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Make America work again
Written by Alex Massie
29 April 2021
Even times of emergency and crisis have their consolations and sometimes these are best appreciated by contemplating the things that no longer warrant your attention. If you are an extremely online person – by which I mean a person who spends more time online, and especially on social media, than is good for you – I think it possible you too have found 2021 a significant upgrade upon its predecessor. For, if nothing else, Donald Trump is no longer with us.
The former president no longer pollutes your timeline and it is striking to discover that even infamy does not have the half-life it used to. How fast we forget; how quickly we consign yesterday’s embarrassments to the furthest recesses of our collective memory, there to lurk and gather dust undisturbed. How soon, this is to say, we treat the past four years as though it was all some kind of dream. We are all Bobby Ewing and we have all spent a long time in the shower.
All of which is a means of noting that the single best thing about Joe Biden is that on any given day you have no reason to think about him at all. He does not intrude and nor does he trespass upon your peace of mind. Sleepy Joe runs quietly and that is much more than enough to recommend him. He is out there and his administration is doubtless doing plenty but there is little need to obsess over it. Even the BBC, long obsessed with the American political carnival, has realised few people thirst for an hour-by-hour account of the Biden administration.
If this were Biden’s sole achievement then the initial 100 days of his improbable presidency could be considered a grand success. Normalcy is a tonic, not something dreary or banal. Few folk have ever truly been excited by Joe Biden but this too is a strength in the present circumstances, not a flaw. A president who rarely crosses your mind is a president to lift your spirits.
And yet, as always, there is so much that needs to be done. Trump’s failures unwittingly both emboldened and legitimised the Democratic party’s policy agenda. Opposition politics is always a response to the agenda set by the incumbent and if Trump had been interested in – or capable of – pursuing a coherent worldview, Democrats would not have been so free to create their own policy wishlist, much of it independent of Trump’s own record. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum and a presidency uninterested in doing things is all but bound to be succeeded by one granted the authority to make up for lost time.
There is plenty of that to go around and Biden’s administration has four years in which to do eight years work. That is evident from a first 100 days – a meaningless milestone in the grander scheme of matters but one endowed with a spurious significance since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first administration – that have been busier than might have been expected. Course correction takes time and there is never too much of it in the first place.
Hence the urgency with which Biden has acted: 41 executive orders are a declaration of intent, but even these pale when set beside a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan only partially spawned by the exigencies of the pandemic and a $2.3 jobs and infrastructure plan that expands the definition of infrastructure to include human capital as well as the more traditional roads and bridges associated with the term. Here again, there is a strong case to be made that Washington is finally playing catch-up following too many years of piecemeal progress where there was, indeed, progress at all.
Republicans decry this as “socialism” and by their own terms perhaps it is, even if no-one with any experience of actual socialism would recognise it as such. But America’s crumbling infrastructure – often second world at best – requires attention and the pandemic provides cover for sweeping gestures that might otherwise prove impossible to pass. This is not the moment for “bipartisanship” if bipartisanship simply means stasis.
Not every country enjoys the wherewithal to follow a ‘buy now, pay later’ approach but since the United States does, it might as well take advantage of its opportunities of scale. If that requires tax increases on the wealthiest one per cent then so be it; such indignities have been endured before and the republic did not fall.
In terms of foreign policy, too, Biden has offered a brisk reset. Vladimir Putin is a “killer” put on some measure of notice and the United States will at long, long last, quit a mission to Afghanistan that can no longer justify itself. Most significantly of all, the United States now recognises the gravity of the environmental challenge facing the planet. Appointing John Kerry to lead America’s climate change unit was a singular declaration of intent.
Trump’s presidency demonstrated that the United States is still the world’s indispensable nation. It did so, however, by showing how little can be achieved if the US is not willing to play a part or offer the leadership much of the world still looks to it to provide. The existence of the positive was proved by the presence of its negative. Once more, that emptiness has offered Biden an opportunity.
If Republicans dislike all of this they might do better to reflect upon the reasons for their own disappointment. Biden is given licence to act by Republicans’ past unwillingness to do so and the GOP is the principal author of its own discomfort. There is a lesson there for other governments too. If you do not use the ball when you have it, do not be surprised if your opponents take advantage of your wasted time and effort when they have the chance to do so.
In due course Biden will doubtless disappoint, for that is the nature of political life. There will be failures aplenty in the next four years. Less will be achieved than would be ideal and Biden’s administration will leave a legacy of missteps requiring correction by its successor. This too is the way the system is supposed to work. But the world has missed an engaged America and it is useful and even cheering to have it back. Even if that also means you need not devote too much time to thinking – or worrying – about the United States.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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