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The First - and Next - 100 Days of the Biden Presidency

The First - and Next - 100 Days of the Biden Presidency
 Maya Kandel
Historian, Associate Researcher at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 (CREW)

Joe Biden's first 100 days and his address to Congress give a sense of the American president's leadership, methods and ambitions, as well as of the new course that he is trying to set in order to achieve a "new Democratic synthesis". But beyond the symbolism, it is far too early into his presidency for a real assessment: it will still take a few months for the new teams to settle in; Biden's "New Deal", for a total of $4 trillion, has to make it through Congress; and most foreign policy dossiers are undergoing strategic review.

The 100-day mark has become a symbolic milestone for any new American president since FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Biden and his advisors’ favorite reference. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 100-day mark coincided with Biden's first address to Congress. It was an opportunity to celebrate the success of the vaccination campaign - his top priority - as well as the first stimulus package. It was also an occasion to revisit his infrastructure plan, which is to be financed through an increase in corporate taxes, and to present the second part of the Build Back Better plan, which focuses on families and health policy, and comes with higher marginal taxes for the wealthiest Americans.

The next 100 days will be decisive, if the bills are to pass through Congress before the summer. After that, agendas will be dominated by the need to vote on the 2022 budget and to launch campaigns for the primaries. Most crucial, however, are the 600 days remaining until the midterm elections in November 2022.

The first thing to note, though already widely recognized, is that we are a far cry from the caricatures of a senile president or one hampered by cognitive problems - a narrative which, above all, illustrates the effectiveness of Republican media and language, even on the other side of the Atlantic. Biden has already demonstrated his desire for reform. His activism is faithful to his party platform, though under pressure from a calendar that is constrained by the very narrow margins he holds in Congress.

The first polls [...] show a popular president [...] in a country that is increasingly polarized. 

The public opinion is supportive: the first polls, notably a study by the non-partisan Pew Research Center, show a popular president (with an approval rating of 59%) in a country that is increasingly polarized. This figure is really an average, between the 93% approval rating on the Democratic side, compared to only 18% among Republicans.

But it is also worth remembering that public approval ratings were even higher when it came to the Covid-19 stimulus package, passed in Congress without a single Republican vote: 78% of Americans approved, including, therefore, a majority of Republicans. 

Biden's leadership is defined by the four priorities he set at the time of his election, the "four converging crises": the pandemic, the economy, racial inequality and the climate, with the particular intention to not "waste" any opportunities presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. This agenda is intended as a response to a double challenge: to bring back unity in a country bruised by the pandemic - or to "restore the soul of America" and to "prove democracy works" - better than the Chinese model.

The "Biden method" is also starting to become clear. He presents himself as a president who aspires to bipartisan consensus and invites Republican elected officials to the White House. He does so without compromising on his campaign program, the fruit of joint work between the centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic Party. Biden is also attentive and loyal to the African-American electorate that saved his primary and overwhelmingly supported him last November, as we saw in his statement on "systemic racism" after the trial of George Floyd’s murderer. Above all, he insists on keeping a distance with the ongoing cultural wars while remaining as "dull" as possible. His communication is meticulous, especially on social media. This is sometimes to the displeasure of his own camp, but this also means he incites fewer Republican attacks (Trump's absence from Twitter helps, too).

Biden's ambition, which is bold, pragmatic and reformist ("results, not revolution"), aims to bring about a new Democratic synthesis on domestic policy. He does so by bringing the progressive ideas that now represent the core principles of the Democratic party and confronting them to the political reality in Congress but also in the Supreme Court, as the fate of many decrees and regulations, if challenged, could be decided there.

Biden's ambition, which is bold, pragmatic and reformist, aims to bring about a new Democratic synthesis.

As for the party's internal balance, it is worth recalling that the progressive and centrist caucuses are now almost equal in weight in the House of Representatives (much less so in the Senate, where centrist Democrats still dominate, but where the progressives now chair several crucial committees). On foreign policy, major changes have happened (climate), other trends have been confirmed (China), and a lot is still in flux: we know that the Democratic team intends to renew the link between foreign and domestic policy, the leitmotiv of Secretary of State Antony Blinken's first speech, and to construct a "foreign policy for the middle classes", which is dear to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. The precise meaning of these orientations and their consequences for the rest of the world, and Europe in particular, remains to be seen.

These ambitions must be understood in light of the shock Trump represented for the Democrats, but also with regard to several profound changes in American society: the existential crisis of American democracy, linked in particular to the aftermath of January 6 and the anti-democratic turn by part of the Republicans; the shift in American opinion on the role of the federal state in society and the economy, 40 years after the Reagan Revolution; and finally, the ongoing transformation of the business world's relations to society and politics

What can be called a return of the welfare state corresponds to changes in American opinion and society on the role of the federal government, certainly a major contemporary change in the United States, and one that makes Biden's ambitious agenda possible. A quarter of a century after Bill Clinton's declaration that "the era of big government is over", several polls illustrate that Americans from across the political spectrum are in favor of a bigger role for the federal state in society and the economy. In 1995, under Bill Clinton, 62% of Americans thought the federal government was "too ambitious"; in April 2021, only 41% of Americans thought so, while 55% considered, in contrast with the Reagan era, that the government must provide solutions. This trend reflects changes in both parties. Republican politicians had no problem with Trump's tens of billions of dollars in aid to farmers as part of the trade war with Beijing. 

What sustains Biden's activism, beyond his popularity and the ongoing economic rebound, is also the change in attitude in the business community, which is increasingly at odds with the Republican party: on social matters, on climate, but above all on the anti-democratic posture of certain elected officials. The assault on the Capitol on January 6 marked a real break, though the lasting impact is worth following closely. Today, the American business community is more worried about the radicalization of Republicans than about the reforms proposed by Biden. Even the increase in corporate taxes was not met with the expected furor, especially as some had feared a return to the pre-Trump 35% and as SMEs are spared. In addition, many sectors are pleased with the hundreds of billions of public dollars set to be invested in infrastructure. In foreign policy, a Biden doctrine has not yet emerged, beyond the stated intention of a foreign policy for the middle classes, proving democracy works better, and winning the future with allies. 

Biden’s vision and break with the past lies in the desire for a foreign policy that is more at the service of Americans.

There are many continuities with Trump's foreign policy: a questioning of free trade; protectionism and national preference; an end to "endless wars" - i.e. the "global war on terror" - with the unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan announced for September 11, 2021 (and applauded by Trump); and of course a repositioning with regard to China, which was already desired by Obama (pivot), but implemented by the Trump administration.

Underlying this is another trend, also present under Obama and Trump: the refusal to be the "world's policeman", which illustrates that the post-Cold War period is well and truly over.

The new administration confirms that strategic rivalry with China is the highest priority and main challenge of American foreign policy. But the approach is different, and also revives Obama's "smart power" and the Democratic emphasis on allies and partners, who are "force multipliers" for American power, all the more important if the US wants to focus time and resources on domestic priorities. Like Obama, the Biden administration emphasizes multilateralism, diplomacy and foreign aid, integrates climate at the center of its diplomacy with a much higher level of ambition, and intends to reduce its military commitment abroad. Biden’s vision and break with the past lies in the desire for a foreign policy that is more at the service of Americans, and especially American workers. This is not only about "ending endless wars": it has to do with Democrats’ diagnosis of Trump's victory in 2016, as well as progressives’ developing their own views on foreign policy, and wanting to weigh on foreign policy decisions more largely (it was not always the case). For the moment, a "foreign policy for the middle classes" seems to take the form of classic industrial policy, domestic Keynesian stimulus measures focused on the poorest and their families, and a much more restrained foreign policy, with a gradual distancing from certain regions and even certain partners.

Domestic politics is always a constraint on foreign policy, especially in the U.S. In the absence of a consensual existential external threat, domestic politics weighs even more heavily on US foreign policy choices than usual. In his first speech, Blinken insisted that Biden's foreign policy would not be a rehash of the Obama era and concluded: "More than at any other time in my career - maybe in my lifetime - distinctions between domestic and foreign policy have simply fallen away". Trump's election in 2016 had already shown that the American people no longer supported the US's role in the world; militarily, commercially and with regard to the opening of its borders. He opened in Washington the largest debate on US foreign policy in decades. The debate is still underway. It remains to be seen where the Democrats will take it.




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