The Strange Fate Of Joe Biden

The unlikeliest would-be revolutionary in American history


History can be funny sometimes, can’t it? And if a slight smile didn’t cross your face at times as you watched or heard the president’s speech to both Houses of Congress on Wednesday night, I’d be worried about you. I mean: who ever would have thought that a) Joe Biden, of all people, would one day be president; b) that he would be elected with slim Democratic majorities in both Houses after a close election; and c) that he would then unveil the most brazenly leftist, spend-and-borrow agenda of any president since, er, Nixon? I mean seriously. Until a couple of years ago, I sure didn’t. 

You might have fantasized about an Obama presidency, perhaps, sailing on a generational wave of optimism, radically transforming American society by bending the arc of history toward moral justice, or whatever. That’s a much more intuitively appealing narrative — and quite a few people tried to squint their eyes to make it happen. But history fucks with you. It decided to land the first black president with a quintessentially conservative disposition, the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and two never-win wars, neither of which he was able to end. Revolution was never on the agenda, however fetid the fainting spells of the far right because of a black man as the symbol of America. 

No: it’s the gaffe-prone friend of insurance companies and segregationist Senators, the old guy who still goes to Mass for non-performative reasons, the non-threatening Scranton-made moderate who history perversely decided would become the agent of an attempted American revolution from the left. And he got there by the usual historical contingencies: because Covid19 wrecked Donald Trump’s booming economy and legitimized vast government spending and borrowing in a crisis; because black Democratic voters had more sense than white liberals in the primaries; and because Biden’s elderly and decent affect was so reassuring and our exhaustion so profound that we basically let him get on with it. 

So … he got on with it. And his chances of success are somewhat brighter than you might imagine, I’d say, because the opposition is so incoherent and weak, adrift in the wake of a personality cult, and beset by a record of fiscal recklessness. The GOP cannot credibly make the obvious, major critique of this series of ever-more-ambitious plans: that we can’t afford them. The left is playing their oldest and strongest card: if you give people money, they will tend to vote for you. And the right has surrendered theirs: money is not infinite, and we have to make adult trade-offs.

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Today’s huge swing leftward is therefore in part a consequence of the GOP’s abandonment of fiscal conservatism. I mean: if the GOP can gleefully borrow trillions to give the plutocrats a handout during a boom, why can’t the Dems do the same to pay for childcare and education for those struggling in the wake of an American pandemic?

I find myself with the Democrats on this. If debt really no longer matters (as we are now unpersuasively told), I’d much rather the money be spent on the 99 percent rather than the one. And that’s especially the case after a long period in which economic inequality has gone far beyond what most liberal democracies can long survive; after the costs of middle-class life, from education to healthcare, have exploded; and after a plague has made effective government much more appealing — with the vaccine effort as the most tangible current example. Biden is riding this tide, and he’s been around long enough to know that it’s worth catching while he can.  

So — why the hell not?— we have proposals for massive new spending on infrastructure; on childcare, medical leave, and expanded education; on technology and research; on ending cancer. After a while, you began to wonder what the federal government couldn’t give us, especially after we’ve seen it spend trillions and trillions with barely a glance at the cost during Covid. The sweet spot in Western politics right now is economic leftism and cultural conservatism. Biden has now clearly claimed the former.

Since he cannot claim the latter, and is, in fact, presiding over and abetting a leftist cultural revolution, he went rhetorically nationalist at times. I agree with Harold Meyerson that this is a big deal. Biden’s speech, in an echo of Trump, was all about buying American. It was about bringing back manufacturing to the heartland: “There is simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing. No reason. None. No reason.” He threw in this classic: “All the investments in the American Jobs Plan will be guided by one principle: Buy American. Buy American.”

He then described the big investments as a way to beat China, showing Xi the power of democracies against dictatorships. And he made sure to remind those few Trump voters who watched that “nearly 90 percent of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree.” He echoed Trump’s plan to cut the costs of prescription drugs; and to end the war in Afghanistan. He’s learned the populist song-book. And somehow it feels less threatening when rendered in the quiet tones of the nation’s dandelion-picking grandpa.

Then he bored us with abstractions on the culture war. I repeat: he bored us with it. His thoughts on immigration were brief and banal, even though it’s clear he is fine with expediting mass immigration across the Southern border for the indefinite future. He defined the “equity” his administration is so fixated on as merely opening “real opportunities in the lives of more Americans — Black, white, Latino, Asian-Americans, Native Americans,” when, of course, it’s designed to discriminate precisely on the basis of race and sex. The rest was silence. Forcing federal employees to take courses on the evil of “whiteness” and eternal iniquity of America? Prioritizing “gender” over “sex” in federal law? Repealing his own religious freedom legacy? Public funding for abortion? No comment.

Which is the consequence of Biden’s truly remarkable discipline on messaging. Intuiting that Americans voted for him in part because they needed a break from never-ending Twitter-fueled tabloid drama, Biden has been silent more than he has been loquacious. Yes: Joe Biden, the man who previously never shut up. It is extremely difficult to turn off your personality for reasons of political discipline. To do so at the end of your career is remarkable. So credit where it’s due.

And if I were a Republican, I’d be terrified by the incoherence of the response. Yes, Tim Scott is appealing and effectively disarms the white supremacist image the GOP has become associated with (as well it might). But there was no real theme in his speech, no discernible strategy, no credible opposition to massive new spending. You could see what happens when a party becomes a vehicle for a personality cult, provided no platform in its recent convention, and lives off the fumes of cable television’s clown car. 

The zombie Reaganism touches were there: “The beauty of the American Dream is that families get to define it for themselves. We should be expanding options and opportunities for all families — not throwing money at certain issues because Democrats think they know best.” But the beauty of Biden’s big government project is that it’s basically money transfers, and Dems can counter that childcare subsidies or expanded medical leave or a $15 minimum wage do indeed “expand options and opportunities for all families,” in an economy that has made life tangibly harder for many working- and middle-class families in the last two decades. 

Some Republicans are thinking through bigger child allowances, or how to help mothers better balance kids and jobs; yet Scott described similar Democratic efforts as “more spending, to put Washington even more in the middle of your life — from the cradle, to college.” Other conservatives are focused on immigration, which Scott barely mentioned. Other issues were absent: the Chinese threat, for example; or any serious healthcare policy. It’s unfair to ask Scott to provide a coherent platform for a party that is so lost. But the grab bag of on-the-fly objections was as lame as the presentation was excellent. Fox News led by attacking mask-wearing in the chamber.

But Scott found something of a theme toward the end: “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country. It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different discrimination.” The relentlessness of elite media’s fixation on America’s “systemic racism” needs pushback. This is a niche view, held primarily by white elites, that most Americans really don’t agree with. Here’s the gist of a future GOP gambit: accuse Democrats of giving up on America as a color-blind society, of seeing its flaws as more profound than its strengths, of denying progress and punishing those who dissent.

Republicans need to speak up more for the success of multicultural America, and honor the long, noble struggle by both blacks and whites to defeat and marginalize what was once a truly malign form of racial supremacy. Or, to put it more bluntly, since the Democrats have abandoned Obama’s unifying message on race and identity, the Republicans should adopt it: “Original sin is never the end of the story. Not in our souls, and not for our nation. The real story is always redemption.”

Can this moment last? Can these vast programs be enacted? I have my doubts. Biden wants to do a reverse Reagan, permanently and sharply shifting the American center leftward as the Gipper did to the right. But Biden confronts a much more evenly divided and far more polarized country, without Reagan’s big electoral victories, and with a very tentative grip on Congress. The chances of his winning over as many Republicans as Reagan did Democrats are close to zero. His gamble is nonetheless similar to Reagan’s in this respect: he hopes that an economic boom will sweep away objections and caveats, and that Covid and Trump will indict conservatism as effectively as stagflation and Carter once indicted liberalism.

I’m sure he’ll get his boom. The rest is quite another matter. And history, we should remember, has some surprises in reserve. 

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(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: a double dose of reader dissent, first on face-masks and then on police shootings; an in-depth talk with Eric Kaufmann on race and the rapidly shifting demographics of Western countries; reader stories on the opioid crisis, immigration, and hormones; the latest notable quotes from the week; more window views; more great articles from other substackers, an artistic Face of the Week; a long ambient MHB from Antarctica, and the latest results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)


New On The Dishcast: Eric Kaufmann

Eric is a professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and he most recently wrote the book Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities, which I reviewed here. Be sure to check out his recent report on the social construction of racism in the United States.

To listen to three excerpts from my conversation with Eric — on the comparatively little racism of the US compared to other countries; on the anti-illegal immigration views of new immigrants; and on why Barack Obama would be considered “white supremacist” today — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the full episode here.

That link to the podcast post also features several stories and commentary from Dish readers on three of our most recent episodes — on opioids, on immigration, and on transitioning with hormones. Worth a look before you listen to our latest pod on race.


Dissents Of The Week I: Face-Condoms

A reader quotes my latest column:

“Wearing a mask is so much more public than wearing a condom, and we can role model. But there’s a cost to this too: if people see no-one being liberated by the vaccine, they’ll be less likely to get one.”

Sure, except that you can’t tell if maskless people are two weeks post-final jab or anti-mask. And for all I know, people seeing others walking around without a mask could be thinking, “Great, no need for me to get a vaccine since things are under control enough that no one needs to wear a mask anymore.” Which is why I’m wearing a mask outside, even though I’m at full immunity. Let me know when we’re at herd immunity and then I’ll stop with the “performance”.

Read my response to that reader, and to another one, here.


Dissents Of The Week II: Police Shootings

A reader writes in part:

Yes, the racial statistics regarding police killings should be a part of the discussion, but your supposed “context” point very badly misses the forest for the trees. The BLM movement is not principally about Black deaths at the hands of police, but about unequal treatment of Black Americans and non-Whites by the police and other institutions.

Read my response here. As always, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as the view from your own window (don’t forget part of the window frame and the time/location), a cool new substack, or a Mental Health Break: dish@andrewsullivan.com. Please try to be concise with dissents: the new format of The Weekly Dish is much more constrained than The Daily Dish, so it’s more difficult to include your smart criticism when it stretches into many paragraphs.


The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today.

See you the Friday after next. We’re taking a spring break.

(Top photo of Biden by Angela Weiss / AFP)