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What is the Biden Presidency Really About?
TLP reflections on Biden’s joint address to Congress and his first 100 days in office
Like his sharp, values-based inaugural address focused on national unity after the tumultuous Trump years, President Biden gave a solid speech last night laying out his core priorities to Americans in his joint address to Congress. “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” pandemic recovery, and public investments to drive economic growth were the main messages throughout.
“America is ready for a takeoff,” proclaimed the President.
Biden pitched his multi-trillion dollar American recovery, jobs, and families plans as critical steps to get America back on its feet, create high-paying new jobs, and put America’s workers and businesses on firmer ground in global competition against China. He wisely avoided most culture war distractions that immediately raise partisan and ideological hackles.
But this is where the rubber hits the road, as they say. A well-organized set of speeches won’t amount to much if the Biden team does not translate these core values of national unity, public investments, and fighting for America’s interests in the global arena into the primary public focus of his administration going forward.
As the past few weeks have shown, it’s easy to fall back into the usual Democratic approach of talking about every issue under the sun and spending way too much time on mostly irresolvable social differences among Americans on immigration, climate change as an existential crisis rather than a jobs issue, and racial “equity”.
If Biden can successfully promote the content of his two big speeches throughout his entire administration—unity, national economic development, a stronger safety net, and foreign policies that protect and promote America’s interests—it will lead to good things politically and in policy terms. But with his job approval just above water at this point, and congressional majorities on the line in 2022, Biden needs to firmly put his mark on a Democratic Party that fights for working people, American businesses, and the common good above all else.
Here are some additional reflections on Biden’s first 100 days from TLP:
Brian Katulis on the four tests of Biden’s democracy agenda
President Joe Biden’s argument for what America needs to do next at home and in the world in last night’s speech to Congress is ambitious. But is it coherent, and do all of the pieces all up to a clear narrative that enjoys support from most Americans?
That’s the central question Americans and their leaders will debate in the coming months as they consider the key elements of Biden’s post-COVID-19 recovery vision for the country.
Biden highlighted what’s at stake in closing his speech last night: meeting the “central challenge of the age by proving that democracy is durable and strong.” He placed this central challenge in the global context, saying that America’s adversaries, the autocrats of the world, are betting America’s democracy can’t get its act together to compete. Is this ideological framing compatible with a “jobs, jobs, jobs” focus, and do most Americans understand the importance of freedom and democracy in the world?
Biden faces four challenges—two at home and two overseas—in following through and showing progress in this fight that presents the world as divided into democracies versus autocracies:
1. Preserving and protecting America’s democracy. As Biden noted in his speech, the country needs to deliver results to people and strengthen the integrity of its own political system. This involves protecting the system itself from efforts from within to chip away at voting rights, as well as safeguarding against the ongoing and continued interference in America’s democracy from abroad. It also requires a more inclusive patriotism that seeks to work across ideological and partisan lines to deliver results.
2. Making democracy in the world matter politically at home. Recent polling shows that most Americans are focused on jobs and the pandemic, and that promoting democracy in other countries falls to the very bottom on the list of foreign policy priorities. This doesn’t mean that the “free world versus autocrats” framing is substantively wrong, but it does mean that many Americans may not be as clear about a key part of the narrative Biden offers when he talks about the global competitive context.
3. Balancing progress on freedom in the world with progress on transnational issues. The Biden administration has said it will organize a summit of democracies soon, but it remains unclear what that summit will seek to produce in terms of tangible results. How will the Biden team work to impose costs on China for its genocide of the Uighurs while it seeks cooperation with China to get results on climate change? If America’s central challenge is preserving and promoting democracy at home and abroad, how will it navigate getting results in democracy on nonproliferation with countries like Iran without downplaying human rights, as was done in the past. Previous presidents like FDR and Truman have wrestled with these tensions and achieved progress—so these tensions can be navigated if the issues are dealt with in an integrated way.
4. Avoiding looking away at the toughest cases like Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan. A final test of the emerging Biden democracy agenda in the world is looking for ways to ensure that support for the free world in the competition against autocrats advances in the toughest cases globally where some on the left and right in America stick their heads in the sand and wish away the complexities.
President Biden has offered up key elements of an emerging narrative about what America stands for in the world and wrapped it in an overarching global context about the challenges facing democracies in the world. Freedom in the world has been backsliding for more than a decade and a half, and the task of turning against that tide isn’t simple or cheap.
Peter Juul on Biden’s linking of domestic and foreign policies
Though President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress last night didn’t yield any foreign policy surprises, it does look like we’re starting to see what he means when he talks about “a foreign policy for the middle class.” The president used foreign policy—most notably the prospect of competition with China—to frame his policy agenda in important ways. He cited “competition with China and other countries” as a central rationale for his proposed American Jobs Act, arguing that this massive infrastructure and public investment plan would “propel us into the future.” Indeed, the part of Biden’s speech with the most significant implications for America’s foreign policy likely came when he argued that the American Jobs Act would result in the “biggest increase in non-defense research and development on record.”
Biden also asserted that these investments comprised a core part of his foreign policy for the middle class. It’s just one line, but it’s an indication that Biden and his team recognize that they’ve got to both put more flesh on the bones of that phrase and connect foreign policy with domestic policy. In other words, it’s a critical part of the answer to questions many Americans ask about their nation’s foreign policy: namely, how does America’s involvement overseas benefit average citizens in tangible ways? More public investment at home may be an indirect answer, but it’s a more concrete answer than many of America’s recent political leaders have been prepared to give.
He followed this line with a segue to brief discussions of American policy toward China, Russia, and the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, implicitly including these policies in his definition of a foreign policy for the middle class. It’ll take a more detailed argument by the President and other administration officials to explain exactly how maintaining a strong U.S. military presence akin to NATO in Asia and standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin constitute central components of a foreign policy for the middle class, but it's also important to note that these approaches are included in that formulation by implication.
Finally, President Biden’s vow that America “will become an arsenal of vaccines for other countries” is more than welcome—and he’d do well to seek the advice of his Secretary of State on how to explain why doing so will help benefit Americans here at home moving forward.
Ruy Teixeira on Biden’s politics and domestic policy needs
At the beginning of the Biden presidency, I argued that its goal should be, first and foremost:
a “successful attack on the pandemic and economic crises. Really for the next period of time nothing else is important. Not immigration reform. Not criminal justice reform. Not climate change….Not executive orders. Not Trump’s trial. Either solve the twin crises or prepare yourself for the wrath of voters who will, not unreasonably, think you have failed them. The Biden coalition will shrink, not expand and all the great ideas progressives have for improving the country will come to naught.”
In other words, solving the twin crises was a necessary condition for everything the center-left wanted to accomplish. To Biden’s credit, he appears to have understood this. In this first 100 days, he has maintained a focus on the twin crises, crystallized in the rapid passage of the American Rescue Plan, and, unsurprisingly, he spent the first part of his speech Wednesday touting his success in this regard. While we are not out of the woods yet, the indicators of recovery from the covid pandemic and economic crisis are strong, justifying Biden’s optimistic take.
In the next part of Biden’s speech, he discussed the American Jobs Plan (AJP) and the American Families Plan (AFP) which, between them, amount to roughly $4 trillion in new spending in addition to the $1.9 trillion already passed in the American Rescue Plan. The AJP and AFP, which propose massive public investments and expansions of the currently modest American welfare state, are clearly aiming at not just rescuing the American economy but transforming it to a more productive model that distributes its benefits more widely.
Of course, we can’t yet know how successful Biden and congressional Democrats will be in turning these transformational proposals into passed-and-signed legislation. But we can say that to Biden’s credit he is setting the bar high and, through these proposals and the earlier American Rescue Plan, legitimating a large and active role for government in the current era. It can be truly said: the era of big government being over is over. That is good news for Democrats and the country given the emerging challenges of the 2020’s.
It’s not all roses though. The 2022 election looms and the Democrats will probably need more than a booming economy to avoid losing control of one or both houses of Congress. They have to do everything else right too.
That includes reducing the damage from hot button social and cultural issues. The administration clearly hopes that, if they avoid engagement with the GOP’s barrage of attacks on these issues, rhetorical gestures and some modest policy changes will simultaneously placate the left and take culture wars out of the political equation. But the sensitivity of the administration to the cultural left has also tied their hands in terms of dealing with genuine problems like the immigration surge at the border and rising violent crime, which can and will be weaponized by the GOP. The same could be said of the rising influence of ideologies within the Democratic Party that insist there is only one correct way to think and talk about issues of race, gender and sexuality, which is highly off putting to most American voters and extremely easy for the GOP to attack.
The administration doesn’t seem to have much of a plan on this problem, perhaps hoping that the GOP is too dysfunctional and crazy these days to leverage these issues into successful attacks. I would not make this assumption.
Biden and his advisors in the next several hundred days need to develop a plan for seizing the center of American politics on more than just economics.