Written by Matthew Oulton
President Joe Biden, seen here campaigning in November last year, has governed more progressively than expected since entering office in January.
According to his campaign opponents, Joe Biden was both a radical socialist and a sleepy grandpa. Even within his own party, expectations were not high. Candidate Biden struck a moderate tone, side-stepping Trump’s culture war rhetoric and the left’s identity politics. He refused to back game-changing promises on healthcare and his attitude to tax and spend was reformist and moderate. Where the field for the Democratic Primary was the most diverse in history, Biden – like all but one of his predecessors – is a white man, and an old one at that. He ran as an insider, as someone who understood the system, and someone who could restore order. He didn’t promise radicalism, like both Obama and Trump before him, he promised steadiness, competence and dependability.
So how have his first 100 days held up to that image?
Cautious, moderate candidate Biden has been replaced by a different character entirely. He’s taken rapid action against his largest immediate challenge – the pandemic, overseeing the rapidly expanding vaccine roll-out, a federal mask mandate, and the return of the USA to the World Health Organisation. Where Trump equivocated and prevaricated, Biden has been clear and resolute. On the economy, Biden has already passed the American Rescue Plan, including support for families, businesses, and governments across America totalling $1.9 Trillion. It increases unemployment benefits and food stamps, invests in infrastructure, and establishes a fund for small businesses. The headline figure, over double what Obama was able to pass in the 2008 Great Recession, is a testimony to both Biden’s ambition and his competence.
The Biden Administration is also seeking to offer further support, including a minimum wage increase, measures to address climate change, and more funding for education and the care economy. Biden’s economic platform has, so far, been dramatically more interventionist than any of his Democratic predecessors.
So, what does it say that Biden – whose reputation is anything but radical – is overseeing the largest state intervention since the Second World War?
Firstly, it shows the scale of the crisis. This pandemic has decimated the American economy, and a lacklustre government response could easily amplify a record-setting recession into an enduring depression. This is no time for hedging, and Biden has cast aside his caution to embrace drastic action.
Secondly, however, it shows the value of expertise. Trump wanted to get a lot done in his first 100 days, but he just wasn’t that effective. From his multiple attempts at his travel ban to his as yet unfinished border wall, his inexperienced team and disorganised leadership style stymied him repeatedly. Biden is an expert in American government, having been at the centre of American political life for decades, and his team has the requisite mix of new talent and Obama-era experience. The administration drives home the importance of good government in times of crisis.
Next, we see that being centrist is not the same as being unambitious. Biden is a moderate – he hasn’t indicated any plans to deal with healthcare, or the situation on America’s Southern border – but he still has a robust centre-left economic platform that involves substantial action. He isn’t hedging, he has a clear set of objectives and a strategy to achieve them.
Biden is defying political conventional wisdom in tackling consensus issues first. Whilst his actions so far have been dramatic, the biggest fights still lie ahead. Rather than taking the Obama approach – trying to stage the biggest battles early on when his political capital was at its apex – Biden is building capital with early wins. His strategy is apparently to show his leadership in navigating America’s path through Coronavirus first. It appears to be working – his opinion ratings are higher than any presidents’ at this stage in their office for 25 years. If Biden can win the American public’s trust in the Pandemic, he can pursue more meaningful reforms than Obama was able to.
Nevertheless, looming challenges lie ahead. As more Americans are vaccinated, Biden will face the increasing battle to keep the virus under control before herd immunity can be relied upon. The Administration, however, is speeding towards an un-democratic brick wall. As the crisis abates and he seeks to entrench permanent change, Biden will face the Senate filibuster, a conservative Supreme Court, and the scourge of partisan gerrymandering. He will also come under increasing pressure to make a decision on the statehood of both Washington DC and Puerto Rico, both of which would add to his Senate majority but be stiffly opposed by Republicans. Biden may have to choose between his agenda and his institutional conservatism.
In all, the Biden Administration has made a promising start. They’ve shown the power of simple promises, experienced leaders, and competent governance. To be electable again, the Republicans need to learn the value of a serious and professional team, pursuing an agenda that’s popular with the majority of the public. Challenges remain for the Biden administration, but it seems equipped to deal with them. A steady stream of progressive change coupled with radical action in times of crisis is a good first step towards building a better world. Biden, unlike his predecessor, is on track to make America great.
Photo Source - Flickr (jlhervàs)