“Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” is what I wrote when Joe Biden was elected US President last November. I had a good feeling about the man because Mr Biden looked to be somebody who confronts the world as it really is, rather than on some projection based on conviction, as more partisan politicians do. It is going better than I expected.
In that post I said that the new president needed to do three things: revive the economy, get on top of the virus, and put pressure on the Republicans. On all three counts he is doing well. He has been lucky, but he has helped to make that luck. We can now see that this is the job he has wanted to do all his political life. He was ready for it. It turns out that being a Vice President is good preparation for the Presidency, especially at the start. The last Vice President to make it to the top was George Bush Senior in 1988; he proved very effective at the job, even if he was less effective at the politics. Before that we might remember Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, also very effective operators. Mr Biden knows how the machinery of government works and was well prepared by the time inauguration came, notwithstanding the tardy cooperation of the outgoing administration.
Mr Biden has also proved an adept politician. He made a good start before he took office when the Democrats took both the Senate run-off elections in Georgia. The Republicans had been favourites. How much he can take personal credit for this is hard to say – but he clearly didn’t get in the way. That gave him control of the Senate by the narrowest possible margin. He has used it skilfully. His biggest achievement has been pushing through a massive economic stimulus bill. He now has two more ambitious efforts involving massive outlays: an infrastructure plan and welfare reforms. He has not sought to build bridges with the Republicans, in the way that Barack Obama wasted so much time doing, but the measures are likely to go down well with many Republican voters, especially the ones that switched to Trump in 2016 and 2020. I can’t see that the welfare changes stand much chance, as they look too strong for conservative Democrats in the Senate – but they should help keep up the pressure.
And the next point about Mr Biden is that he takes decisions, even tough ones, quickly. This is part of being ready for the job, but it is a strong contrast with Mr Trump and Mr Obama, and especially the former’s gaggle of squabbling advisers. A striking example of this has been the decision to withdraw the US military completely from Afghanistan by 11 September. We might well think this is wrong (The Economist argued that keeping on a small commitment would be value for money), but it happened quickly.
But is he taking America in the right direction? One criticism is that he is just rehashing failed policies from the 1970s. This is put quite eloquently by Gerard Baker in The Times. Mr Biden wants to throw a lot of public money at problems, promoting federal agencies and trade unions, in a striking reversal of the prevailing wisdom since Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980 – even if the practice never quite lived up to the rhetoric. There does seem to be something quite old and familiar about this approach. Mr Biden has been compared to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson – falsely because he doesn’t have enough Senate votes to be anything like as ambitious as this pair. His infrastructure plans recall Dwight Eisenhower. These policies just led to stagflation in the 1970s, it is said. But context is all. Big government worked well enough in the 1950s, with the rise of light manufacturing and the bureaucracy of the consumer society – all those salesman, account clerks and insurance administrators. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the economy and society suffered a number of problems. First came the Vietnam war, which the US government refused to finance through taxation, causing the postwar world financial infrastructure to buckle. Then came the malign effects of union inflexibility, which meant that consumer price rises fed through quickly into wage inflation, creating a wage-price spiral. And then came the shock of escalating oil prices in the 1970s, the first important symptom of environmental constraints on the US model of growth. Combine these with big government and you got stagflation.
That was then. Now is a very different world. The wage-price spiral has been broken by the growth of globalisation and the impact of technology. A new world financial infrastructure has emerged. Environmental constraints are being embraced rather than denied. And anyway since 2008 the developed world seems to have been suffering from deficient demand. Interest rates have been cut to rock bottom; there does not seem to be enough positive pressure in the labour market. Nominal jobless rates may look low (slowing for the pandemic), but pay at the lower end is propped up by minimum wages, job insecurity is rife, and people are dropping out of the workforce. Throwing public money at problems could be quite beneficial at such a time, even if it was harmful in the 1970s. And excess public spending is much more likely to get the money to where it is needed that tax cuts.
Still, you don’t have to be on the political right to worry that president is taking things too far. Predictions of a rise in inflation are widespread, though an awful lot of people seem to think that this will work in a similar way to the late 20th Century. One way or another interest rates are likely to rise – a sign of a better balanced economy after all – and this could have some fairly scary consequences in a financial system that seems to take low interest rates and booming asset prices as one of the fundamental rights of man. But it could take some time for any problems to emerge.
A second criticism is that Mr Biden is taking his radicalism too far. He has spoken of bringing America together and healing the partisan divides. But in many ways he is doing the opposite. Much of the Republican base – the wealthy rather than the populous part of it – was horrified by Donald Trump, whose grip on that party shows no sign of weakening. But they will be even more horrified by fear of tax rises, and will doubtless find themselves returning to the party fold. That does not matter that much in terms of votes (these are the top 1% after all, even if you have to add in larger numbers who fancy their chances of entering that elite) – but it means lots of campaign funding to promote misinformation and damaging memes. The Republicans scared a lot of people into voting for them in Congressional races last year by portraying the Democrats as being taken over by the “radical left”. It won’t be too hard to paint Mr Biden’s policies in that light.
A big challenge will come in 2022, when the mid-term elections come. Most commentators already seem to have written the Democrats’ chances off, following what happened to Mr Obama and Mr Trump at the same points in their presidencies. But that can’t be in the plans of a consummate politician like Joe Biden. He clearly feels that his policies can peel away a lot of voters from the Republicans.
And that will make American politics very interesting over the next year and a half. Mr Biden has started well, and he means to keep up the momentum.