A Year of Biden’s Presidency: Centrist Grandad in Retreat

By George Binette

Twelve months have passed since Joe Biden’s entrance to the White House just a fortnight after the sensational global coverage of the abortive invasion of the US Congress by fanatical Trump supporters. Predictably, Biden’s honeymoon period proved brief and one year on the 79-year-old president’s opinion poll ratings are at 33%, just above historic lows, while the cornerstones of his “Build Back Better” domestic programme are in peril.

The consensus among political pundits is that the Democrats will lose their already precarious control of the Senate and quite probably fail to hold the House of Representatives this November with visions of a Trump-lite candidate, if not Trump himself, capturing the presidency in 2024. Meanwhile, such mainstream liberal publications as the New Yorker ponder the prospects of a “civil war” in the US at some point in the next decade.

Given Trump’s enduring sway over a majority of both Republican voters and elected officials, Biden’s hope of a return to bipartisanship at a time of national crisis has predictably proved wishful thinking. With the dramatic exception of an overwhelming vote – 89 to 11 in the US Senate – to authorise military spending of more than $768 billion (c £564.5 bn), some $25 billion more than the administration had proposed, Biden has faced all but implacable opposition at most every turn from Republicans in both Houses of Congress.

West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and his Arizona counterpart Kyrsten Sinema in the hung Senate are officially Democrats but, as expected, they have frequently abetted Republican Mitch McConnell’s minority. Both are obstacles to federal legislation that would strengthen voting rights, which Republican-dominated legislatures in at least 19 states have moved to erode since the 2020 election.

Curbing Covid?

The pandemic was undoubtedly the most immediate crisis, which Biden inherited on assuming the presidency. In sharp contrast to his predecessor, Biden appeared to respond to the public health crisis with gravitas and respect for the scientific consensus.

The administration gave impetus to a mass vaccination programme and secured passage of a substantial, if diluted, £1.9 trillion relief package, though the significant expansion of the Child Tax Credit has already expired this month (January). And as the generally agreed estimate for Covid deaths in the United States nears 870,000 it appears that nearly half have died since January 2021 with Covid-linked hospitalisations at or above the highest levels seen since March 2020.

So, is this an indictment of Biden’s presidency? In part, yes, as the administration has failed to adopt a clear and consistent line to tackle workplace transmission and is now retreating from other mitigation measures, while neglecting the development of rapid testing capacity. In addition, the 46th president has put no real pressure on the likes of Pfizer and Moderna to waive intellectual property rights over Covid vaccines. At the same, a Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees has drastically curbed the scope of Biden’s proposed vaccine mandates.

But more significantly the extraordinary failure of the US when compared to other G7 states and the 38 OECD nations reflects the dysfunction of its healthcare system and the woeful inadequacy of social welfare provision. In short, the pandemic cruelly exposed the co-morbidities of the USA’s political economy. In addition, a deeply rooted, right-wing libertarianism, which had found a figurehead in Trump, provided fertile ground for the growth of a vociferous and occasionally violent movement against vaccination and wider Covid control measures.

Digging deeper into the Covid statistics swiftly reveals huge regional differences. While major East Coast cities suffered terrible tolls in the first wave in spring 2020, the current figures show that nine of the ten states recording the highest per capita deaths supported Trump in the November 2020 election. Not surprisingly, vaccination rates vary wildly with at least four states (all Trump supporting) reporting that fewer than 50% of those aged 12 and older have received at least two vaccine doses, while rates top 75% in five of six New England states.

A further term of Trump with a blend of chaotic incompetence and shameless irrationality would surely have made the situation still worse, but with weekly Covid-attributed deaths recently exceeding 12,000 amidst the Omicron wave, it seems unlikely that Biden’s presidency will accrue lasting political credit for pandemic management.

Afghan Disaster and a new Cold War

Often labelled the USA’s longest war, the late summer of 2021 finally witnessed the end of American military involvement two decades after the invasion launched in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. At one level Biden was doing little more than implementing a deal, which the Trump administration had struck with the Taliban in spring 2020. But the withdrawal, while initially popular, proved chaotic, evoking memories of the humiliating departure of US forces from Vietnam in 1975.

The Taliban’s swift seizure of power from a corrupt client regime in Kabul was a clear embarrassment, though it has been only a minor factor behind Biden’s slumping support in opinion polls. The administration’s continued enforcement of exceptionally draconian sanctions against the Taliban regime has exacerbated an immense humanitarian crisis, which has left millions of Afghans at risk of severe malnutrition, but is barely a talking point in US politics.

The Afghan debacle has certainly fuelled media speculation about the decline of the American empire. This comes at a time when the administration has accelerated the reorientation of US foreign policy towards competition with and containment of China at the same time as Beijing is strengthening ties with Putin’s Russia.

While the main theatres of conflict are likely to lie in East Asia and mineral-rich West Africa, the immediate flashpoint in the developing Cold War is Ukraine. Whether Vladimir Putin intends to invade the former Soviet republic remains a ‘known unknown,’ but some US commentators beyond conservative ranks are already accusing Washington of impotent sabre-rattling in response to the massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. The US certainly has a military stake in Ukraine with hundreds of millions – a tiny proportion of the whopping $768 billion defence budget – earmarked for Ukrainian forces, but any US response to a Russian march into its western neighbour will almost certainly not extend beyond further economic sanctions.

Despite the often bitter polarisation in Congress over a wide range of domestic issues, there is a strong bipartisan consensus, encompassing all but a handful of the most left-leaning Democrats and a still smaller number of Republican isolationists that military spending must rise (and rise!) to thwart Chinese aspirations for superpower status. Language in this year’s Pentagon appropriations bill explicitly instructs the Defence Secretary to “strengthen United States defence alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region so as to further the comparative advantage of the United States in strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China.”

Aside from a boon to military contractors, the shared goal is to develop hypersonic missile technology capable of striking mainland China and mounting more military exercises with the likes of Australia, Japan and South Korea, the UK and just possibly India. Though the rhetoric is more measured, the Biden administration is continuing and intensifying a Trumpian approach to Washington’s most significant geo-political and, of course, economic rival with its endorsement of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

The Economy and Union Revival

The long absent spectre of high inflation has returned to stalk Biden’s administration in the past six months. The main metric for US inflation stood at 7% in December 2021, its highest level in 40 years. The sharp and quite possibly sustained spike in living costs reflects several factors both transient and more fundamental.

The person charged with putting the lid on the price surge is Jerome Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve, which is effectively the USA’s central bank. Powell, a registered Republican, has been retained by Biden in a role to which Donald Trump first appointed him. Dubbed “Wall Street’s Head of State” by Bloomberg News, Powell has been a champion of quantitative easing and low interest rates, having overseen something of a stock market bonanza even in the context of the pandemic.

Powell now faces the challenge of putting the brakes on inflation. His statements to a Congressional committee on 11th January made clear that interest rate rises are on the cards for some time to come. This could pose a threat to a robust, but uneven recovery and may not even achieve the aim of curbing cost of living rises linked to supply chain issues in the context of “just in time” production, a global upsurge in commodity prices and the “Great Resignation”, which has created labour shortages in some sectors.

Meanwhile, the aftermath of the first Covid wave has spurred a limited, but undoubtedly real resurgence of industrial action and union organising with organised labour in the US garnering more media interest – and sympathetic coverage – than Britain’s union movement. Mainstream commentators used the label “Striketober” for the autumn month in 2021, which witnessed large-scale walkouts at such household name corporations as John Deere, Kellogg’s and Nabisco.

These actions in manufacturing came on top of several strikes in healthcare including an historic 301-day action by nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts and a partial victory for striking health-workers in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo also saw the first successful union recognition efforts at Starbucks stores, which has sparked a surge in applications for recognition ballots in other cities. In addition, the left-leaning reform slate easily won recent elections in the Teamsters union, which is now committed to a major recruitment and organising push at Amazon.

While Biden set a low bar when he proclaimed that he would be “the most pro-union President,” there’s evidence that the National Labor Relations Board has shifted in a much more union-friendly direction, giving the green light to a re-run of the union recognition ballot at Amazon’s giant operation in Bessemer, Alabama. Whether the recent wave of workers’ activity can coalesce into a national movement in 2022 remains doubtful, but resurgent unions might just prove Biden’s best hope for salvaging a floundering presidency.

George Binette is a Massachusetts native, who is the current Trade Union Liaison Officer for Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP.

Image: Joe Biden. Source: Joe Biden. Author: Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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