Politics casts two kinds of leaders. There are those who are still looking for an umbrella and others, much less numerous, who have decided to change the weather. Western democracies have recently boasted of an overabundance of politicians sheltered from the storm.
Youth and energy are meant to be synonymous. But it seems the task of rediscovering the agency’s power lies with the 78-year-old man who moved into the White House. Still short of his first 100 days in office, Joe Biden has already shown that government can make a difference.
The history of the West has become that of democracies at the mercy of what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan has called “events”. The global financial crash, the rise of China, Russian military adventurism, populist insurgencies and more recently Covid-19 – have all prompted defensive responses. Ambition has been replaced by damage limitation. And then the politicians wonder why the voters lost their faith.
Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 promised to mark a pause. It turned out that presidential daring did not match hope. How strange then that it is Biden, his barely visible stalwart Vice President, who now harnesses the energy and determination that has often eluded Obama.
It was not in the scenario of last year’s election. Former President Donald Trump nicknamed his opponent “Sleepy Joe”, mocking his opponent’s age and linguistic grunts. Many of those cheering for Biden from the sidelines had their own concerns. Biden’s designated role was narrowly defined: defeating Trump, restoring some integrity to American democracy, and rebuilding old alliances. A return to normality would suffice.
Instead, we’ve seen the most ambitious economic expansion program since Lyndon Johnson’s Big Society of the 1960s. Biden wants the $ 1.9 billion economic stimulus bill already passed by Congress to be followed by an infrastructure and education package that could be worth $ 3 billion. Comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal seem anything but fanciful.
Incredibly large sums of money are only part of the story. The real meaning, symbolized by a new federal allowance to reduce child poverty, lies in a bold reaffirmation of government responsibilities. “There is so much we can do,” Biden said at his first White House press conference, nailing the coffin on the swim or sink permit.
Skeptics might say Biden has only capitalized on the Covid ‘moment’. The devastation wrought by the pandemic allayed fears about the “big” government. It is true that the president seized a moment. The goal, however, is anything but fleeting. This amounts to a fundamental rebalancing of the market economy.
Ironically, Europeans, long cheerleaders for gentler capitalism, have the most to learn. The defensive incrementalism of the recent past has had no truer champion than Europe’s most powerful leader, Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor’s political approach has been to drain her of her energy.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been the only one to challenge the status quo – and has been upset at every turn by Berlin. Granted, Merkel agreed to a € 750 billion Covid turnaround fund, but in terms of scale and timing, that doesn’t go against Biden’s plans. Germany still walks under the banner of fiscal fundamentalism. Even with much of Europe still shut down by the pandemic, Berlin insists the euro zone’s pounds must be balanced. Never mind that low growth, precarious employment and stagnant incomes provide rich raw material for populist politics of grievance.
There is no guarantee that Biden will succeed. The divisions in American society run deep. Trump is still stalking a Republican party in the embrace of identity politics. As with Roosevelt’s New Deal, the rich will fight against proposed tax increases. And stacking such fiscal expansion on a historically loose monetary policy will certainly come with risks.
Biden’s boldness, however, must be measured against the dismal results of the politics of inaction. Democracy is under siege because its elites have left free markets to err on the postwar social contract, leaving voters trapped in a deadly equilibrium of low growth and growing inequality.
Liberals keep asking how to deal with the threat of autocrats around the world. Whatever the eventual fate of his experience, Biden found the answer. Democracy flourishes when the system works for everyone.