ourEconomy: Analysis

Biden’s first 100 days: still ‘America First’

The president has surprised many critics, but he needs to go much further

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small Aaron headshot.jpg
Mary Fitzgerald Aaron White
29 April 2021, 6.46am
Expectations were low for Joe Biden
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Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“We handed away votes to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and then celebrated – dancing in the streets like fools,” Jecorey Arthur told us days after Biden’s victory last November. Despite running on a Democratic ticket for Louisville City Council in Kentucky, this racial justice activist was deeply sceptical of the incoming president – like so many we met across the US.

In Georgia’s critical Senate race in January, progressive canvassers were similarly lukewarm. These volunteers had flown and bussed in from all over the country to turn out the Democratic vote; their efforts helped deliver Biden a vital congressional majority. Yet few could muster much enthusiasm for the president-elect, describing him as a “corporate centrist”, a “neoliberal”; better than Trump, yes, but not capable or willing to take bold action on the climate crisis, poverty, healthcare, racial justice and much more.

Fast forward three months, and ‘Sleepy Joe’ has confounded many of those downbeat predictions. He has passed a record-breaking ‘American Rescue Plan’ – delivering $1,400 stimulus checks, extending unemployment insurance, and implementing a temporary childhood tax credit that some experts claim will cut childhood poverty in half.

In a reversal of Trump’s denialism, Biden has aggressively committed to climate action: rejoining the Paris Agreement, freezing new oil drilling on federal lands and pledging to cut carbon emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030.

He has put forward bold proposals for a global corporate minimum tax rate that would reverse a decades-long race to the bottom and force tech giants and multinationals to cough up billions that are presently routed through tax shelters. And he’s pushing for a nearly $2.3 trillion ‘American Jobs Plan’ and $1.8 trillion ‘American Families Plan’, which together would be the most significant public investment in infrastructure, education and childcare since President Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programme of the 1960s.

When Biden took office on 20 January, 400,000 Americans had died of COVID-19. An average of 3,000 were still dying of the disease every day. Now the number of daily deaths is below 1,000, and the US is the world leader in vaccine development and deployment. Thanks to early investment by the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed and then efficient coordination by the Biden team, the US has rapidly delivered 200 million doses, with nearly half of American adults vaccinated.

Biden is, according to some, “giving Left parties the world over a masterclass in how to use power”. He is, in tone and character, the antithesis of his predecessor. Gone are the violence-bating, fear-mongering, science-denying tirades that emanated almost daily from the White House.

Yet in substance, the new president’s agenda is a striking continuation of Trump’s in at least one key respect: ‘America First’.

Consensus – and 'zero responsibility'

The sabre-rattling with China continues. Despite the urgent need to co-operate over climate action and much more, Biden has framed the “ambitions of autocratic China” as being among the “great challenges of our time”, extending Trump’s tariffs and sanctioning dozens of Chinese officials before their first bilateral meeting last month in Alaska.

He has swiftly fulfilled Trump’s promise of an almost-complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. On the campaign trail, Biden said he would feel “zero responsibility” if the human rights of Afghan women and others were diminished as a consequence.

His administration’s tone on Saudi Arabia has been different, shutting off direct contact with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and ending official US support for Saudi’s war in Yemen. Yet quietly, arms sales continue.

And as countries in the Global South experienced apocalyptic surges in COVID-19 rates early this year, the Biden administration refused to grant them crucial supplies and excess vaccines. Succumbing to sustained pressure, the administration this week finally agreed to donate the nearly 60 million AstraZeneca doses that it was sitting on, likely never to use. However, as India approaches half a million new COVID-19 cases per day, Biden continues to block the World Trade Organization from suspending intellectual property rights on badly-needed vaccines, which could save countless lives.

Trump may have named it, but ‘America First’ has been US foreign policy doctrine for decades.

Where there has been bold action, it has been shaped squarely by American interests. Takings from the proposed global minimum corporate tax rate, welcomed by many countries and tax justice experts around the world, would line the coffers of the US Treasury too. Biden’s commitments to climate action are focused on American jobs, American investment, American technology. Unlike the approach of many European policymakers, he’s not asking people to change their lifestyles or rethink their consumption, markets or societies.

Wherever possible he has shied away from controversy. He has committed to policing reform, but kept Trump’s 15,000 refugee limit. (After a backlash, the White House promised to increase the limit next month – but rights advocates say the whole approach needs a rethink.) There is still a humanitarian crisis on the southern border, while ICE has continued to deport hundreds of immigrants on a regular basis.

None of this should be surprising. While Trump may have been the first to name it in recent times, ‘America First’ has been US foreign policy doctrine for decades. And it is pragmatic of Biden to choose to prioritise issues – from stimulus checks to ‘green’ jobs to ending America’s decades-long wars – that appeal to a broad range of voters, particularly in a country so deeply polarised, and while holding such a slim Congressional majority.

In almost every move thus far, he has sought consensus. As one swing voter who served in the US military in Afghanistan put it after the troop withdrawal was announced: “It’s a tough decision, but I think we have a lot of issues at home, with all the rioting and how polarised the country has become. I don’'t know that spending the ridiculous amount of money that we spend on our defence budget every year is necessarily the best way forward for the country right now."

But consensus won’t always be possible. The real question is whether Biden can do more than deliver badly-needed relief and set ambitious targets: will he be as aggressive in defending American democracy itself?

Assault on voting rights

Biden knows he doesn’t have much time. Republican state legislatures, from Georgia to Texas, are passing a wave of voting restriction laws designed to suppress Democratic turnout in the 2022 mid-term elections. A tsunami of new laws have restricted postal ballots and drop-off locations, made it illegal to deliver food and water to people waiting in voting lines, and introduced hurdles that make it more difficult to both register as a voter, and to cast a ballot. The newly-elected Georgia senator, Reverend Raphael Warnock, has called these bills “a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve seen since the Jim Crow era”.

Faced with this full-frontal assault on democracy, Biden is under increasing pressure to act. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives has already passed the H.R.1 ‘For the People’ Act, that should secure voting rights and end partisan gerrymandering. Last week, it also passed H.R.51, which would grant Washington DC statehood: enabling residents of this Democrat-leaning district to elect senators and congressional representatives for the first time. This would end a longstanding injustice and change the balance of power in Washington.

The real question is whether Biden will be as aggressive in defending American democracy itself

But without drastically reforming or abolishing the filibuster – a procedure which requires a 60-vote threshold in the Senate to pass most legislation – these crucial laws are set to die on the Senate floor. Although many Democrats are pressing for action on the filibuster, there are a few crucial opt-outs from the more conservative wing of the party, including the West Virginia senator, Joe Manchin, and the Arizona senator, Kyrsten Sinema. Biden has more than 40 years’ experience on Capitol Hill. To protect American democracy, he needs to skilfully deploy it – now.

His administration is also going to face growing pressure to pass and support substantive racial justice measures. This is, to many, another key test of America’s democratic legitimacy. In the wake of Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd, and the recent police killings of Ma’Khia Bryant, Adam Toledo and Andrew Brown, Black Lives Matter activists continue to demand major reforms to policing and targeted investment in Black communities which have so far failed to materialise.

Biden will, of course, continue to attract criticism from those in his party who seek even bolder action on climate and social justice. Many argue that to meet the Paris Agreement target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the US needs to invest much more than it has already committed – with some experts claiming $1 trillion is needed annually. “The size of [Biden’s infrastructure package] is disappointing. It’s not enough,” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said earlier this month.

But given the low expectations, it’s been an impressive start, particularly given the challenges posed by the Democrats’ diverse caucus and slim majority in Congress.

“I was surprised in some ways,” Lily Gardner, an organiser with the youth-led climate and social justice movement, Sunrise, told us last week. “It’s been a very long time since we’ve seen movements hold the political power that it feels like Sunrise has been able to wield.” She applauded Biden’s “willingness to work with us and other [progressive] movement leaders”.

“He has at least said the things that need to be said,” she added.

The question now is whether Biden’s version of ‘America First’ involves more than saying what needs to be said. Will he also do the more difficult things that need to be done to deliver equity, justice and democracy at home – and to ally himself with those seeking the same across the world?

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