The Biden Agenda: Is the US poised to have a truly transformational president?

The Biden Agenda: Is the US poised to have a truly transformational president?
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the American Rescue Plan from the Rose Garden of the White House, 12 March 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Jim Lo Scalzo / Pool)

The Biden administration has a daunting agenda ahead of it. Can one narrow triumph with the massive stimulus package translate into further success in immigration and foreign affairs — or will it be a one-hit wonder?

In the wake of the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act by the narrowest of margins in the Senate, along with a virtual meeting of national leaders in the new Quad partnership between Japan, Australia, India and the US, Joe Biden is poised — just possibly — to be able to become a truly transformational president. This might reach the level of the early part of Franklin D Roosevelt’s presidency or even Lyndon Johnson’s time in office, if only he had not been consumed by the Vietnam War. Maybe.

The other day, opinion writer Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times offered a succinct, albeit very positive, summary of the changes now part of Biden’s legislative legacy. It was succinct, certainly at least in comparison to the 5,000-plus- (yes, 5,000-plus-) page bill itself.

As Bouie wrote, “First consider the domestic legislation. In addition to hundreds of billions of dollars in direct payments to most American families, the American Rescue Plan — passed without a single Republican vote in either the House or the Senate — extends federal unemployment benefits until 6 September and makes the first $10,200 of those benefits non-taxable for households with incomes under $150,000 a year. It includes an extra $7.25-billion in small business loans; a $25-billion fund for “food and drinking establishments”; and more than $50-billion in transportation funding, including billions for transit. It provides $25-billion in emergency rental and housing assistance to keep Americans in their homes and off the streets. There are also billions of dollars in funding for personal protective equipment and the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

“If Biden were just signing a bill to assist the public and end the pandemic, it would be a substantial accomplishment, if not quite an FDR-size one. But there is more to the package than just relief; it also allocates hundreds of billions of dollars to sweeping reforms to the social safety net.

“At the top of the list is a major, if temporary, expansion of the child tax credit. Under current law, most families receive a tax credit of up to $2,000 per child under age 17. If the value of the credit is greater than what the family pays in taxes, they can receive a portion of the credit as a cash payment.

“The bill scraps this in favour of a de facto basic income for children. Instead of a $2,000 credit, parents will receive an annual payment of up to $3,600 for children five and younger, and up to $3,000 for those ages six to 17. Families with no taxable income will still be able to claim the full benefit. All but the highest-income families will receive something from the government.

“This change, alone, would slash child poverty by an estimated 40%. But this change isn’t alone. The American Rescue Plan also triples the value of the earned-income tax credit for low-income workers without children, providing a benefit of roughly $1,500 to more than 17-million Americans and fixing a tax code that, as it stands, punishes childless workers in low-wage jobs.

“Biden’s relief plan also includes a major expansion of the Affordable Care Act in the form of greater subsidies for Americans who purchase their health insurance on the marketplaces established by the law. This would, according to an Urban Institute estimate, reduce the number of uninsured people in the United States by more than four million.”

In fact, much of the impact of this legislation stands in strong contrast with the run of many Democratic Party initiatives in the years following the Johnson Great Society years — with the obvious exception of Obamacare.  In the opinions of many Americans, almost every other one of those initiatives appeared linked preferentially for the benefit of black and Latino Americans, in significant contrast to the provisions of the new law. There, for example, the strong emphasis is on providing an income floor for all children in the country, save for the very rich. 

Crucially, however, this massive gout of legislation passed with no Republican support, making it imperative for future legislative action, that the Democrats at least hold their one-vote margin in the Senate (with the vice president voting for administration-supported measures in the event of a tie) by not having a single defection from their caucus.

This gives someone like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat in a state that strongly supported the former president, twice, some real leverage concerning any proposals from the administration. Given Manchin’s opposition, that is one key reason the change in minimum wage levels was dropped from the American Rescue Plan Act. 

While this child support provision (and several other parts of the law) is now set to run for a single year, there is every reason to believe that if the approach visibly lessens the extent of childhood poverty and its ill effects, the pressure to keep this provision as a permanent part of the nation’s social welfare structure will become increasingly strong, especially if it uses the IRS mechanism effectively and does not spawn a new federal bureaucracy. 

Such a broad child support effort may well help transcend the frequently racially divisive politics that can be the bane of internal Democratic politics. If that occurred, the country would be seen to be moving in significant ways towards a western European model of a social welfare state. That would be on a par with the Rooseveltian New Deal, and Johnson’s Great Society, where one key success was the Kerr-Mills Act, or as it is usually called, Medicare.

In the meantime, the Biden administration has also nailed its flag to the idea that — as he explained in last week’s televised address — the defeat of Covid in America through massive vaccination drives and continuing physical distancing care is something that requires the participation of all Americans.

This is a starkly different message to his predecessor’s bloviating insistence, “I alone can fix things”. That leads to a realisation the now-radically ramped up vaccination rate at least offers the possibility that the country, as the hope expressed in Biden’s speech, will be able to return to a carefully guarded normality of reopened public spaces, face-to-face education in schools, and even family gatherings for the 4th of July Independence Day holiday.

In tandem with the large amounts of money being delivered to a majority of all families across the country, there is a sense on the part of many economists that the country’s economy may come roaring back by the end of 2021, and heading into the mid-term election year of 2022. 

One footnote to that carefully contained euphoria is one of those clouds no bigger than a man’s hand that all that newly dispensed money itching to be spent as part of pent-up demand from the past year, coupled with the time it may take to rev up production or gear up imported products could lead to too much money or demand chasing too few goods and services. In short, that can become the classic recipe for stoking inflation, something that has been largely missing from American life for a number of years.

Roughly nine in ten US adults [89%] consider China a competitor or enemy, rather than a partner, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

Add into that the possibility of the cost of petrol at a service station for Americans might even reach $4/gallon. Okay, that is low by western European or South African standards, but it could be a real kick in the gut after years of low petrol prices — just as the traditional summer travel season kicks into gear as Covid restrictions are lessened. Petrol prices are a traditional indicator of voter dissatisfaction — or a measure of consumer pleasure — depending on that cost to consumers and the future trend-line.

One issue that transcends both the domestic and the international spheres is, of course, immigration. The number of children travelling alone and in families, with young children attempting to enter the US along the southern border from the Central American nations, is now rising rapidly. Fuelled by fears of the Covid disease in their own nations, growing civil and humanitarian chaos from economic and gang-related problems, the economic devastation due to a number of major hurricanes in the region, and, crucially, rumours the Biden administration is allowing families to enter the US, this migration is on the move. 

Accordingly, the resources of government border authorities, NGOs and churches are again being stretched mightily, and the very real possibilities for human rights violations grows apace. Yet again. 

Coupled with that continuing economic malaise in the US (and the extreme unlikelihood conditions in Central America will magically heal), there are ample possibilities for blame to be directed against the Biden team over immigration messes as the country inevitably heads into that build-up to that 2022 election. Here is a real possibility for some fateful stumbles for the Biden presidency, given the virtual impossibility the border can be administered humanely, kept well-sealed, and yet easily accessible to legitimate political asylum seekers, all simultaneously, in the face of a tide of increasingly desperate people. That, in turn, will generate voter pressure against large, comprehensive immigration reform — or even, perhaps, passage of piecemeal reforms.

Meanwhile, on the more directly foreign affairs front, the Biden administration has undertaken a dramatically more visible stance vis-a-vis China. Part of this is, of course, in response to a much broader concern about China among the American population as a whole, one that sees China as a competitor/threat/opponent to America. As the most recent Pew Research Center report, dated 4 March, indicated, “President Joe Biden has inherited a complicated US-China relationship that includes a trade war, mutually imposed sanctions on high-ranking officials, tensions flaring over human rights issues, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and an American public with deeply negative feelings toward China.

“Roughly nine-in-ten US adults [89%] consider China a competitor or enemy, rather than a partner, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Many also support taking a firmer approach to the bilateral relationship, whether by promoting human rights in China, getting tougher on China economically or limiting Chinese students studying abroad in the United States. More broadly, 48% think limiting China’s power and influence should be a top foreign policy priority for the US, up from 32% in 2018.”

In part, beyond those themes noted by Pew, this feeling is also in response to increasingly alarming Chinese military moves in the South China Sea in a region well understood to be international waters. There are also efforts to seize a global march on new military/civilian dual-use technologies in cybernetics and related areas, increasingly vigorous economic penetration of many nations responsive to the allure of the benefits from the Shanghai Cooperation Council and the Belt and Road initiative, and the pressures on American businesses from Chinese competition both domestically and internationally. There are also, of course, all those xenophobic flames fed by the previous president over the origins of the Covid pandemic.

In response to this sensibility, taking up the geostrategic position that had been weakened by the previous president’s withdrawal from the TransPacific Partnership (an action quickly taken advantage of by China), the new president has joined the leaders of Australia, India and Japan in the “Quadrilateral” initiative. The Chinese have warned that this should not become an “exclusivist clique”. The Quad, not explicitly a military/security alliance nor an economic link, per se, nevertheless attempts to offer a clear statement, as Biden has said: “America is back”. 

A central challenge will be how effectively the Quad and other similar efforts will represent an effective push-back against China, but one that does not provoke an all-out challenge that triggers massive Chinese responses, instead of Chinese efforts to work more cooperatively to ameliorate such challenges. Managing that delicate operation will be a key element in the Biden foreign policy effort over the next four years and it may, in the long run, be the most important thing the Biden administration can do for the longer term in foreign affairs. 

Then, of course, there will also remain the challenge of Biden’s security policies in extracting the country from America’s “long wars” of Iraq and Afghanistan, even though there are actually fewer personnel assigned there than show up to work on an average day at the Pentagon building in Northern Virginia. The keys to these two issues will be in finding a formula that maintains, in some way, shape or form, the vague idea of an Afghan government that is not in thrall to the Taliban forces. And, in Iraq, managing the transition out of there such that Iraq does not become something like an informal satrapy of Iran, its larger neighbour, or return to internecine chaos, is equally problematic. 

These developments also connect to the Biden administration’s expressed desire to re-associate itself with the six-power accord on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And that could give some form of encouragement to the ongoing growth of formal Israeli diplomatic relations with countries of the region. And that, somehow, someway, some time, in turn, can contribute to a magic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. Let’s call that the unicorn solution. 

Taken all together, this is a real ton of work to realise over one president’s term of office. DM 


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Cartwright says:

    Even if all Biden’s aims were achieved, it would hardly be ‘transformational’. Rather, a bit of sugar coating on the declining dregs of extractive capitalism.

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