Biden balls and strikes
When I talk or write about politics, it’s my job to call balls and strikes. Not to tell you what you want to hear or provoke you to grab your attention. The obligation I’ve given myself is to think analytically, do my best to ignore ideology, listen carefully to and respect other points of view, and then call them as I see them. Nobody likes the umpires, but without them no one wins.
So, let’s talk about Joe Biden.
Some believe that it’s dangerous to criticize him, that saying anything that undermines Biden will summon the demon Trump. Yes, Donald Trump was plainly unfit to serve as president of anything larger than a Donald Trump fan club, and yet he might be back in 2024. He’s working on it, and he’s building alliances with state-level Republicans to make that happen. We can all see that.
But I don’t accept the premise that America stands of the verge of tyranny. Not because Trump wouldn’t be glad to provide it, but because US courts and the US military won’t play along. And if the desire to keep Trump from power means we can’t talk honestly about Joe Biden, then we’ve failed to understand what’s really gone wrong in the United States. Trump is not the disease ailing the nation. He’s a dangerous symptom of the disease of “inequality of opportunity” in America. It’s an inequality that’s bad for the non-white citizens that become more important for the Democratic Party every year, but also for the working-class white people, particularly those from the industrial belt, that have drifted away from Democrats in recent elections.
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If we’re going to take on that problem, we can’t treat one imperfect party as the necessary antidote to the other. We have to press both parties to recognize the true problem and do something about it.
That leads me to what I think is most encouraging about Biden. If America’s middle- and working-class people – of all races – are to be given the boost they need to feel they have an ownership stake in America’s future, our political leaders better start rewriting the social contract. That means giving people real confidence that government can provide and protect opportunities for as many Americans as possible.
That’s the importance of Biden’s “infrastructure plans,” which I believe will pass both houses in slimmed down form. They won’t be a New Deal, but they are a big deal, because they give people who believe government doesn’t care about them the means to come much closer to their potential. And that’s good for the whole country, because it’s the only one to ease the partisan bitterness and seething anger that is poisoning American politics.
Let’s not pretend there won’t be waste. This is the US government we’re talking about, and the sheer size of these projects will make it easier for those who want to score political points to find hundreds of stories of senseless spending. That misses the point. To get the American economic engine firing on all cylinders there needs to be a major investment in the nation’s physical infrastructure – roads, bridges, port facilities, broadband, clean energy, and more. But we also better invest in equality of opportunity for tens of millions more Americans, Republicans and Democrats, by making housing, education, job training and health care more accessible and more affordable. As soon as possible.
The construction site for the “Signature Bridge” in Miami, Florida.(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
More people with a stake in American success means fewer people willing to tear America down to win a partisan fistfight.
Here, Joe Biden deserves credit. If these investments are made, even if the final package is much smaller than progressive Democrats want, it’s in part because the president knows this is the most important goal his administration can accomplish. I think these projects will become law, one way or another, because the Biden administration has given this plan the focus and flexibility it needs to pass a deeply divided Congress. And though progressive and moderate Democrats agree on many things, there is still consensus within the party that something is better than nothing.
Biden also deserves credit for getting serious about vaccination. In the United States, the new president inherited both Republicans fighting the push for vaccination and COVID’s more contagious Delta variant. The vaccine mandate for Federal employees should have come sooner, but Biden deserves credit for pulling the trigger.
On foreign policy, he deserves credit for seizing the chance to use vaccines as a way of pushing back against China’s muscle-flexing in Asia. The so-called pivot to Asia, which Obama talked about but never accomplished, is finally happening under Biden. The Quad security alliance with Japan, India and Australia will vaccinate a lot of people across that region as the US provides vaccines, Japan comes up with financing, India lends the production capacity, and Australia boosts logistics. That will accomplish save lives and achieve foreign policy goals in pushing back against China’s expanding influence across the region.
But… and here’s where some of you will get mad at me… we also have to hold Biden accountable for some egregious failures of leadership. I’ve already written my take on the Afghanistan withdrawal fiasco. The worst part of that was the abject failure to work with the allies that had been at our side since 9/11. In fact, that’s the biggest problem with Joe Biden’s leadership – he doesn’t listen to the allies. The Quad is important, but the US has much deeper and better-established relationships with the Europeans. American strength depends on smart cooperation with countries that share our values, our interests, and especially those that share both. Instead, Biden is offering a rebranded form of the unilateralism that every post-Cold War US president has too often pursued.
A monitor displaying a virtual meeting with leaders from the the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) countries.(Kiyoshi Ota/AFP via Getty Images)
For example, the US doesn’t have all the answers on how best to respond to China’s expanding influence. Listening to European views and allowing space for other to lead in areas where others are better placed is an expression of strength, not weakness. We might have expected Biden, a former vice president, to understand that.
He’s also failed to even begin to face up to the many problems at the US southern border. It’s hardly a surprise that the end of Trump would send would-be asylum seekers scrambling to enter the US before Trump (or a future Trumpista) wins power and starts talking again about walls. Border detentions are now at a 21-year high. But the predictability of this latest crisis makes it that much harder to understand why the Biden administration seems so utterly unprepared for the latest surge of desperate people.
In short, nine months into his presidency, President Biden has shown himself both capable of acting on America’s greatest needs and short on the forceful leadership needed to become a more effective president.
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