WASHINGTON DC: Whether you ask Americans or foreigners, liberals or conservatives, Joe Biden’s presidency strikes most people as surprisingly radical.
In his first 100 days, Biden boosted US spending by roughly 15 per cent of gross domestic product, embarked on a charm offensive with allies, reclaimed US leadership on global warming and put Donald Trump in the Mar-a-Lago rear-view mirror.
Some of Biden’s more extravagant backers liken him to Franklin D Roosevelt, whose opening spell in 1933 laid the foundations for the US welfare state and slayed the spectre of American fascism. It is hard to find a more abrupt presidential shift than from Trump to Biden.
But in some ways there is less to Biden’s radicalism than meets the eye.
The most eye-popping element to Biden’s opening salvo is the volume of money he wants Congress to approve – US$1.9 trillion on the American Rescue Act, which it passed in March, which will help stimulate roughly 7 per cent US economic growth this year.
Then there's the US$2.3 trillion for the American Jobs Plan to upgrade US infrastructure, boost help for the old and a myriad of other investments, such as US$50 billion for US semiconductors.
Let's not forget the US$1.8 trillion American Families Plan proposed this week, which would bring US child, parental and worker benefits into line with most other wealthy nations.
The last time spending leapt this sharply was during World War II. Yet America’s fiscal splurge began 400 days ago with Trump’s US$2.3 trillion Cares Act, which was supplemented by US$900 billion passed in December to help America through the pandemic.
Biden’s aims are very different. But the river of dollars started to flow months before he took office.
“There is no doubt the Reagan-era hostility to government and the Democratic party’s bias towards fiscal conservatism are dead,” says Francis Fukuyama, one of America’s leading political scientists. “But arguably the pandemic did more to kill them than the election.”
Some economists, notably Lawrence Summers, former US Treasury secretary and adviser to Barack Obama, believe Biden is risking stagflation. Summers puts the medium-term risks of 1970s-style overheating at one in three.
“I’m concerned that macro policy is taking excessive risks of overheating,” says Summers. “Between fiscal and monetary policy I believe the likelihood is that the US will suffer real inflation or a downturn from the need to contain inflation.”
RETURN TO CALMNESS AND PREDICTABILITY
The least surprising shift between administrations is in tone.
For four years, Americans had nowhere to hide from Trump. Whether it was the president’s stream of 3am tweets, his wacky daily coronavirus briefings, or the rambling morning phone calls to Fox & Friends (a couple of which the morning TV news show had to cut off), Trump was in the air Americans breathed.
Many found it toxic. Others got high.
Biden is notable mostly for his absence from day-to-day life. Jen Psaki, the White House spokesperson, has resumed the tradition of empirically-grounded briefings.
Most of Biden’s lieutenants, such as Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, Antony Blinken, secretary of state, Janet Yellen, Treasury secretary, Jennifer Granholm, energy secretary, and Lloyd Austin, defence secretary, are competent, experienced and serious.
To judge by the polls, Americans welcome a return to calmness and predictability. The average person’s nervous system is not equipped for relentless hyper-partisanship. As one pundit put it, for Biden “the tedium is the message”.
The changed atmospherics are even more pronounced among African-Americans and other minorities. Even without last week’s guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin, the police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd 11 months ago, the change of president was dramatic.
“Under Biden we feel like we can breathe again,” says Carol Anderson, author of White Rage and a professor of African American studies at Emory University. “The message from the White House has changed from night to day.”
‘AMBITIOUS BUT NOT REFORMIST’
Biden’s change in tone is dramatic. But will his substance be transformative? Would Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson see echoes of themselves in his reform agenda? That is open to debate.
The bulk of the American Rescue Act was spent on US$1,400 cheques for middle-class Americans, extending unemployment payouts and lavish aid to state and local governments.
Some of this will help support Americans through the vaccine rollout, which has been strikingly impressive (more than 200 million shots were administered in his first 100 days, partly with funds from the stimulus).
Very little of it went towards structural reform. At less than US$300 billion a year, the eight-year jobs bill does not cover the amount that the American Society of Civil Engineers says is necessary to maintain existing US infrastructure, let alone upgrade it.
Some of what Biden proposes is new, such as funding for national broadband and installing a network of charging stations for electric cars. But the overall package is fairly modest – though Biden’s proposed tax increases might test the loyalty of his wealthier supporters.
“I would describe Bidenomics as ambitious but not reformist,” says Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “America badly needs new investments in people and infrastructure but I would like to see more of a strategic plan behind these proposals.”
It would be a stretch to compare Biden’s bills to the radical changes delivered by FDR’s New Deal, which created Social Security, or LBJ’s Great Society, which produced Medicare and Medicaid.
If Biden can persuade Congress to pass his American Families Plan, women would find it far easier to join the labour force – and stay there. That would be a big change. Such a reform would be on a par with the 2010 Obamacare bill, which has drastically cut the number of Americans without health insurance.
Biden’s global warming targets – to cut US carbon emissions by more than half by the end of this decade – could prove to be a genuine paradigm shift. In the space of weeks, the US went from being the world’s most egregious climate change denier to a leading proponent of greater global ambition.
Yet climate experts say Biden will find it hard to meet his targets without putting a price on carbon. That has been ruled out by Biden’s campaign pledge to avoid any tax increases on those earning less than US$400,000 a year.
Biden’s advisers remember the gilets jaunes (“yellow vest”) protests that greeted Emmanuel Macron’s modest petrol tax increase in France two years ago.
Most of his green proposals involve putting more money into solar and wind, and boosting electric cars. Expanding nuclear energy, which is declining in the US, is mentioned only in vague terms in his plan.
“Biden’s green ambitions are welcome but lacking in detail,” says Michael Shellenberger, head of Environmental Progress, a green advocacy group. “His targets are not yet backed up with a road map.”
READ: Commentary: Cooperation between US, China at global climate summit could yield significant benefits
One added complexity is that around half of the world’s polysilicon – an essential material for solar panels – comes from China’s Xinjiang province, where Blinken’s state department says Beijing is carrying out genocide against its Uyghur population.
“I am still waiting for the left to notice that solar power comes from Xinjiang,” says Shellenberger. “That is a hard one to ignore.”
THE CHINA CHALLENGE
Biden’s China challenge looms over almost everything – domestic and foreign. Here, again, there is some continuity with Trump.
To one degree or another, both Democrats and Republicans now want the US to decouple from China. Biden has retained Trump’s punitive tariffs on Chinese goods imports.
Unlike Trump, however, who also slapped duties on allies, Biden is focused on the broader challenge of disentangling America’s economy from China’s, rather than lowering the US trade deficit. To that end, Biden has embarked on an alliance repair operation in the Indo-Pacific and across the Atlantic.
Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” – where economic security is the lodestar of Washington’s diplomatic engagement – almost certainly rules out the US rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact or embarking on new trade deals, including with Boris Johnson’s UK.
Yet Biden is as adamant as Trump on giving America’s partners a stark choice between US and Chinese technology. When it comes to 5G networks, this is a headache.
“America tells us to ban Huawei [China’s leading 5G supplier],” says the ambassador of a Middle Eastern ally. “But when we ask the name of America’s Huawei there is no answer. America has no Huawei. So what are we supposed to do?”
The solution to that dilemma could take time to arrive. The longer it takes the higher the cost to America’s allies. “Not many countries want to be forced into a choice between the US and China,” the diplomat adds.
Given the breadth of Biden’s spending plans, it is easy to overlook potentially game-changing elements within them, including the US$50 billion for computer chip research and development and incentives to repatriate global supply chains.
When Biden unveiled his jobs act in Pittsburgh earlier this month, China merited four mentions, which is unusual for a domestic announcement.
Parallels with Dwight Eisenhower’s 1957 Sputnik moment, when the USSR’s satellite launch triggered huge US investments in technological research and development (culminating in the Internet), may ultimately prove apt.
America’s success in producing two vaccines based on mRNA technology – Pfizer and Moderna – demonstrates what can be done. Both were the partial fruits of federal R&D.
Today’s Sputnik moment is the rise of Xi Jinping’s increasingly ebullient China. It may be that Biden’s most relevant historical parallel turns out to be with Eisenhower, not FDR.
Biden’s next 100 days will increasingly pivot to vaccine assistance for the rest of the world, starting with India. Eisenhower launched largely successful global initiatives to eradicate polio and smallpox.
Both are widely-liked public veterans who took office at the early stages of a cold war. Biden has pledged to pull out of Afghanistan by Sep 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “Ike”, likewise, mostly eschewed military engagements.
“America’s global influence is built, among other things, on its alliances and its reputation for competence at home,” says Tom Donilon, Obama’s former national security adviser, whose wife, Cathy Russell, and brother, Mike Donilon, have senior roles in the Biden administration.
“If you look at Biden’s first 100 days, the overtures to America’s allies, and the priority given to the domestic vaccine rollout and economic recovery are clearly sequenced. Deal with those first then move on to to Russia and China – and the drive to deliver vaccines to the world.”
The other challenge that colours most things Biden does is next year’s congressional elections.
People grew tired of hearing that the stakes in last year’s presidential election were existential. They should gird themselves for similar language about 2022.
History says the president’s party usually loses control of Congress in his first term. Biden’s team want to avoid that at all costs since it would bring his agenda to a halt and jeopardise his re-election in 2024.
Democrats look to Bill Clinton’s 1994 midterm loss and the “shellacking” Obama got in 2010 and blame those defeats on anaemic economic recoveries. That explains some of the largesse in Biden’s stimulus package.
“We assessed the risks and concluded the far bigger one was doing too little, not too much,” says an adviser to Biden.
The Republican critique of Biden’s economic programme has been notably muted. Some of that is because Trump passed an unfunded US$2 trillion tax cut in 2017 – well before he turned on the unfunded pandemic relief spigot.
This has robbed conservatives of a fiscally conservative line of attack. Biden’s persona makes charges of radicalism even harder.
“It is very difficult to depict Biden as the socialist devil,” says Larry Summers.
Instead the Trumpian biosphere has turned to outlandish claims about Biden’s cultural agenda. For example, his global warming plans would stop Americans from being able to eat hamburgers on Jul 4, say conservative news sites.
Another viral story claims Biden is giving refugees copies of the memoir by Kamala Harris, his vice-president.
Both are easy to refute. That does not mean they are ineffective.
What will Biden’s presidency look like 100 days from now? The answer is likely to be the same twice over; an America closer to herd immunity; an accelerating recovery; a revitalisation of US alliances; and a looming electoral showdown with an ever more Trumpian Republican party.
Against that prospect almost anything Biden wants to do looks far-reaching.