By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
As we approach the 100th day of the Biden administration on Thursday, it is becoming increasingly evident that expectations that the new president would be extremely cautious in handling a deeply divided US society and a volatile international system have been proven wrong. Maybe due to his age, his track record or the complexity of the issues America faces at home and abroad, there was a consensus that President Joe Biden would not initially be bold in introducing far-reaching initiatives and would, first and foremost, see his role as one of calming the nasty social and political storm that was fanned by the previous administration. It appeared he had been elected to treat his occupancy of the White House as a holding position until the 2024 elections, paving the way for the next and more reformist-minded generation. However, Biden has not stuck to this script.
The new president was quick off the blocks with a flurry of initiatives, executive orders and statements, revealing an ideological streak that few previously saw in him. From Day 1, there was a purposeful attempt to assert his authority by reversing many of the policies that had compromised America’s role in the world and sowed the seeds of division at home. It is plausible that the knowledge that he might be a one-term president and the damage inflicted on the country by the careless and negligent actions of his predecessor — not to mention that person’s appalling complacency in the face of a devastating coronavirus pandemic — have driven Biden to take a much more radical view of what is good for the US than he envisaged when running for office. It is also his vast experience in Washington politics, from both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, that has spurred him to act quickly and decisively before those who lost the election regroup and target him and his plans.
Even when one takes all this into account, the president’s actions in pushing through a massive counter-pandemic stimulus to the tune of $1.9 trillion, followed by a proposed $2 trillion plan to overhaul and upgrade the nation’s infrastructure, together with an array of social and international policies, are much more revolutionary than evolutionary. This vast, long-overdue investment in America’s ailing economy and neglected infrastructure would traditionally be more associated with the left wing of the Democratic Party, especially as this most ambitious of socioeconomic strategies will be paid for by borrowing, thus increasing the budget deficit, and taxes on the wealthy.
Biden’s newly discovered progressive inner self, riding on an extremely high approval rate, has transformed the centrist-neoliberal politician that the Democratic Party put forward as its nominee in last year’s presidential election, believing that he was the best bet to defeat Donald Trump, into what Europeans would regard as a social democratic reformist. The liberal writer Robert Kuttner expressed both delight and amazement when he observed: “Now, something unexpected and miraculous is happening. Joe Biden, the most centrist of the 2020 Democratic field, is governing as if he were FDR (former President Franklin Roosevelt).” Kuttner went on to call this “the moment when Democrats recovered their soul.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been the key player in reintroducing progressive ideas to the heart of US politics, praised Biden’s stimulus package as “the most significant legislation for working people that has been passed in decades,” referring to the lack of such initiatives since Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” program of the 1960s.
The two pillars of Biden’s reformist economic plans with potentially vast social consequences — the American Rescue Plan, which is a big-spending coronavirus relief package, and the American Jobs Plan, a more ambitious and transformative program than the name suggests — are legitimizing government intervention in the economy on an unprecedented level in recent American history. This shifts the economic spotlight from serving Wall Street’s national mega-casino, which rewards the uber-rich, to creating jobs that serve the wider community. As the jobs plan indicates, public domestic investment as a share of the economy has fallen by more than 40 percent since the 1960s. It is a sad testimony to this lack of investment that the US, the wealthiest country in the world, is ranked only 13th when it comes to the overall quality of its infrastructure. Rusty bridges, roads that cannot deal with the volume of traffic and water systems that aren’t fit for purpose in a 21st century economy are all too evident, while power supplies and internet services operate with wide variations in quality across different parts of the country.
What distinguishes the Biden plan is that it combines a long-term vision with a sense of urgency in moving to alleviate the more immediate problems confronting the task of fixing America. It puts equality of access to health and education at the very heart of the agenda and considers the issues of persistent racial injustice and the need to support inner cities and rural communities that have been neglected for decades as fundamental to the nation’s healing. At the same time, it embraces multilateralism on issues such as climate and security, recognizing that a US that is dysfunctional at home is vulnerable abroad, and a US that is not constructively engaged with the world is more fragile domestically.
The current system, which has been supported and facilitated by both Republican and Democratic administrations, enshrined inequality and hence weakened society. A recent Pew Research Center survey highlighted America’s growing income inequalities — the US is the worst of the G7 nations on this measure — which disproportionately hit black people when it comes to the accumulation of wealth. Spending vast amounts of money, especially by increasing budget deficits or raising taxes, is not a magic wand for healing American society and reversing the country’s international decline. It is the sustainable investment targeted at rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and reviving it as a homeland for equal opportunities and innovation that will make the risks taken worthwhile, for the sake of both current and future generations.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg