Biden’s political masterclass offers lessons for progressives worldwide

US Politics: The left’s ideas are best served by those who appear to believe in them the least

 US president Joe Biden speaks about a March jobs report, in the White House in Washington, DC, last week. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

US president Joe Biden speaks about a March jobs report, in the White House in Washington, DC, last week. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

 

It was once a number so exotic as to have no agreed definition. It is now the threshold below which Joe Biden hardly bothers to trifle. Among the weirder legacies of the coronavirus pandemic is the overnight normalisation of “trillion”.

The US president’s $1.9 trillion (€1.6 trillion) of fiscal relief has itself topped up last year’s combined $3.1 trillion in Covid aid. Even the $2 trillion Biden wants for a building spree is just the first half of an infrastructure plan that covers the decade. The second, which he will tout this spring, is expected to weigh in once more at the 13-digit mark.

At some point, these figures become less striking than Biden’s ability to propose them without political cost. More than a decade ago, Republicans framed president Barack Obama as a spendthrift radical for vastly less. Against Biden, the same line of attack elicits more giggles than nods.

If they care to notice, there is a lesson here for troubled progressives in Westminster, Paris, Berlin, Canberra and beyond. Only an established moderate can win from the left and then govern from there.

The more outwardly innocuous a leader, the bolder the schemes they can smuggle under cover of superficial blandness. Journalists never see them coming. Voters back them not to overreach. Opponents who allege extremism radiate an unbecoming hysteria.

Fantastically improbable

If anything, Biden is one of the less vivid examples of this phenomenon. What stands out about the greatest US reformers of the last century is how fantastically improbable they were.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: a blue blood who inherited rather than chose his Democratic affiliation. (Franklin “De-La-No” as Huey Long, a zealot who tired of his caution, knew him.) Lyndon Johnson: a friend of southern intransigence until, on civil rights, he wasn’t.

Presidents John F Kennedy and Obama had youth and grandiloquence on their side. They were the far more obvious agents of change. But the price of that obviousness was the country’s vigilance to them from the off.

They could inspire but Biden can do something incomparably more useful. By dint of age and voting record, he can disarm. No one expects boldness from his administration, which is the surest way of getting it.

Gallingly for progressives, the inverse of this rule does not quite hold. The right need not field a soothing moderate to win voters and thereafter enact its creed. It is hard to think of a Democratic Ronald Reagan, who long telegraphed his conservatism, implemented it and then watched an heir in more or less his own image take power.

Donald Trump, whom Biden dislodged from the White House, is another who campaigned as pungently as he governed. In fact, five or so years into the worldwide surge of the populists, it is the scarcity of left-wing ones in power that catches the eye.

Voters don’t appear to punish zeal evenly. The left can either seethe at the unfairness, or it can accept that its ideas are best served by the leaders who appear to believe in them least.

Outward characteristics

If all this makes politics seem an irretrievably shallow affair, well, I hate to break it to you. The extent to which even informed voters go by the outward characteristics of leaders holds across time and territory.

A decade since either was UK premier, it is still customary there to view Gordon Brown as New Labour’s man of substance, and Tony Blair as its fluent huckster. In truth, Blair was the fervent (and credulous) believer in things. Brown, at least in 10 Downing Street, was the most tactical, news-driven politician of high rank I have ever covered.

As long as the one emits a Tuscan-tanned perkiness, and the other daunting intensity, the misperception will hold. Such are the heuristics with which our erring species forms some of its deepest judgments.

To wish away the superficiality of politics is itself frivolous. The point is to bend it in one’s favour. Consciously or not, Biden is putting on a masterclass. We can never know, but I suspect he is spending more than a president Bernie Sanders or a president Elizabeth Warren could have done as out-and-proud leftists. Even that is to assume the White House was ever plausibly theirs for the taking.

It falls to Republicans to paint a 78-year-old one-time welfare reformer and Iraq War supporter from the border-south state of Delaware as a red menace. It is neither evidence nor logic that is missing from their case: think of all those trillions of dollars. It is superficial plausibility.

“Ask yourself,” said Biden last summer, “do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?” What a shallow line of argument. What a potent one. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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