Sunday, August 14, 2022

Joe Biden embraces his inner radical to face the winter of peril

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It is often forgotten that Franklin D. Roosevelt – the most radical American president of the 20th century – was considered a mediocrity by many of his peers. Joe biden never came at the top of his class. But in his inaugural address, he presented an agenda that no US president since FDR has matched. Mr Biden listed the “cascading crises of our time” he plans to face – a pandemic, restless American democracy, systemic racism, America’s fallen position in the world and the “survival cry of the planet itself.” Either of these two embarrassed a president in ordinary times. But 2021 is a time of concentric emergencies. Mr. Biden chose to do all of the above.

The magnitude of Mr. Biden’s ambition will take many by surprise. As a moderate lifelong Democrat, Mr. Biden’s philosophy is assumed to be conservative with a small “c,” appended to progressive with a small “p.” But politics is a matter of circumstances. Just as hyper-ambitious presidents are forced into incrementalism – think Bill Clinton – others have historical dramas piling up on their boards. America’s most radical change often comes from the center, not the left or the right. Its most important presidents – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR – were all moderate-tempered rulers. Their skill was to bring others.

Mr. Biden inherited the whirlwind. Does he have the capacity to exploit it? His address will not go down as one of the great inaugural speeches of the United States. But he explained how he plans to move his agenda forward. The basic core is courtesy. At another point, such standard language could induce narcolepsy – especially on Mr. Biden’s part. But after January 6 aggression on Capitol Hill – and the fact that more than a third of America thinks he’s an illegitimate president – Mr. Biden’s hand of friendship is also a weapon. Many on the left of the Democratic Party are demanding harsh judgment with the Republican catalysts of Trumpism. Mr. Biden can point out that a 50:50 Senate robs him of such luxury. His first instinct will be to charm Republicans, not to shame them.

It is entirely possible that such tactics will fail. Shortly after being sworn in, Mr. Biden’s White House sent a bill to Congress that would give America’s 11 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. This is unlikely to pass. Republican senators immediately called it an “amnesty.” Unlike purely budget bills, which can be passed with 51 votes – with Vice President Kamala Harris providing the tipping vote – it would take 60 votes to become law. The same goes for Mr Biden’s plans to improve America’s voting rights, which will surely die in the Senate. After a four-year hiatus from fiscal conservatism, Republicans are once again sounding the alarm bells about rising U.S. national debt, meaning Biden will struggle to pass his relief bill in pandemic case of $ 1.9 billion.

But he has a great thing going in his favor. A majority of Americans, including many Republicans, are delighted to see Donald Trump’s back. The fact that no prominent Republican, including even Mike Pence, the outgoing Vice President, was there to wave Mr. Trump out of the White House or Andrews Air Force Base speaks volumes. Mr. Trump still has a very loyal base of tens of millions of Americans. But he left Washington as an outcast and as the author of his own crushing humiliation. The only circumstances in which he is likely to return are to defend himself in his Senate. impeachment trial – or for another legal hearing. This week, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Leader of the Senate, said Mr. Trump instigated the attack on American democracy. This suggests that a post-presidential conviction in the Senate cannot be ruled out. Mr. Biden also did not use the word impeachment in his speech.

It is often said that American presidents are the opposites of their predecessors. The public reacts by choosing the personality of a holder opposite. This time, it’s true in spades. Mr. Biden is everything Mr. Trump is not. By inference, then, Mr. Biden will be a boring president – no settling of scores, no quack coronavirus cures or calls to overthrow his White House system. Still, it all depends on how you define boredom. In his speech, Mr. Biden outlined the “winter of peril and great opportunity” America faces. In practice, Mr. Biden’s first 100 days could prove to be very interesting.

edward.luce@ft.com

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