Biden embraces his inner radical to confront winter of peril

It is often forgotten that Franklin D Roosevelt — America’s most radical 20th century president — was seen as a mediocrity by many of his peers. Joe Biden never came top of his class either. But in his inaugural address he laid out an agenda no US president since FDR has matched. Mr Biden listed the “cascading crises of our era” that he plans to confront — a raging pandemic, flailing US democracy, systemic racism, America’s fallen standing in the world and the “cry of survival from the planet itself”. Any two of these would bamboozle a president in ordinary times. But 2021 is a time of concentric emergencies. Mr Biden has chosen to go for all of the above. 

The breadth of Mr Biden’s ambition will take many by surprise. As a life-long moderate Democrat, Mr Biden’s philosophy is assumed to be conservative with a small “c”, added to progressive with a small “p”. But politics is all about circumstance. Just as hyper-ambitious presidents have incrementalism thrust upon them — think of Bill Clinton — others have historic dramas piling up their in-trays. America’s most radical change has more often come from the centre, not the left or the right. Its most consequential presidents — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and FDR — were all leaders of moderate temperament. Their skill was to bring others along. 

Mr Biden has inherited the whirlwind. Does he have the ability to exploit it? His address will not go down as one of America’s great inaugural speeches. But he spelt out the way in which he plans to advance his agenda. The basic core is civility. At another time, such boilerplate language might prompt narcolepsy — particularly coming from Mr Biden. But in the wake of the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill — and the fact that more than a third of America believes he is an illegitimate president — Mr Biden’s hand of friendship is also a weapon. Many on the Democratic party’s left are demanding a harsh reckoning with the Republican enablers of Trumpism. Mr Biden can point to the fact that a 50:50 Senate deprives him of any such luxury. His first instinct will be to charm Republicans, not shame them.

It is entirely possible such tactics will fail. Shortly after he was sworn-in, Mr Biden’s White House sent a bill to Congress that would give America’s 11m illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. It is unlikely to pass. Republican senators immediately branded it an “amnesty”. Unlike purely budgetary bills, which can be passed with 51 votes — with vice-president Kamala Harris providing the tipping vote — this would need 60 votes to become law. The same applies to Mr Biden’s plans to improve US voting rights, which will surely die in the Senate. After a four-year holiday from fiscal conservatism, Republicans are once more ringing the alarm bell about the rising US national debt, which means Mr Biden will struggle to pass his $1.9tn pandemic relief bill. 

But he has one big thing going in his favour. A majority of Americans, including many Republicans, are delighted to see the back of Donald Trump. The fact that no significant Republican, including even Mike Pence, the outgoing vice-president, was there to wave Mr Trump off from the White House or Andrews Air Force Base speaks volumes. Mr Trump still has a very loyal base of tens of millions of Americans. But he left Washington as a pariah and as the author of his own crushing humiliation. The only circumstances in which he is likely to return are to defend himself in his Senate impeachment trial — or for some other legal hearing. This week Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said that Mr Trump had provoked the attack on US democracy. That suggests a post-presidential Senate conviction cannot be ruled out. Mr Biden did not use the word impeachment in his speech either. 

It is often said that US presidents are the opposites of their predecessors. The public reacts by choosing an incumbent’s personality opposite. This time it is true in spades. Mr Biden is everything Mr Trump is not. By deduction, therefore, Mr Biden will be a boring president — no score-settling, quack coronavirus remedies or calls for the overthrow of the system from his White House. Yet it all depends on how you define boring. In his address, Mr Biden sketched out the “winter of peril and significant possibility” that is facing America. In practice, Mr Biden’s first 100 days could prove to be very interesting indeed.

edward.luce@ft.com