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Why Joe Biden failed

In just 18 months, his ambitious agenda has been demolished – along with his popularity. Where did he go wrong?

By Adam Tooze

In the summer of 2022 a trip to Washington DC can seem like a visit to the scene of a disaster foretold. Having removed Donald Trump from office, and with majorities in both chambers of Congress, the Democrats began 2021 with high ambition and the eyes of the world upon them. A year and a half later, they are facing political ruin. A combination of bad luck, ineptitude, internal divisions, the structures of US politics and the ruthlessness of their enemies has put not only the future of the Biden administration but the republic itself in danger.

The fraying of the existing order is visible at all levels. Internationally, Joe Biden has rallied Nato and its allies against Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. But the damage done by decades of misguided US geopolitics cannot be undone and, despite Russia’s flagrant aggression, the kind of global coalition Washington mobilised against Saddam Hussein has proved elusive. Meanwhile, the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine will push weakened institutions of governance to the point of collapse. And as Washington seeks to cajole “democracies against autocracies” abroad, the pillars of the US’s own liberal regime are under attack. The overturning of Roe vs Wade enables the reactionary denial of reproductive rights across red-state America. The Supreme Court is also set on demolishing the legal bases for key environmental regulations.

In 2020 the US was on the brink of constitutional crisis. Though Biden’s election victory, and the Republican Party’s belated decision to recognise it, upheld American democracy, basic questions about the country’s future remain open. How can the US function when one party is not only devoted to overturning key compromises and institutions that have sustained society and government for more than half a century, but is willing to do so by any means necessary, whether or not it has majority support? That so many conservatives, and members of the GOP leadership, believe Biden stole the election is a sign of the wretched state of affairs. Trump, the chief author of that corrosive fantasy, lurks in the shadows and, if he can avoid legal disqualification, whether for his involvement in the Capitol riots on 6 January or other malfeasance, he will likely run again in 2024.

[See also: Towards a unified theory of Biden’s climate deal]

Given this alarming constellation of threats, one might expect liberal opinion to rally around Biden. The stakes could not be higher. His administration can claim some achievements. It has overseen a remarkable recovery from the Covid pandemic. It passed a $1trn infrastructure package, which will improve the country’s degraded transport and communications networks. Unemployment is at record lows in a number of states.

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But rather than showing a centrist advance, Biden’s polling numbers are plummeting. Even Democrats are unenthusiastic about the prospect of Biden (seen as old and weak) or Kamala Harris (floundering as vice-president) running in 2024. Those impressions will only harden when the Democrats lose their majorities in Congress, as they are expected to in November. That will allow Republicans to block legislation and to use debt-ceiling negotiations to shut down the government, as they did in Barack Obama’s second term.

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If Biden’s plan was to stabilise US democracy with progressive politics – an updated New Deal for the 21st century – the conclusion now is that his presidency has failed.

Great expectations

Hopes for Biden were high in early 2021. His promise to “Build Back Better” evoked comparisons with FDR. The $1.9trn American Rescue Plan that passed in March last year was larger than any stimulus measure attempted in the world. Combined with the Federal Reserve’s expansive monetary policy and a dramatic rebound in the private sector, the US experienced a historic recovery.

But Biden’s agenda was even bolder. In the spring of 2021 he introduced a succession of plans – on infrastructure, climate and welfare – aimed at ensuring a greener future. It was the Democrats’ version of Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” and it embodied a theory of political change. As with the New Deal in the 1930s, Biden’s triple push on jobs, climate and welfare would build constituencies that entrenched long-term support for the Democratic Party.

But only fragments of that agenda have been realised. What should have been a bold programme of social and political transformation became an embarrassing case study in legislative failure.

The perils of indiscipline

Despite Trump’s shambolic administration, voters did not decisively repudiate either him or his party in the elections of November 2020. Biden won the popular vote, but his victory in the electoral college depended on the results in three key states: Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin. In the congressional elections, the Democrats did poorly. Their majority in the House fell from 35 to nine seats. It was only the mobilisation of voters in Georgia that delivered a wafer-thin majority in the Senate.

The delicate balance in Congress made it imperative for the Democrats to maintain party discipline, but this represents a major challenge. Both the GOP and the Democrats consist of coalitions of several distinct caucuses. These caucuses reflect an electorate as fragmented as that of any other modern society – no different from Germany, with its six-party system, or the shifting coalitions of French or Italian politics.

As in the UK, the US’s first-past-the-post majoritarian system fails to represent this complexity. It forces the two big parties to contain divergent sectional, ideological and regional interests. Without formal coalition agreements between these groups, legislation becomes a daily fight for votes.

The left wing of the Democratic Party carried energy and ideas into the administration. Embracing Biden’s high-spending agenda, the president’s new progressive allies celebrated a decisive break with the neoliberal corset of the Obama and Clinton presidencies. But to enact legislation required that Biden secure the votes not just of the left and the centrists but also the Democratic right wing, personified by the West Virginian senator Joe Manchin and Arizona’s ideologically idiosyncratic Kyrsten Sinema. Given the precarious Democratic majority in Congress, every vote counted.

[See also: Biden’s speech – Trump and the “Maga Republicans” are a threat to democracy]

This problem of forging majorities was evident from the start. Yet no deal was made to unify the Democratic Party around a viable compromise agenda. The impasse between the White House and Democratic holdouts in the Senate is surprising since Biden was touted as a congressional deal-maker. But, apart from a downsized infrastructure package, no major spending policies have passed since the Rescue Plan. Manchin’s position is unassailable, and he knows it. His West Virginia seat belongs by right to the Republicans. He has nothing to gain by supporting Biden’s programme. On 14 July Manchin made it clear that no climate legislation will pass with his vote.

Illustration by Mike McQuade

An economic shock

Through the summer and then into the autumn, Biden’s signature Build Back Better Bill dragged through Congress. This delay proved costly when, in the second half of 2021, the White House was blindsided by a dramatic economic shock: a surge of inflation not seen since the 1980s. Since December 2021 inflation has defined the political agenda. It now presents an insuperable obstacle to anything resembling expansive government spending.

Many blame the Biden administration for the inflation. His approval ratings stand at only 37 per cent, despite the success in administering the most rapid economic recovery of recent times. Republicans predictably scorn the Democrats for high prices. But the most vocal critic of Biden’s economic performance comes from within the Democratic Party itself. Larry Summers, treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and economic adviser to Obama, represents the voice of neoliberal orthodoxy. At first it seemed that Biden would offer Summers a role in his administration. But the left wing of the Democratic Party – ascendant within the ranks between 2020 and 2021 – revolted at the idea. In February 2021 Summers was already voicing his opposition to Biden’s stimulus programme, warning that the result would be inflationary. The course of events seems to have proved him right.

The fiscal stimulus of early 2021 supercharged US economic growth. But that alone does not explain why inflation has surged to more than 9 per cent. After all, the EU and the UK, with less ambitious fiscal agendas, experienced similar rates of inflation. Across the Western economies it is the breakdown of supply chains and rise in energy prices that have inflicted the most damage.

Biden has blamed Putin’s war in Ukraine, which has disrupted commodity markets and caused oil prices to soar. But the American public continues to hold Biden responsible. Many are so pessimistic that they believe the US, even after record growth and low unemployment, is already in recession. It is not hard to see why: though the US is close to full employment, real wages are falling. There is a risk that by early 2023 Biden will be presiding over a stagflating economy suffering from both high inflation and a recession.

An impression of weakness

Inflation has derailed the White House’s wider political agenda, particularly on climate. Biden entered office appealing to the left as a climate president. Rejecting carbon taxes and carbon pricing, his administration focused on positive inducements for energy transition through subsidies, investment and stricter regulations. With his legislative agenda stalled, surging petrol prices have forced Biden to renege on these ideas.

For the American public, especially male voters, no symptom of inflation is more important than petrol prices, and no president can be indifferent to this issue. Even as John Kerry was re-establishing the US at the heart of global climate diplomacy at Cop26 in November 2021, Biden was begging Opec and Russia to expand oil production. When that did not work, he turned to domestic oil producers, demanding they increase production. Amid spiralling energy prices, Biden has even disregarded his concerns about human rights and met with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah on 15 July.

[See also: Joe Biden’s democratic values will be tested in the Middle East]

Oil diplomacy has also distracted the US from its geostrategic priorities. When Biden took office in January 2021, his focus was China. His team looked for compromise with Moscow. But Putin’s war and Ukraine’s resistance have given the US the chance to degrade Russian power. Backing Ukraine in the war is a historic opportunity to shift the balance of power in Eurasia against the Sino-Russian alliance. It is also one policy on which a bipartisan majority in Washington is easy to find. On 9 May, Victory Day in Moscow, Biden signed into law the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022, which expedites the delivery of billions of dollars of aid to Ukraine. It was passed with near unanimity in both chambers of Congress.

Biden has earned international acclaim for his effective management of Western support for Ukraine in the war. But this hasn’t translated into domestic goodwill. The impression of weakness created by the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 remains. If the rationale for that withdrawal, at huge cost to America’s local allies, was to end “the war on terror” and concentrate on the challenges of the coming decade – China and climate – then the thinking was flawed. Little has been achieved on those fronts. The administration has failed to show leadership on a global Covid vaccine campaign. And while the treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, convinced the OECD members to agree on a global minimum corporate tax, this is a poor substitute for truly ambitious solutions to the problem of global inequality.

It is hard to avoid invidious comparisons with Biden’s notorious predecessor. Trump’s trade policy was crude but it did produce changes both to the North American Free Trade Agreement and an outline deal with Beijing. Biden seems adrift, continuing Trump’s tech war with China, without the US launching new initiatives of its own. At Cop26 in Glasgow the EU and the US announced a tariff truce on steel and aluminium, and launched a new round of talks on decarbonisation. But the details are scant.

The Biden administration has failed to craft a comprehensive and promising grand strategy, especially in relation to China. Bullying its way into a nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the UK alienated not just France but other potential partners in the Indo-Pacific region, such as South Korea. Nor has the US provided an economic vision or trade deal for the Indo-Pacific beyond mere verbiage. An effort to corral South Korea into a strategic alliance on microchips has failed. Pressuring India to take a strong line against Moscow proved futile – India is now a major buyer of Russian oil.

A creaking system

Biden’s failures are partly attributable to bad luck (inflation), poor strategic execution (Afghanistan) and inattention (the failure to rally a Democratic coalition). But there are also structural constraints that any progressive government in the US confronts.

The political base of the Biden-Harris administration has always been narrow. The Democrats won a majority of the votes in 2020, but the US constitution disadvantages the party that dominates the nation’s urban and coastal regions. Not only has the GOP won the battle to gerrymander the districts that elect House members – turning Florida into a Republican stronghold and shoring up its position in Texas – but the Senate over-represents conservative and rural parts of the country. The privatised media system is awash with partisan narratives, which makes building complex coalitions hard.

The profound widening of inequality since the 1970s leaves a simmering resentment that feeds the populism of the Republicans, and explains the refusal of much of the Democratic Party to contemplate economic policies that might be associated with the bad old days of “hyper-globalisation”. And yet there is deep resistance, assiduously cultivated by the business lobby, to expanding the US’s creaking and inadequate welfare system. Despite the total implausibility of the claim, Biden and Harris, like Obama before them, have been accused of socialism.

Why there is no socialism in the US

If the failure of the Biden-Harris administration was almost predictable, is progressive policy even possible in the US? At the national level, the answer would seem to be no. It is certainly more difficult to envision than in other capitalist democracies. The historic reforms of the New Deal in the 1930s and the Great Society in the 1960s depended on a peculiar combination of political forces.

The New Deal coalition combined northern labour and liberal middle-class professionals with the racist South. It was a monstrous coalition that underpinned Jim Crow’s survival into the 1960s, but it created huge and persistent majorities for the Democrats. Since the realignment that followed civil rights in the 1960s, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have commanded large majorities.

Though it was hegemonic within the elite, neoliberalism under Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton was supported by only a narrow political base in the US. Since the 2000s this base has collapsed. The paucity and inadequacy of major legislation under Obama, whether it was in banking regulation (the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act) or healthcare (Obamacare), highlights the difficulty of enacting truly decisive reform. For all his noise and rhetorical pyrotechnics, Trump could not even abolish Obamacare, relying instead on back-door administrative measures to eviscerate it. His major legislative achievement was slashing taxes.

[See also: The new age of American power]

In 2020 the limitations imposed by fragile majorities and the creaky administrative state revealed themselves again. The preferred options for providing support to the US population during Covid were not the kind of elaborate furlough schemes operated in Europe. It was far simpler to hand out cash, often in the form of paper cheques, sent by post at a rate of five million per week. It counted as progress that just over 40 per cent of the payments could be made by electronic direct deposit (a method that cannot be taken for granted in 21st-century America).

The US’s government apparatus retains awesome powers. The Fed’s decisions on interest rates affect the global economy. US defence and national security spending – one thing the two parties agree on – rises from year to year. It remains the dominant military superpower. But, as the frustration of the Biden administration demonstrates, the political forces that animate the giant machine of the American state are factious and incoherent. It might only be a matter of time before that political incoherence begins to affect the major levers of economic and military power.

In 2019 Trump terrified the financial world by threatening to appoint eccentric supporters of the gold standard to the Fed board. In 2020 the military command chain became dangerously unstable as US soldiers struggled to insulate their domain against the chaos of the final months of the Trump administration. Now the Pentagon has found itself forced, by the conservative Supreme Court, to stand up for the reproductive rights of serving women soldiers. The question that must be asked is how long a country that consists – as the US editor for the Financial Times, Ed Luce, has put it – of two nations “barely on speaking terms” can continue to function as a global superpower.

For now, something like the normal exercise of power continues. But as the US enters the long electoral cycle from 2022 to 2024, we should expect the dysfunction to become more manifest. The events of 6 January are always in the background. If the Biden administration has become something of a whimper, one must hope that it does not end with a bang.

[See also: Everything you need to know about the 2022 US midterm elections]

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party