So far, Joe Biden has hardly been the middle-of-the-road president many had expected. He was supposed to be the unadorned footbridge to a new era of Democratic politics, which would be ushered in by younger, less white members of the party. Instead, he has taken on the task himself, surprising skeptics and enraging detractors who insist he is doing the bidding of a leftist vanguard.
Whatever one might think of Biden’s policies — the few he has already realized and the legion he has already proposed — it is clear that he is not the “Sleepy Joe” of conservative caricature. Breaking with both the nation’s and his own past, Biden is showing he is intent on remaking American foreign and domestic policy.
Whether the vast project is successful — or even desired — will be judged by voters in the 2022 congressional midterms and, two years later, in Biden’s own candidacy, assuming he runs again. But so far, it is clear that he has in many ways subverted the expectations of many people regarding what his presidency would be.
Here are the three most surprising aspects of his presidency so far:
Last week, the 78-year-old president got a robust endorsement from 31-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who wasn’t yet born when Biden first arrived in Washington. “A lot of us expected a much more conservative administration,” the progressive lawmaker said.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Biden was widely regarded as the uninspiring choice of cautious centrists who pined for an Obama-Clinton consensus. While more progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren introduced radical ideas on health care and climate change, Biden plainly broadcast that he was the establishment choice.
“Joe Biden is the Hillary Clinton of 2020 — and it won't end well this time either,” one headline from 2019 warned.
How it will end for Biden as president nobody knows, but it has begun with a left turn that few foresaw.
Trillions of dollars speak volumes when it comes to what a president truly believes. The left had much higher hopes for Barack Obama, but aside from the passage of the Affordable Care Act — no mean feat, to be sure, considering that it insured millions — he never quite managed to enact their agenda. And when his congressional margins disappeared in the 2010 midterms, those hopes went the way of the Titanic. Loss of the Senate in 2014 only ensured that Democratic expectations for Obama would be almost entirely dashed.
Ironically, Biden may have been spurred into progressive policy by Obama’s own predicament. In the early days of the Obama administration, as the nation contended with a financial collapse, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel would remind the president of Winston Churchill’s famous dictum to never waste a crisis. Obama pulled the economy out of a nosedive, but by the time his health law was passed, there simply wasn’t the will on Capitol Hill to take up another major issue, such as comprehensive immigration reform.
Now there is a different president, and a different crisis. Biden’s sudden embrace of progressive politics may be nothing more than a recognition that if not now, never. That embrace, it should be said, is far from complete. In the most fundamental of ways, Biden remains an old-school liberal, not an AOC-style radical. Notions like defunding the police are utterly hostile to him. His proposal to raise corporate taxes would return them only halfway to where they’d been when Trump took office.
But those trillions are speaking, and they may ultimately dictate how the American people view Biden’s presidency. He has already signed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus package, which includes a child tax credit that both progressives and conservatives agree could greatly reduce child poverty. His $2.3 trillion infrastructure package includes billions for the green economy and redress of racist policies in housing and other sectors.
And then there’s the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, a raft of new proposals that Biden will introduce later this week. The family plan, which is part of the broader infrastructure proposal, will outline huge expenditures on social programs that either have been whittled away over decades or have never made it off the desks of left-wing think tankers.
Conservatives have been taken aback by Biden’s progressive domestic push, and the latest fundraising emails from the GOP paint him as a close cousin of Karl Marx.
To be sure, some centrist Democrats think the spending is unnecessary and could inflate the economy, or even cause the kind of stagflation that undid Jimmy Carter.
Biden isn’t listening, though. Instead, he sees what was supposed to be a throat-clearing presidency as potentially comparable to the transformative administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
“Biden living up to his gaffe-prone reputation,” read the New York Times headline. That was in 2008, right after Obama chose the then senator from Delaware as his running mate. The accompanying article called him “a human verbal wrecking crew,” citing a list of headache-causing misstatements.
Where has that verbal wrecking crew gone? Once described by a former college classmate as “a good-looking guy with a gift of gab,” Biden appears to have been disciplined by the strictures and responsibilities of the Oval Office. He has let White House press secretary Jen Psaki do most of the talking, along with senior officials like economic adviser Brian Deese and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, among others.
Except for one unremarkable press conference with the White House press corps, Biden has stayed in the background. His tweets are boring, per official Washington style. After giving prepared remarks, he efficiently answers one or two questions — if any — from journalists. The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has thinned the ranks of journalists prowling the White House campus while also limiting Biden’s own travel. The result has been one that would likely have surprised the loquacious Sen. Biden: silence.
The right has howled at the president’s evident lack of media savvy, and charged that his limited unscripted public appearances are a sign of diminished mental acuity. But the moment may be oddly fortuitous for Biden’s unexpectedly un-Bidenesque press strategy. He needed disciplining, while the nation needed a respite from early morning tweets, South Lawn shouting matches with reporters and two-hour interviews with right-wing provocateur Rush Limbaugh.
There is little sign that the people want Biden to talk more, while he, in turn, seems perfectly fine not doing the talking. And as for the myriad lists devoted to his gaffes, they have needed far less updating than many had imagined.
Twenty years after American boots first set foot on Afghan soil in search of Osama bin Laden and his murderous adherents, they will leave for good. “It's time for American troops to come home,” Biden said in a White House address earlier this month. And they will come home by a symbolic date: Sept. 11, 2021.
Some think this could be a disaster in the making, while others believe it is long overdue. Afghanistan could become a haven for extremists once again, but it could also find the lack of American military presence a welcome reprieve. In either case, the American footprint of many years will end in a matter of months.
That Biden actually announced it was less a surprise than that he did so this early. When he was vice president, Biden argued strenuously to his then boss, Obama, not to commit more U.S. troops to the so-called graveyard of empires. Obama instead listened to Pentagon chiefs, who believed they could make progress on the ground if given the resources. Those chiefs made similar arguments to Biden, only this time the president didn’t listen.
Coming as the United States reenters tentative talks with Iran and keeps a wary eye on Russia, the Afghanistan withdrawal announcement was a clear signal that Biden — who once chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and served as point man for Obama on some international efforts — intends to conduct diplomacy on his own terms.
That may be the most surprising thing about Biden’s presidency: that a politician who has spent four decades in Washington, who has been defined by his service in the Senate and as a loyal vice president, would suddenly shatter ossified expectations about who he was and what he believed.
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