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Biden on campaign.

Biden on campaign. Photo: Flickr - Adam Schultz / Biden for President / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

All that glitters is not gold on closer analysis of the new President’s economic and political agenda, argues Sean Ledwith

Joe Biden appeared before a joint session of Congress yesterday to mark the one hundred days in office that is traditionally used to measure the impact of a new Presidency. The 46th President was in bullish mood, proclaiming that “America is on the move again”.

Many liberal commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have been eulogistic about the start of the Biden Presidency, understandably relieved that the horror show of the Trump White House is over. Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America editor, is already hyping up Biden as a transformational figure, comparable to other Democrat icons, and even committed of rolling back four decades of neoliberalism:

“Perhaps Joe Biden is eyeing this as his moment to deliver a New Deal à la Franklin Delano Roosevelt following the Great Depression, or the war on poverty and fight against racial inequality that was championed in the 1960s by Lyndon B Johnson”

Post-Trump capitalism

There is no doubt that Biden’s spending plans look superficially impressive. As part of his speech to Congress, the President announced $1.8 trillion on his American Families Plan to provide universal preschool care and free community college tuition for older children. This is alongside the American Jobs Plan which commits $2 trillion to public transport, upgraded broadband, roads and bridges.

The third part of Biden’s rebooting of the US federal apparatus, known as the American Rescue Plan, was signed off last month with a price tag of $1.9 trillion. This programme is specifically designed to clear up the mess left by the previous President’s catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic that has resulted in 600,000 fatalities in the US so far. Biden is pitching this raft of measures a “once in a generation investment in America itself”.

Back to the golden age?

To Jon Sopel and others, this all looks impressively similar to Roosevelt’s New Deal that supposedly pulled the US out of the economic slump of the 1930s. Biden’s phone call to George Floyd’s family on the eve of the Derek Chauvin verdict is also being touted by Democrat supporters as a conscious echo of JFK’s phone call to Martin Luther King when the civil rights leader was in jail during the 1960 election. Cheerleaders for the President also point to how the US has rejoined the World Health Organisation and the Paris climate deal on his watch.

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, standard-bearer for the US Congressional left, is also among those hailing Biden as a throwback to the so-called golden age of the Democrats in the last century when Presidents such as FDR, JFK and LBJ apparently set American society on a progressive trajectory. Commenting on the infrastructure spending plans, AOC has said:

“One thing that I am very excited about is that I do believe that we have been able to influence a lot of thinking on climate and infrastructure…As much as I think some parts of the party try to avoid saying 'Green New Deal' and really dance around and try to not use that term, ultimately, the framework I think has been adopted.”

Inadequate

Unfortunately, Ocasio-Cortez is totally deluded to believe both that her influence is a decisive one on the President and that his announcements are sufficient to put the US state on a qualitatively new course.

The American Families plan will not expand Medicare coverage, which would have qualified up to 23 million people for healthcare, or allow Medicare to negotiate prices with drug companies as some of the left Democrats had been urging Biden to do.

$2 trillion to be spent on infrastructure sounds impressive but that is over eight years and therefore actually comes in at around 0.5 of GDP per year. This is way short of the $10 trillion suggested by campaign groups associated with the Green New Deal. The public transport plan is designed to upgrade America’s 500 miles of high-speed track but that is dwarfed by China’s equivalent of 19,000 miles.

Electrifying the iconic yellow school buses sounds environmentally friendly but the costs will only cover 20%, leaving the rest to continue belching out diesel fumes up and down the country’s highways.

Left-wing economic historian Adam Tooze is rightly sceptical about whether Biden’s delivery can match his promises:

“for all the high-flown rhetoric about meeting historic challenges, Biden’s climate programme appears hobbled by constraints, lacking in focus and inadequate in ambition. And this is before the Jobs Plan has even been submitted to the gruelling process of Congressional bargaining. It is not inconceivable that the debate could swing the other way – recently, stimulus bills have grown rather than shrunk in their passage through Congress.”

Contest with China

What Ocasio-Cortez and some others on the left fail to recognise is that the most significant context for Biden’s rebooting of the US state is primarily a dangerous renewal of militarised confrontation with China. In yesterday’s speech, the President framed his economic package in terms of an ideological contest with America’s principal rival on the geopolitical stage: 

“We're in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century…. after 100 days of rescue and renewal, America is ready for takeoff, in my view…We're working again, dreaming again, discovering again and leading the world again.”

Biden may be greener than Trump in his rhetoric regarding the climate crisis but the current President is still committed to raising US spending on the armed forces by 4% up to $870 billion per year; the equivalent of the next ten countries combined in the list of big military spenders. Part of Biden’s spending plans that AOC and other supporters on the left are less vocal about include a new range of land-based ballistic missiles around the Chinese coastline and an overall doubling of US military spending on the Pacific region.

The President’s supposed aspirations to enhance the experience of the American people sound laudable but are fundamentally premised on a retrograde and potentially cataclysmic face-off with the other great capitalist power of the age. The campaigns for economic and social justice, including the giant BLM protests of the last year that essentially put Biden in the White House, are the best hope for real change in the US.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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