February 12, 2021
In a hyperpolarized America, it’s easy to overlook our similarities – the aims and objectives that Americans share, regardless of political tint and slant.
As the Trump era fades away, something shocking is going to become clear… that the incoming administration of President Joe Biden wants to do a lot of the same things as the president he just replaced.
The form and style will differ. And like Trump, Biden probably won’t be given much breathing space by the other side. Today, nearly eight of 10 Republicans don’t trust the results of the presidential election that put Biden in the White House.
But before we talk about how President Biden won’t be all bad news – at all – for conservatives, two caveats about predicting what presidents will do…
Problem No. 1: Politicians, like governments, lie. Like clogged toilets for a plumber, lying is an occupational hazard for politicians. It’s something that happens all the time. Politicians make too many pledges to too many people, and a million genies working overtime couldn’t wish-grant them out of their hole.
To people who don’t lie for a living – that is, nonpoliticians – a broken promise is a lie. Anticipating which of President Joe Biden’s campaign promises are not going to rot into lies – that is, the pledges that he will actually implement – is the big challenge.
Problem No. 2: The new captain can’t do much to change the course of the supertanker of state. The American government’s 11 million employees will mostly carry on as usual, regardless of who’s in the White House. The president – whoever he is – has limited ability to influence spending, since around two-thirds of all federal government budget outlays are already set (for Social Security, interest payments, and other mandatory spending).
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Despite being the most powerful man in the world, the American president has very little control over his own government.
This means the new captain might be able to change the color of the paint in the mess hall and nudge the course of the ship of state a few degrees one way or the other… but that’s about it. (The good thing about this setup is that even a skipper hellbent on steering us into an iceberg can’t really do it.) Biden will have only a bit more policy and spending wiggle room than Harry Houdini had in his Chinese water-torture cell.
It’s a big if… but if President Biden lives up to a few key promises and nudges the supertanker of America a few degrees one way or the other… he just might be able to do a few things that conservatives – and maybe everyone else, too – will like.
If you’ve been a big fan of the outgoing president… you can expect to see President Biden pick up the baton on a couple of President Trump’s efforts. For example, it was Trump who called for $2,000 stimulus checks in December, rather than the $600 that Congress had agreed upon. Watch for a renewed effort there…
Similarly, Operation Warp Speed and the role it played in helping develop a COVID-19 vaccine in record time should always be remembered as a key achievement of the Trump administration… And Biden’s pledge to inoculate 100 million Americans in his first 100 days in office is the logical outgrowth of that effort.
And of course, the next administration’s interest in infrastructure spending to boost jobs and restore our roads and railways should sound familiar, too.
Let’s get on with the three reasons that even conservatives will love Biden…
Reason No. 1: Biden Will Reclaim America’s Role in the Free World
On the global stage, the United States has become a loner bully. Under Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign relations, the U.S. ignored or abandoned long-held multilateral commitments, like NATO, the Treaty on Open Skies for arms control, and the World Health Organization. It adopted a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately approach to economic, diplomatic, and military relations with long-time allies around the world.
And in so doing, the U.S. has retreated from its longtime role as the grownup in the room – ceding it to China or, more often, no one at all.
As Biden wrote in a spring 2020 in Foreign Affairs magazine about his plans to revive U.S. foreign policy…
The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats… For 70 years, the United States… played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations and advance collective security and prosperity—until Trump.
The task ahead, Biden says, is to “salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership, and mobilize our country and our allies to rapidly meet new challenges.”
Let’s not forget… in the seven or so decades before Donald Trump, American leadership in the world was a given – regardless of domestic politics. From Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, Republican presidents have made defending American values around the world a cornerstone of foreign policy.
And fighting the Cold War wasn’t a go-it-alone mission… NATO and an alphabet soup of other organizations and alliances bolstered the American effort to defeat Soviet communism.
How effective was it? Just ask one of America’s chief rivals – Vladimir Putin. During his 20-plus years in power, the Russian president has done everything he can to splinter NATO to damage the enduring U.S.-Europe alliance – which has helped create what by some measures has been the longest period of global peace in many centuries. And Biden will stand up for America again.
Will he be able to do it? Perhaps. But he has work to do… The U.S. over the past four years has proven that it’s not a reliable friend. The broken alliances and trampled traditions of the Trump government won’t be forgotten.
No matter how much President Biden smiles, the rest of the world won’t forget that America is a few thousand swing-state voters away from once again walking away from our commitments and antagonizing our supposed allies.
Biden can try to reclaim America’s throne… But it will take more than a few nice words at the next NATO summit.
Reason No. 2: Biden Will Embrace Realism
Donald Trump was right to recognize China as an urgent threat to the U.S. – economically, geopolitically, militarily, and technologically. And he was correct to meet the threat head-on, in contrast to the failed “let’s work with them” approach of his presidential predecessors.
So Biden will need to rip a page from the first Cold War and accept that the globe is split into spheres of influence.
This means that the influence of China or Russia is going to be paramount in some parts of the world – where the U.S. will have to look the other way and accept authoritarianism.
One of the big reasons that the United States and the Soviet Union didn’t go to war is that both accepted that some parts of the world were off-limits to each other. Eastern Europe was the back yard of the USSR… and Western Europe was America’s domain. That was the price of peace in a nuclear world.
As political scientist Graham Allison explains…
American presidents faced repeated crises [during the Cold War] in which they had to choose between sending troops into Soviet-dominated nations to support freedom fighters seeking to exercise rights that the American creed declares universal and standing by as those freedom fighters were slaughtered or suppressed. Without exception, U.S. presidents chose to watch instead of intervene.
Even since the end of the Cold War, this has long been a fact of global diplomacy – (pre-Trump) rhetoric about spreading democracy notwithstanding. Russia has had its way in the country of Georgia (which it invaded in 2008) and Crimea (annexed by force from Ukraine in 2014) and with the ongoing war in Syria – all which the United States has responded to with squawks of disapproval but little else.
Similarly, China erased democracy in Hong Kong last year, and the brutal Uighur “re-education camps” in northwest China have provoked outrage – which, along with a crisp $5 bill, will get you a grande cappuccino at Starbucks… and is of zero use for the people under China’s steel boot.
If one day Russian President Vladimir Putin gets hungry for a piece of the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan, the response would be a lot of diplomatic huffing and puffing but not much else. If Chinese President Xi Jinping decides to cement his legacy by reclaiming Taiwan, would the U.S. move any muscle other than those that form a frown?
As Allison explains, “The South China Sea is likely to become more like the Caribbean than the Mediterranean – that is, China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia will be as beholden to China as Latin Americans have been to [the U.S.].”
The South China Sea is a vital global shipping lane. Its shores wash up on some of the world’s most dynamic economies – those that are the heart of the so-called Pacific Century. Letting China claim the entire region as its private playground, in geopolitical terms, is a big admission of the limits of American power.
Though Trump didn’t describe his foreign policy in this way, it was the approach his administration took. And it’s the only one that makes sense for President Biden. And for conservatives anxious about America getting sucked into the quicksand in faraway swamps, that’s worth cheering.
Reason No. 3: Biden Will Welcome Smart Foreigners (and That’s Good)
For decades, America has been a magnet for the world’s smartest people. They’re drawn to the openness and freedom of the American way of life, the “anyone can make it here” nature of economic opportunity, the high quality of life, the melting-pot culture… as well as the network effect of America having the brightest scientists and the best research universities and biggest companies that make it a hotbed of technology and innovation.
Nearly two out of every five people in Silicon Valley were born outside the United States. According to bipartisan immigration think tank New American Economy, as of 2018, about 44% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or the child of immigrants. The CEOs of Microsoft (MSFT) and Alphabet (GOOGL) were born abroad… as well as one of the founders of Alphabet.
But those smart people – future immigrants who could help keep the United States at the forefront of innovation and technology – will go elsewhere if they don’t think the U.S. is an attractive destination… or if the anti-immigration policies of the Trump government aren’t erased and replaced.
Biden will likely make a priority of creating a pathway to U.S. citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are living in the country now. The new government will likely remove Trump’s travel bans on travelers from 13 countries that are mostly either majority-Muslim or African. And President Biden will reform the H-1B visa program that allows U.S. employers to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations, which Trump had slashed.
Is this good for America? There’s nothing more blue-and-red blooded American than the promise of the Statue of Liberty. Without the brainpower of foreigners – and the policies to attract them – it will be that much harder to maintain the dynamism of the American economy and the richness of a culture that’s a mishmash of immigrants from everywhere… which is how it’s always been.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Ronald Reagan…
In 1981, the Gipper opened his “Statement on the United States Immigration and Refugee Policy” like this: “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.”
And it’s worth noting, Reagan’s third bullet point observed that “Illegal immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our work force. Those who have established equities in the United States should be recognized and accorded legal status.”
But Wait: What President Biden Isn’t Going to Do…
There’s also lots for conservatives to like about what President Biden isn’t going to do… whether it’s because he can’t (see Problem No. 2 at the top)… or because he lied (see Problem No. 1 above).
Though he hasn’t said he would, in any case Biden is not going to “drain the swamp,” to borrow Trump’s phrase. Biden grew up in the swamp of American politics – trying to kill his natural habitat would be like a normal (nonpolitician) pledging to, say, stop breathing: It’s unnatural and impossible.
Under President Biden, the Second Amendment will remain unfettered. Around 57% of Americans are in favor of some form of gun control. But even the most modest interpretation (say, banning assault weapons) won’t get far, due to the continued strength of the gun lobby.
Joe Biden – regardless of pressure from the progressive wing of the Democratic party – isn’t going to bring socialism to America… since it’s already here.
Biden won’t be able to save the U.S. dollar from the terminal decline that stems in part from America’s astronomical debt… not even a nerdy economist version of a Marvel superhero gang could. The U.S. dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency isn’t ending tomorrow – but its long, slow decline will continue under President Biden.
Biden was elected president as a cross between an all-you-can-eat buffet (where even the pickiest eater can find something that appeals) and a beige Honda Odyssey minivan (bland, durable, and practical… with lots of cup holders). He’s not built for bold.
That’s just as well, since a deeply polarized electorate didn’t give the Democratic party a strong mandate in a closely contested election. And it wouldn’t do anything to bridge the gap with alienated Republicans.
But that gap might be smaller than they think… Let’s hope so.
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Executive Editor, American Consequences
With Editorial Staff
February 12, 2021