WASHINGTON — Just about everyone expected President Biden to break with “the former guy,” his derisive term for Donald Trump, whose work the 46th president began dismantling from the very first moments of his administration. Far more surprising has been Biden’s break with the 44th president and his former boss: Barack Obama.
First with the coronavirus relief bill and now with the announcement that the U.S. will withdraw completely from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, Biden is charting his own course, making clear that his administration will not follow the “Obama 3.0” plot line some had predicted for him.
Biden rejected that narrative shortly after the election. “This is not a third Obama term. We face a totally different world than we faced in the Obama-Biden administration. President Trump has changed the landscape,” he said in an interview in late November. But he proceeded to stock his administration with so many Obama alumni that many figured the assurance of something genuinely new had been typical Washington lip service.
It appears, however, that Biden was serious. His approach has been marked by an obvious rejection of the daily chaos of the Trump years but also, more subtly, by a no-less-decisive rejection of Obama’s proceduralism. His aggressive approach to governing has put Republicans on the back foot, while delighting progressives who didn’t think that the 78-year-old former Delaware senator had a wholly original act in the works.
“I must say that what Biden has done so far is a rather pleasant surprise to me,” said the progressive icon and MIT linguist Noam Chomsky in a recent interview. That’s the same Chomsky who in 2016 lamented that Obama was leaving the White House with “not a very impressive record,” even as he acknowledged that Republican intransigence contributed much to that lack of progress. (Obama himself has written that he believes racism among GOP voters made it difficult for him to deal directly with congressional Republicans. When it came time to negotiate with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, he would often dispatch Biden.)
“[Biden] clearly learned a great deal from his time in the Obama presidency,” says Princeton professor Julian E. Zelizer, most recently the author of a book about Newt Gingrich and his influence on American politics. “Whether we are talking about the limits reaching out to Republicans in negotiations or the high costs of ongoing military operations overseas, Biden is trying to build on that experience to craft a stronger record for his administration.”
The withdrawal from Afghanistan could, of course, prove a geopolitical mistake, leaving a power vacuum that religious radicals will fill. And if his domestic spending is wasteful or leads to inflation, he could see Republicans retake one or both chambers of the Congress in 2022, and even the presidency in 2024.
For now, Biden is enjoying high approval ratings and courting comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, who oversaw extraordinary expansions of the federal government’s role in Americans’ lives during their respective presidencies. That’s a stark turnabout from the way Biden was viewed by some during the Democratic primary: that is, as something of a has-been and a moderate unsuited for a time of immoderation.
“Why is he so popular? I have no idea,” one progressive activist told NPR during the Democratic primaries. “He’s like a corporate Democrat from Delaware, which is like the corporate headquarters of everything.” Not two years later, that same purportedly corporate Democrat is looking to raise the marginal corporate tax rate in order to pay for a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a historic moment, as voters sent a Black man to the White House for the first time in the nation’s history. But his professorial nature and desire to seek bipartisanship, combined with an open distaste for scrounging for votes on Capitol Hill, resulted in what the Brookings Institution scholar Elaine Kamarck calls a “somewhat less than historic presidency” whose primary accomplishment — the Affordable Care Act — dissatisfied progressives, who wanted a true single-payer option and infuriated Republicans, who saw it as socialist overreach.
As Obama was preparing to take office, his top economic adviser, Christina Romer, urged him to push for a $1.8 trillion package to rescue the nation from the financial crisis that had led banks to collapse, foreclosures to mount and the global economy to enter a dangerously prolonged stall. The plan was rejected as too big by another top adviser, Lawrence Summers. The eventual figure came to $800 billion.
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As would be the case with the Affordable Care Act, progressives claimed that Obama was doing too much for corporations and too little for average people. Republicans, meanwhile, called the stimulus a giveaway to a host of liberal interests. For the right, a modest $3.4 million with which Florida intended to build a turtle crossing became a defining (if inaccurate) image of government waste in the stimulus package.
It’s surely coincidental that Biden’s coronavirus relief package is $100 billion bigger than the financial relief package Romer had once proposed. And while Obama didn’t want to play salesman in 2009, Biden and his Cabinet members have eagerly done so, reminding Americans at seemingly every opportunity that the American Rescue Plan contains money for child poverty, coronavirus vaccinations and, well, a whole bunch of other stuff.
“Shots and checks” has become a kind of motto of the Biden administration, shorthand for the federal government doing real things for real people.
The checks, of course, can’t keep coming forever. Summers is complaining, as he did in 2009, that the rescue plan is too big and could lead to economic trouble. Only this time, the West Wing does not appear to be listening. Even as Biden’s Cabinet members continue to tout the American Rescue Plan, they are at the same time busy selling the $2.3 trillion infrastructure package known as the American Jobs Plan. That package will be followed by another, perhaps equally as large, called the American Families Plan, which is intended to address what the administration calls “human infrastructure.”
And even as Republicans prepare the kinds of turtle-tunnel attacks that proved so damaging in 2009, the White House has sought to put them on the defensive by pointing out how much Republican-controlled states like Florida and Texas stand to gain from the infrastructure bill, if it manages to pass in Congress.
Biden is “demonstrating that he is a politician capable of learning and evolving, contrary to some of the skeptics in the primaries who thought he didn’t understand how politics had changed,” says Zelizer, the Princeton professor. The combination of dark money and gerrymandering, as well as the structure of the primary system, has made Washington as polarized as it has ever been. Biden can either bemoan that polarization or find ways to work around the barriers it presents.
A president can “accomplish things with bipartisan support or nurture his political party so that people are elected who will carry on and protect his accomplishments,” Kamarck, the Brooking’s scholar, wrote of Obama. That lesson plainly animates the Biden administration, which has redefined bipartisanship to include the opinions of Republican voters, as measured by polls, but exclude the congressional Republicans.
They point to the broad popularity of Biden’s infrastructure plan as evidence that his administration is attuned to the nation’s needs. Critics say the administration has been dishonest in framing those needs so that they hew closely to progressive imperatives, in particular on racial justice and renewable energy.
Biden has tried to blunt such criticism by giving regular speeches with reference to national greatness and constructive competition with China. Those speeches, such as the one he gave last week from the White House, contain nothing new of substance, but they do indicate that he is personally invested in the issue.
“Biden was all heart, Obama was all brain,” says Washington Post journalist Steven Levingston, who has written a book about the relationship between the two men in the White House. Trump was also known to rely on his intuition, but that intuition was often animated by personal feuds and political ambitions rather than a sense of national service.
When it came to Afghanistan, Obama listened to military leaders who advised him that withdrawal would be a mistake. Biden, meanwhile, was the top administration official arguing for a much more limited role for American forces in Afghanistan.
Later, Biden would go on to say that he could tell by Obama’s “body language” that he agreed with that assessment — even though he ultimately rejected it. That would tether the United States to one of the world’s most restive regions, and the Obama administration to a conflict begun by George W. Bush.
“I think even Obama might now acknowledge that Biden was right and Obama himself was wrong, as were the military brass,” says Harvard historian James Kloppenberg, who wrote an early book about Obama’s governing philosophy. “Only a fool would have been confident he knew all the answers” when it came to Afghanistan, Kloppenberg says. “Obama was no fool.”
And for his part, Obama praised Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan as “the right decision” in a Wednesday tweet.
Biden was never seen as an intellectual equal to Obama; he is the first president since Ronald Reagan to not have an Ivy League degree. He is also, much more than any of his immediate predecessors, a creature of Washington. That has made him realistic about what he can and cannot do now that he is president, where he must hew to precedent and where he can go his own way.
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