I recently ran across a cartoon showing a couple of shipwreck survivors heading toward two small islands– one with palm trees, the other with an erupting volcano. One of the castaways asked the other “which one should we choose?”
The 2024 Presidential election in a nutshell. Even someone who found that first island unappealing would have to be nuts to choose the one spewing volcanic ash. (I still can’t get my head around the millions of presumably uninformed or deranged Americans who cast ballots for volcanic ash in 2020…)
But here’s the thing: lots of people plan to vote Biden because they recognize that a vote for Trump is a vote for certain disaster. That reasoning–while sound–simply ignores the fact that Biden has been a transformative, progressive President. I loved Barack Obama, but fair is fair: Biden has accomplished far more.
I’ve previously shared my middle son’s observation that Biden is the first person he’s voted for who vastly exceeded his expectations.
I’d attribute the mismatch between performance and public perception to lackluster oratory, except that people voted for Trump, whose pronouncements are word salads showcasing his third-grade vocabulary.
A few pundits have begun to address the persistent lack of recognition of Biden’s considerable governing skills. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland was one. As he began,
The tragedy of Joe Biden is that people see his age, his frailty and his ailing poll numbers and they miss the bigger story. Which is that his has been a truly consequential presidency, even a transformational one. In less than three years, he has built a record that should unify US progressives, including those on the radical left, and devised an economic model to inspire social democratic parties the world over, including here in Britain.
As Freedland writes, making the case for “Bidenism” isn’t hard.
Top of the list is, characteristically, something that sounds boring but is of enormous significance: the Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year. That seemingly technocratic piece of legislation actually achieves two epochal goals. First, it hastens the day the US makes the break from fossil fuels – by making clean energy not only the morally superior option for both industry and consumers, but the financially superior one too.
It does that through a massive raft of tax breaks, subsidies and incentives all designed to encourage the production of wind turbines, solar panels, ever improving battery technology, geothermal plants and the like, along with tax credits aimed at making electric cars irresistible even to those middle-American consumers more concerned about their wallets than the burning planet.
Those who understand the threat posed by climate change–everyone from environmental activists to Goldman Sachs–has hailed the act as a “gamechanger.”
But the second goal of the legislation is almost as significant. Biden insisted that this surge in green manufacturing would happen inside the US, thereby reviving industrial towns and cities in decline since the 1980s. It is US factories that are getting the subsidies to build all this clean tech – alongside an earlier, huge package of infrastructure spending – restoring jobs to workers who had long been written off.
Bidenomics resurrects Democratic principles discarded by Bill Clinton: an activist state making serious public investments in manufacturing;”muscular regulation” of corporations; and encouragement of unionized labour.
Freedland reminds us that securing passage of this transformative legislation was remarkable, given a Senate then split 50-50 between the parties.
A new book by Franklin Foer, The Last Politician, describes how Biden, whose hands were already full with the Covid pandemic and the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, was not content simply to be a caretaker manager, troubleshooting crises. Instead, “he set out to transform the country.”
The result is that Biden has “redirected the paradigm” of US economic life in a way that will affect Americans “for a generation”. While Obama and Clinton were “deferential to markets”, says Foer, Biden has reversed “the neoliberal consensus” in place since the Ronald Reagan era.
Biden insists–correctly–that “capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation,” and as a result, his administration is resurrecting anti-trust enforcement. Foer writes that, “As a matter of substance, he is the most transformational president since Reagan.”
Internationally, Biden is credited with bringing stability after the chaos and dictator-coddling of the Trump years and, especially, for building and maintaining a western alliance in support of Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian imperialism. Others admire his handling of China: robust, without crossing the line where a cold war turns hot.
Freedland says Biden campaigned in “reassuring prose,” but has governed in “radical poetry.”
Age isn’t all negative. Coupled with intellect and experience, it allows time for the development of skills. It allows people like Joe Biden to exceed our expectations.