Donald Trump was fond of calling his Democrat opponent ‘sleepy Joe’ but the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency have been anything but lethargic.
Since his inauguration in January, held with Washington patrolled by 20,000 troops and looking like a war zone, President Biden has set about re-engineering US strategy domestically and internationally with astonishing speed and zeal.
For the US establishment, a revamp was undoubtedly much needed. Globally, the USA’s pre-eminence is under threat from China’s relentless economic growth, the drain on its resources from the ‘forever wars’, the European Union’s increasing propensity to act unilaterally and the growing climate change crisis. Domestically, Biden faces a batch of potentially destabilising issues, including the world’s third worst COVID-19 death rate, an upsurge in white supremacist activity and deepening economic inequality, accelerated by Trump’s regressive tax cuts.
The energy with which the White House has begun to tackle these challenges is not, of course, the doing of its elderly occupant. Biden is merely the front man for a ready-made team drawn from the Washington political elite, most of whom have served in previous Democrat administrations.
Foremost among them are secretary of state Anthony Blinken, who was Hillary Clinton’s deputy under Obama, and Treasury secretary Janet Yellen, who chaired president Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and was appointed by Barack Obama as chair of the Federal Reserve.
Biden’s selection of a cabinet packed with veteran centrists appeared to confirm fears on the left that he meant what he said when he promised rich donors early in his presidential campaign that ‘nothing will fundamentally change’.
But, confronted by so many problems, centrists have realised that some things have to change – after all, an elite that is unable to sustain hegemony internally is in no position to defend it internationally.
Concern in Washington circles about the threats facing capitalism is reflected in a warning from the International Monetary Fund in April that the exacerbation of inequalities by Covid-19 may lead to “polarization, erosion of trust in government or social unrest” and “pose risks to macroeconomic stability and the functioning of society.”[i]
Those concerns have shaped much of Biden’s early agenda and rhetoric. He frequently says “Wall Street didn’t build America” and that he will deliver “shots in arms, money in pockets”.
And the money has indeed come thick and fast: under the £1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, 127 million people had by the end of March been sent cheques – typically $1,400 per person – and billions had been allocated to prevent home repossessions, evictions, small business failures and public sector job cuts.[ii]
That was followed by the announcement of a longer term $3 trillion American Jobs Plan that will renew the country’s electricity grid and water system, pay for new buses and rolling stock, modernise 20,000 miles of highways, invest in schools and hospitals, retrofit two million homes to make them energy efficient and connect everyone to high-speed broadband.[iii]
The sums are eye-watering but progressive members of Congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are arguing for a much more ambitious $10 trillion, ten-year plan, saying: “We need to understand we are in a devastating economic moment, millions of people are without jobs, we have a truly crippled healthcare system and a planetary crisis on our hands, and we are the wealthiest country in the history of the world.”[iv]
However, one point on which there is no disagreement between the left and the White House is on the need for jobs to be unionised. Biden surprised and alarmed big business by including in his jobs plan a commitment to “ensuring workers have a free and fair choice to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively with their employers” and that “American taxpayers’ dollars benefit working families and their communities, and not multinational corporations or foreign governments.”[v]
Union-backed legislation to protect the right to organise was adopted by 225 to 206 in the House of representatives in March, but it is unlikely to get through the Senate where the Democrats rely on the casting vote of vice-president Kamala Harris and Republicans are certain to use the filibuster[vi], which requires a 60:40 vote to over-turn.
By making the right to organise integral to his jobs plan, Biden could get around that problem because budgetary measures go through what’s known as a reconciliation process that has a 20-hour limit to the filibuster. A similar move to include a $15 minimum wage in the rescue plan fell foul of a legal ruling that it wasn’t strictly a budgetary matter, and therefore subject to the filibuster, but the left argue that Harris could have challenged that and will no doubt push hard next time for union rights not to be dropped.
Biden’s other high-profile piece of legislation, the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, was passed by 220 to 212 in the House but is not in a spending plan and is likely to run into a brick wall in the Senate. As it stands, it would ban the use of chokeholds, remove “qualified immunity” for law enforcement officials, scrap ‘no-knock’ warrants, mandate data collection on police encounters, prohibit racial and religious profiling and redirect funding to community-based policing programs.
This piece of domestic legislation, above all the others, highlights a virtually intractable problem facing those in US ruling circles who want to stabilise the country socially and politically: they are up against resistance from a large portion of their own class who can block change not only in the Senate but also through their dominance of the judiciary and much of the coercive structure of the state.
The US locks up far more people per capita than any other country in the world. The 2.3 million held in more than 7,000 prisons and detention facilities equate to 698 per 100,000 of the population, well ahead of other comparable countries such as Russia (413), Brazil (325) and England/Wales (141).[vii] Of those incarcerated in the US, 40% are African Americans – three times more than their proportion of the population.
Against this background, it’s not surprising that high-profile incidents like the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year have become symbols of systemic racism and a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement.
But in many US police forces far right attitudes are deeply rooted. The Fraternal Order of Police, with 355,000 members, endorsed Trump. Their statement on the storming of the Capitol in January described it as “heart-breaking” but didn’t condemn it outright. Their Chicago president, John Cantanzara, said the protestors were only “voicing frustration” and that he would remain convinced “for the rest of his life” that “something shitty happened in this election”.[viii]
The problem with the police is compounded by a judiciary that successive Republican presidents have stacked with conservatives. This means that district courts often act to thwart progressive measures – as has happened recently with moratoriums on evictions and deportations – and to uphold racist voter suppression measures enacted by state legislatures.
Biden has a popular mandate for change and those around him appear to understand that a society so poisoned by racism is ultimately doomed, never mind credible as a ‘beacon of democracy’.
This article also appears in the quarterly magazine, Socialist Correspondent.
Steve is author of Game Changer, an insider’s account of Labour’s dramatic 2017 election campaign, and two novels – the latest of which is Collateral Damage, the story of a Palestinian woman’s search for the truth about the death of a fellow activist.
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[i] ‘IMF calls for tax hikes on wealthy to reduce income gap’, Guardian, 1.4.21.
[ii] ‘FACT SHEET: The American Rescue Plan Will Deliver Immediate Economic Relief to Families’, US Treasury, 18.3.21.
[iii] ‘FACT SHEET: The American Jobs Plan’, The White House, 31.3.21.
[iv] AOC interview with Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, 1.4.21.
[v] ‘FACT SHEET: The American Jobs Plan’, The White House, 31.3.21.
[vi] Filibuster is the tactic of Senators speaking at length until time has run out for debate on a piece of legislation. For more, see: ‘What is the U.S. Senate filibuster and why is everyone talking about it?’ Reuters, 17.3.21.
[vii] Source: Prison Policy Initiative. Some states – such as Oklahoma (1,079), Louisiana (1,052), Mississippi (1,039) and Georgia (970) – have staggeringly high levels of incarceration.
[viii] Interview with Chip Mitchell, WBEZ Radio, Chicago, 7.1.21.