The unexpected triumph of Joe Biden
Fourteen years ago, I told a well-informed friend that Barack Obama was considering picking Joe Biden as his running mate in the 2008 election. “You’ve got to be kidding,” came the riposte. “Biden is way past it.”
Similar obituaries were being penned only two weeks ago as Biden’s poll numbers dropped below even Donald Trump’s nadir. Yet here we are. America’s oldest president can now boast of a stronger legislative record in less than two years than either Obama or Bill Clinton achieved in eight. It turns out that low expectations are Biden’s secret weapon.
None of this means Biden will be elected to a second term. But it is worth emphasising what he has done in less than half of one. In the coming days, Biden will sign America’s first serious attempt to tackle global warming. His predecessors tried it and failed. Clinton got nowhere close to persuading the Senate to ratify the Kyoto Treaty on climate change in 1999. Obama’s 2009 cap and trade bill also foundered. Trump, of course, scrapped the executive actions to which Obama resorted after failing on Capitol Hill. Trump also pulled the US out of the Paris agreement on climate change.
Biden has not only reversed Trump’s actions but is the first president to signal that the US means business on global warming. In contrast to Obama and Clinton, both of whom had large Senate majorities, Biden has done so with a 50:50 Senate. Perhaps lacking that cushion is good for party discipline.
This week he will also sign the “Chips plus” act, which is America’s first stab at industrial policy since Ronald Reagan’s response to the rise of Japan in the 1980s. The bill puts tens of billions of dollars into public science research — the kind of money that in the 1950s resulted eventually in the internet. Biden’s climate and tax bill also for the first time gives the federal government the power to negotiate lower drugs prices. Again, Democrats have been losing to the pharmaceutical lobby for decades. Biden has broken that dam without much fanfare. The attention has been captured by the bill’s clean energy bonanza.
Any one of these policy breakthroughs should be big news in its own right. Taken together, they amount to a quiet reboot of America’s political capacity. This sea change is likely to be overlooked for three reasons. The first is that almost everyone, especially Washington’s wizened political caste, is deeply acclimatised to gridlock. It takes a while to digest the scale of what has happened in the past two weeks.
The second is that this flurry of legislation might be Biden’s last real bite at the apple. If, as polls still predict, Democrats lose control of Congress in November, Republican leaders will ensure nothing more gets enacted for the rest of Biden’s term. Third, the US is in the midst of a deepening constitutional crisis. It is hard to acknowledge that a system is working when it is simultaneously so easy to picture its collapse.
All of which means Biden’s place in history is not assured. It is still possible — some would say likely — that Biden will lose in 2024, or that he will not run and the Democratic nominee who replaces him will lose. This would not be a routine US transfer of power. Whether the winning Republican were Trump or a Trumpian figure such as Florida governor Ron DeSantis, or former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, their platform would include a repudiation of Biden’s 2020 victory.
They would also pledge to reverse Biden’s climate and tax bill. In other words, Biden’s recent legislative victories could look like a flash in the pan before the ensuing avalanche. US democracy remains viable but it is by no means safe.
Does Biden, who turns 80 in November, have the capacity to belie these bleak expectations? The answer ultimately hinges on what the American people think. A striking feature of Biden’s string of legislative wins is that all of them are long-term plays. None will have much impact on how good voters will feel in the coming months. Inflation will still be a bane. Rising crime is still likely to be a concern. The cost of funding Ukraine’s fight against Russia will continue to mount without much political upside for Biden.
Unlike Obama and Clinton, Biden lacks the poetry to weave a narrative for America’s people. But maybe poetry is overrated. While Biden is fumbling for the right words, events are writing their own narrative. The FBI has just raided Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence. His prosecution for sedition or lesser crimes cannot be ruled out. “Sleepy Joe” Biden may be almost past it. But he has a knack for outlasting his enemies.