of Trump at 7.45pm on Wednesday, June 30th as part of The Irish Times Summer Nights Festival.
For tickets, go to irishtimes.com/summernights. A single ticket costing €50 admits ticket holders to all events at the festival and further access to view each event after the festival ends.
Irish Times digital subscribers can purchase tickets at the discounted price of €25. Just make sure you are signed in before purchase, and the discount will be applied automatically.