Unexpected radicalism and false promises – How the Biden presidency stacks up so far

Joe Biden took office as president in January this year promising and proclaiming national unification, the elimination of American fault lines, and American unity. No president has ever received as many votes, as many democratic votes, as the former vice-president from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. Biden’s popularity has now plummeted dramatically, with recent months marked by foreign policy and border security failures, a raging COVID epidemic and soaring inflation. The promise of moderate politics has been replaced by a series of gestures to the radical left wing of the Democratic Party, and the Biden administration’s promises to stop the COVID epidemic have largely gone unfulfilled. In this opinion piece, we review the last 10 months of Joe Biden’s presidency and outline possible scenarios for the future.

Foreign policy

Joe Biden has called for a return to stability and a liberal international order to counter Trump’s “unpredictable and chaotic foreign policy that weakened the Western alliance.” Among other things, this included a return to the Paris Climate Accords and a renewed commitment to NATO. By contrast, there has been no substantial change in the protectionist trade policy announced by Donald Trump (and much criticized in the past), with the Biden administration maintaining almost all the tariffs imposed by his predecessor.

Tariffs and a trade war remain key elements in the US toolbox against China.

The most important foreign policy move of the Biden administration was undoubtedly the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Although the scenario for withdrawal was set out in the Doha Agreement concluded by the Trump administration, the new president made significant changes to the timing of the withdrawal. The manner of the August withdrawal has been criticized, in particular for the unexpected speed of the Taliban advance, the inadequate preparation for civilian rescues, and the seizure of significant military assets by the Taliban.

The footage made public caused a significant loss of face for US leadership, with Joe Biden’s approval rating falling to 43% by the beginning of September, not much higher than that of his predecessor Donald Trump over the same period.

In both rhetoric and policy, Joe Biden has continued the belligerent China policy started by his predecessor. The tariffs imposed by the Trump administration remain in place. The president has condemned the Chinese state’s actions against the Uyghurs and made clear in a speech that the US would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. He also launched an exercise to identify the most vulnerable supply chains of Chinese origin to the US, signaling that the new administration has begun to prepare for possible contingency scenarios. 

From Israel’s point of view, the Biden administration’s actions present a very mixed picture. Although the president is a self-professed Zionist and supports (military) aid to Israel, he does not support the establishment of settlements in Judea and Samaria, unlike the Trump administration, and has revived diplomatic relations with the Palestinian National Authority. In addition, the new administration is committed to reopening the US consulate in Arab-majority East Jerusalem, a move strongly opposed by the Israeli government.

It is also worth mentioning that the United States, under the Biden presidency, has returned to the UN Human Rights Council, which is very biased against Israel and thus may be a cause for concern for the leadership of the Jewish state.

Economic policy

The Biden administration made no secret of its Roosevelt ambitions upon setting out to implement its economic policy agenda. The Build Back Better agenda included (and still includes) unprecedented levels of extra public spending; added to this is the American Rescue Plan announced at the beginning of the Biden presidency, which allocated no less than USD 1.9 trillion to mitigate the effects of the COVID crisis. Together, the US has spent some USD 5.6 trillion on stimulating the economy since March 2020. By comparison, the US debt at the beginning of the crisis was around USD 23 trillion, equivalent to 108% of GDP at the time.

Thanks to these measures, US public debt is now 125% of GDP.

The other biggest spending item of the Biden presidency was the infrastructure package signed in November. The package was adopted by bipartisan agreement and includes some  USD 550 billion of additional spending over 10 years, with a focus on essential infrastructure (roads, bridges, energy infrastructure, railways, etc.). Also, a big item is the Build Back Better (BBB) package, adopted in mid-November, which represents an additional expenditure of some USD 2.2 trillion over 10 years. The BBB has created much bigger political storms, as it strongly reflects the left-wing preferences of the Democrats (495 billion for climate protection, 273 billion for childcare assistance, free daycare, housing programs, etc.).

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the programs announced so far alone will add about USD 7 trillion to the US national debt over the next decade. All this will be financed in large part by tax increases (corporate income tax, income tax, capital gains tax, etc.). At this stage, it is still questionable to what extent the envisaged tax increases will cover the announced massive public spending from the revenue side. Spending not financed by tax increases is largely financed by the central bank (“printing money”), which leads to higher inflation. October’s inflation figure (6.2%) is the highest since 1990 and the announced stimulus increase could keep inflation high for a long time.

In sum, the Biden administration’s economic agenda is based on a highly unhealthy duality of tax-and-spend and monetary financing. The unprecedented extra spending is only partially financed by the highly damaging extra taxes, while the central bank financing of the remaining items will result in markedly high inflation.

Overall, the crowding out of private investment through fiscal spending, the lower propensity to save due to rising inflation, and the increase in public investment and direct aid with dubious returns, pose serious fiscal and economic sustainability risks for the US.

COVID

The US has not managed to avoid another wave of the coronavirus epidemic under Joe Biden’s presidency. In September this year, the number of new infections rose again to a seven-day average of over 150,000 people per day. The trend in the number of new infections has been mirrored by the trend in deaths. A very big achievement of the administration is that the overall vaccination rate has risen from 7% at the end of February to almost 60% now. This exceeds the overall vaccination rate in Europe (54%). Among other protective measures, the Biden administration has made vaccination compulsory for companies with more than 100 employees and healthcare workers. Several states have taken these measures to court.

Several members of the US public have criticized the politicization of the fight against the virus. Based on available data, these concerns are unfortunately valid. In states voting for Donald Trump in 2020, the vaccination rate is on average 12% lower than in states voting for Biden. Empirical evidence also suggests that a state’s political preference is a significant determining factor for the number of deaths per capita.

The options for the federal government are very limited due to the federal structure and the different willingness of states to vaccinate; the polarized political climate makes it very difficult to control the virus.

Border protection and crime

The Biden administration has also been (and continues to be) seriously challenged by the unfolding migration crisis at the Mexican border.

In July 2021, the number of attempted border crossings rose to a 21-year high, with around 200,000 immigrants attempting to enter the United States.

As a result of the government’s decisions, the rate of direct refoulement has dropped significantly, with a much higher proportion of immigrants detained by US authorities. The decision has been widely criticized, for example, because of the public health risks. In addition, the composition of the immigrant population has also changed significantly. The proportion of families and people from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) has fallen significantly, while the proportion of Mexicans and single adults (mostly men) has increased substantially. This phenomenon has been explained by some as a result of encouraging statements on migration by the administration, which have led to a shift away from families who are actually fleeing to Mexicans who are coming to the United States in search of a better life.

Crime statistics show a mixed picture. While the dramatic rise in homicides and violent crimes that started in 2020 continued in 2021, the number of sexual assaults, robberies and other crimes against property decreased.

One cause for concern is the significant increase in the number of police officers voluntarily retiring and leaving police forces as a result of the events of the past year.

The worsening murder statistics have already caught the attention of the White House. It is easy to imagine that crime statistics will be a major issue in next year’s congressional elections.

Summary

Joe Biden proved to be a great promise to many when he took office. His promise of national unification and common sense politics was able to sway large numbers of undecided voters to Biden’s side in the 2020 contest. The situation has now changed significantly for the Democratic president. The fiasco in Afghanistan, the price hikes resulting from massive government spending, and the migration crisis at the southern border have eroded the president’s support significantly.

According to bookies, in a hypothetical 2024 Joe Biden – Donald Trump election, the latter candidate would win.

The accumulated discontent with the administration is likely to be reflected in next year’s congressional elections. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate could well end up in Republican hands. Such a turnaround would significantly narrow the options for the Biden administration, so the president’s grand plans will presumably be pursued in the coming year, with further giga-packages expected.

The Biden administration has replaced the politics of moderation with the politics of the radical left in his party, and the politics of common sense has been replaced by militant ideologies.

This is not what voters were promised last November, and their discontent will surely be voiced next fall and in the 2024 elections.

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