Biden takes advantage of his grand opportunity
It is no accident that US President Joe Biden — who last week completed his first, momentous 100 days in office — chose to select a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 20th century’s greatest chief executive, to hang in the Oval Office. FDR, the political master of high principle and low cunning, understood better than anyone that (as he put it): “In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.” Biden’s first 100 days have, more than anything, confirmed the truth of Roosevelt’s wise adage.
But wasn’t the aging Biden, 78, marketed as merely a transitional political figure? A moderate from literally another age (he has been a player in Washington politics for half a century), it was assumed the new president would provide the US with a welcome period of calm — following on from the chaotic, ramshackle, Trump years — doing little before handing over to a new (and more left-wing) generation of Democratic politicians, such as Vice President Kamala Harris.
This standard narrative has been almost entirely upended by the breathtakingly ambitious domestic agenda the new president advanced in his first 100 days, including his stunning legislative triumph in enacting the massive $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package. Why were so many so wrong about the nature of a presidency now being compared in its legislative daring to the days of Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson?
The truth is, Biden was never as moderate as he was made out to be these past 50 years. Instead, given the prevailing political winds — and as a long-standing creature of the Senate — for most of his long career Biden enacted what he could get done, illustrating a workmanlike grasp of Otto von Bismarck’s adage that “politics is the art of the possible.”
The prevailing winds during Biden’s time in Washington were blowing from the right (Ronald Reagan, the Bush family and Donald Trump) or, at best for him, the center (Bill Clinton). Rather than fighting the center-right trajectory of the country, instead he made the best of it. But, crucially, that did not mean Biden himself was not a progressive at heart.
Following his close but clear victory in November 2020, three basic things came to pass, allowing Biden to show his true political colors. First, the Democrats shockingly carried both Senate run-offs in Georgia, giving them a surprise majority in the upper chamber. At the same time, following the January insurrection by Trump supporters on Capitol Hill, the Republicans became unexpectedly mired in the endless drama of what to make of Biden’s predecessor.
This surprising congressional majority and a divided Republican Party changed Biden’s overall focus from being primarily a foreign policy president to championing domestic policy, as the unexpected possibility to do so emerged right before the new administration’s eyes.
Second, while the domestic door to progressive Democratic governance was now open to Biden, this huge political advantage is destined to prove ethereal. Historically, midterm elections following a new president’s elevation almost always result in significant opposition party gains. At present, Republicans will control the House of Representatives if they gain a mere five seats in the midterm elections of 2022. With the GOP in charge of much of the country’s electoral redistricting, this is highly likely.
Paradoxically, and cleverly, Biden saw that these slim, fleeting Democratic margins — acknowledged by the entirety of the caucus, from moderates to progressives — was the key to party unity. It has become crystal clear that the only way for the Democrats to get anything they want done legislatively is to hang together. Ironically, the impressive unity of Biden’s first 100 days is wholly explained by the Democrats’ political fragility.
And third, all of the above impelled Biden to go big in his legislative program. The Democrats have the smallest of political majorities, a Republican Party distracted and feuding with itself, and overwhelmingly likely only two years to get their legislative agenda enacted. This new, fleeting political reality has allowed Biden to shed his political mask and govern like the progressive he has always wanted to be.
In the short run, look for Biden to continue to run the domestic political table. Following the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, next up is his $2.3 trillion jobs package, designed to revamp America’s aging infrastructure. For all of the above political reasons, this is likely to be enacted by Congress with only cosmetic changes.
The impressive unity of Biden’s first 100 days is wholly explained by the Democrats’ political fragility.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
A third new massive spending program, the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, will prove the most controversial, and its passage is more of a 50-50 proposition. It calls for two free years of college and significant tax relief for childcare. Politically, this may amount to a bridge too far for the White House, as the tax increases needed to pay for all this (which the new administration has honestly conceded are necessary) may unite the Republican Party and moderate Democrats to halt the progressive spending spree. However, given Biden’s surprising Rooseveltian political cunning, it would be foolish to bet against him.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via chartwellspeakers.com.