We have not seen this tableau before: two women seated behind the US President as he addresses Congress on Thursday morning, Australian time, on the eve of his 100th day in office. The next in line of succession are indeed Vice-President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And the VP is a woman of colour. It will be the most striking presentation of the country’s leadership since Barack Obama, the first African American elected president, made his maiden address to Congress in 2009.
President Joe Biden delivers this speech at the apex of his popularity and momentum so far. Biden’s decades of experience show. His cabinet is confirmed and working. His staff is rock solid. Biden’s agenda is clear and straightforward: end the pandemic; restore the economy; rebuild the country’s infrastructure; expand healthcare, education and income security; advance racial equity and voting rights; solve immigration and end the crisis on the southern border; make real change on gun control and climate change; lead the world again.
There are no dramas. The nation’s collective blood pressure is down markedly since Trump, “the former guy”, left office. Same in Australia. We no longer wake up wondering what the hell the President did overnight.
The White House is back to normal. Biden and Harris get briefed every morning by the intelligence services. The press secretary gives daily media briefings, and she does not tell lies from the podium. After 100 days, no major officials have been fired, or interviewed by the FBI. Biden’s speeches rarely last more than 20 minutes. The COVID-19 advice comes from medical experts; there are no recommendations to use bleach in fighting the virus. No weekend crisis tweets from a gilded room in Florida. This President’s tweets are short and to the point on policy and priorities.
Three major patterns are now quite evident in the Biden presidency. He wants to be decisive, to go bold, to move big, move early, and move fast. This is seen as what is needed to recover from the catastrophe of more than 570,000 Americans dead from COVID-19. Biden proposed $US1.9 trillion for his rescue plan, and he got it all enacted. He is proposing another $US2 trillion for infrastructure.
And in this speech, Biden will seek another $US2 trillion for health, education and support for American families. To understand the scale of all this, the new spending is four times the size of the annual US government budget. This is why the sweep of the Biden agenda, as centred and pragmatic as it is on basic services, is compared in vision and ambition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Thus far, Biden’s policies are broadly popular with the American people, including a good chunk of Republican voters. But they are fully opposed by the Republicans in Congress, whose clear intent is to stop Biden cold so that he fails at governing, enabling the Republicans to retake Congress in the mid-term elections next year. While some Republicans do want to do bipartisan deals with Biden, their compromise proposals are far too tepid, and they would take months to negotiate.
Biden wants movement now. This is a huge lesson he learnt from Obama being entrapped for fruitless months on health care and climate, at an enormous political cost to his presidency.
Biden believes there has been, in the wake of the pandemic, a paradigm shift across the country: that the issues are so urgent, the needs so pressing, that it is only the government that can step up to truly deal with them, coupled with a realisation that the rich have benefited excessively, and middle America, working Americans, really need help, and that wealthy corporations and executives need to give back through higher taxes.
On global leadership, Biden is rebuilding America’s alliances, and leading on big issues, as with the climate summit last week, and the convening of the Quad nations, including Australia, to address China. Biden promised “America will be back” and it is.
But the country is grievously frayed on race and gun violence. Even as George Floyd’s murderer was convicted, more black people were killed by police. Many states are moving backwards on voting rights. There are mass shootings every week. These events rip the country’s fabric. Biden wants to help heal, and he will use this moment of deep anxiety and anger to call Congress to rise and act now on these issues. Biden wants to show that American democracy works and can do big things again.
Two markers for the next 100 days. Will Biden get infrastructure through Congress? And will there be an eruption with Russia, China, North Korea or Iran? Both will determine his fate.
There will be surprises. There always are. One thing’s for sure: Nancy Pelosi will not shred his speech as Biden steps down from that dais.