20 January 2021
Biden must be bold at home to restore credibility abroad
Instead of cautious centrism, the new president should embrace Rooseveltian radicalism
"The nightmare is nearly over”. That's a fair description of the thinking in most European capitals as President Biden is inaugurated today.
After four years that saw the US withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, walk away from the Iran Nuclear Deal, pull out of the UN Human Rights Council and abuse allies while coddling adversaries, it's an understandable reaction.
So, it is little wonder that allies are hopeful that the coming days will see the US recommit to the Paris Agreement, rejoin the World Health Organisation and engage in the COVAX initiative to distribute vaccines globally.
Of course, all of these steps would be both wise and welcome. Yet it would be a fundamental mistake to hope that the first focus of the incoming president should be on international allies. His first focus should be on the American people.
Why? Because as 2021 begins, the US remains a deeply divided country – economically, racially, and regionally. Too much that passes as political analysis begins and ends with Donald Trump. Yet he was always a symptom of America’s problems as much as he was their cause.
And the recent presidential election hasn’t actually healed America’s divisions – it has simply exposed them.
A toxic fusion of economic anger, cultural anxiety and political alienation has left millions of Americans fearful, angry, and vulnerable to lies, fake news, and conspiracy theories.
More than 10 million more Americans voted for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. Just a quarter of Republicans say they trust the 2020 result. Nearly two-thirds of Republican representatives in Congress voted to overturn the outcome of the presidential election.
There is a real risk therefore that the storming of the Capitol on 6 January (for the first time since British troops set it alight in 1812) actually marks the beginning of a new and even more dangerous chapter of the economic and cultural conflicts that have so weakened American society and democracy in recent years.
During those years, Trump, like populists across Europe, has exacerbated socio-cultural anxieties on the basis of enduring socio-economic anxiety. These political leaders have alas sought to amplify that anxiety rather than offer answers. The pandemic has, however, reminded us of the limits of a politics fuelled simply by divisive rhetoric. So it is vital that Biden’s laudable unwillingness to exploit America’s undoubted cultural divisions does not come across as complacency. The remedy for America’s ills is not simply to govern better, but to deliver more.
Instead of cautious centrism, Biden should embrace Rooseveltian radicalism.
Franklin D. Roosevelt remade the case for American democracy by saving American capitalism from its own excesses. Now “Middle-class Joe” can rebuild the American middle-class, and in so doing, rebuild America’s standing and restore faith in American democracy both at home and abroad.
A report published this week by the European Council on Foreign Relations reveals the extent to which attitudes towards America have shifted dramatically over the past four years. While most Europeans welcomed the Biden victory in November with real relief, they are still not confident in his ability to restore America’s pre-eminent leadership role on the global stage. Indeed, in a poll conducted by the ECFR across 11 European member states, the majority now have no faith in the American political system, nor in America’s ability as an ally on defense.
These attitudes can still be shifted, but only through action. As the world looks with hope and anticipation to the Biden presidency, what and how he delivers domestically will be key to restoring America’s credibility internationally,
Of course, the Senate majority is wafer thin, even after the stunning victories in Georgia, but caution is the riskiest option facing the new president. Having met Joe Biden and seen how he joined our efforts to build a global consensus in the wake of the global financial crisis, I know there is no one better equipped to try to reach across the aisle and make Washington work. His decades of service in the Senate, together with his limitless empathy, will be priceless political assets in the years ahead.
Biden has already set out plans for an immediate $1.9tn stimulus package, but that must only mark the start. In the weeks ahead, the new president must grasp the initiative and push forward a wider recovery plan ranging from investment in infrastructure to support for renewables and the transition to a net-zero economy.
Delivering income, employment and opportunity to middle-class Americans will involve more than simply protecting Social Security and Medicare.
It will involve raising taxes on the rich, raising the minimum wage, delivering affordable childcare, and bringing college and community college education back within the reach of millions of citizens.
The fastest route to restored credibility in foreign policy for the United States begins with political boldness at home. In the view of both allies and adversaries, had it not been for the pandemic, Trump might well have been re-elected. If the world continues to wonder whether in four years’ time America will once again succumb to nativism and populism, inevitably allies will hedge against that outcome.
So, when President Biden addresses the American people today, he could do worse than quote a key passage spoken by Roosevelt in his second Inaugural Address. Amidst another time of continuing economic crisis on 20 January 1957, he spoke these words:
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
That ability – to show not only that government can work, but that government can actually make people's lives better – will be the first and biggest test of the Biden presidency.
It is a test that America’s allies will be willing the new President to pass. Because reliability abroad now rests on radicalism at home.
Douglas Alexander is a Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, King's College London, and former UK Secretary of State for International Development.