Joe Biden is not boring enough. And because of media narratives to the contrary, that’s too often overlooked. Biden, an old, white man, who doesn’t obviously stand for immediate, radical, destructive change, is caricatured as a dull and blunted force of continuity capitalism. Not only is that unfair, it’s also substantially untrue.
In fact, Biden has staked his reputation on a set of radical, risky, and potentially reckless decisions. In doing so, Biden marks himself as one of a number of Presidents determined to personalise their term in office.
Take the past three Presidents. With Trump, everything was about Trump — his personality, his legitimacy to govern, his views on immigration, his policies on China, Russia, and North Korea. So divisive was the man that politics itself became millenarian. With Trump, you were either for him or against him — because it is impossible to compromise in a battle between God and the devil. Put simply, when Trump was in office, the only notable fact about American politics was that Trump was in office — all other political issues faded beneath his shadow.
For the eight years prior, the same maxim held true about Obama. In this case, worryingly so. That a black man could make it to the Presidency was an important indicator of how far America had come. But his lack of concrete policy success was an indicator of how far it still had to go. The central fact of these eight years was that Obama wanted to ambitiously reshape America, but obstinate Republicans wouldn’t let him. Here, the absence of coherent legacy was not for lack of want – on the contrary, it was a conscious act of denial, by a Republican party still caught up in the tricky legacy of racialised politics.
Perhaps with Bush Jr., the ruthless selfishness of personalising a Presidency becomes most obvious. An old, stale, and grey Texan, whose most notable characteristic was that he just happened to be the son of a previous President — it’s easy to forget quite how unmemorable he must have been before September 2001. For Bush Jr., it was 9/11 that intervened. Somewhat cynically, I would argue, Bush Jr. defined 9/11 as an abstract attack on America — one that required retaliation. Masquerading as a war leader, in a phoney war against the abstract idea of ‘terror’, Bush Jr. cost America respect, fiscal strength and human lives. That he did so is a despicable example of the moral hollowness of the modern requirement for US Presidents to leave behind a legacy.
Yet, even to compare Biden to his immediate predecessors would be to mischaracterise him. Because Biden is far less boring than any of them. Biden is a change-maker in a far more meaningful and consequential way. Unlike his predecessors, who have generally stuck to debates about the representation of America — whether to let in migrants, or whether to stand against terror, or invade this or that country — Biden is trying to change its underlying economic structure. To use terms popularised by Marx, for the past twenty or so years, Presidents obsessed with personal legacy have attempted to alter the “superstructure” of America. They’ve tried to change what America means on a political level. Biden, more radically, is attempting to change its “base” — or the economic system which provides the context for America’s power, politics and geostrategic pre-eminence. Doing so is self-evidently very risky.
Take the ‘Inflation Reduction Act’, Biden’s most significant piece of legislation to date. The Economist terms it an ‘epoch-making political gamble’ — and in a way the publication is right. It is significant — with over $2 trillion (yes, with a ‘t’) being spent on the economy over the next ten years, mostly on subsidies to strategic manufacturing, infrastructure, and new green industries. If done right, America will not just manufacture physical goods in a scale similar to the past but will also have domiciled the fast-growing industries of a new environmentally conscious era. But, there’s no guarantee it will be done right — and big schemes like this have a knack of failing to meet their sizeable ambitions.
The point is, Biden is spending trillions, and in so doing, he’s relatively selfishly attempting to reshape America’s legislative and economic agenda for the next ten years. Doing so makes him anything but boring. Instead, he’s significant, really significant. At a moment when dramatic things are happening to the US-led geopolitical order, he may be the decisive President.
Rather than dragging around America on the coattails of their egos, Presidents should act with requisite subtlety. The power of a Presidency is immense – and it can define an era in all sorts of ways. Joe Biden should be aware of this. To be a wise President, rather than just a significant one, he should act with the due dullness those voting in 2020 expected of him. Joe Biden seeks to make history. He shouldn’t. Instead, he should simply make do.