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Larry Donnelly: A quietly excellent first 100 days for Joe Biden

Our columnist takes a look at the first stages of the Biden and Harris administration.

President Joe Biden with Vice President Kamala Harris looking on makes remarks about the Derek Chauvin Trial, at the White House, Tuesday April, 20, 2021.
President Joe Biden with Vice President Kamala Harris looking on makes remarks about the Derek Chauvin Trial, at the White House, Tuesday April, 20, 2021.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

REMEMBER THE DAYS when the millions of us in this country with ties to the United States woke up every morning wary of being greeted by equally outrageous and unhinged tweets that had been sent during the night by President Donald Trump?

Personal insults, ultimatums to foreign powers, preposterous claims about how great he was making America and more along the same lines featured prominently.

Like the man himself and the city he hails from, Trump’s presidency was loud and in-your-face from start to finish. And whether they loved or loathed him, the public couldn’t get enough of the former Democrat who defied conventional wisdom and executed a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.

Even at this point, if Twitter had not indefinitely suspended his account, a persuasive case could be articulated that Trump would still be generating global headlines on a near-daily basis.

The man chosen to replace him in the White House, Joe Biden, has dialled things down several notches. In fact, and probably by design, President Biden has been pretty quiet.

While it is not really a surprise, his totally different approach to governance and to communication may be the most notable aspect of his first 100 days in office. There are many who are certainly thankful for this return to some semblance of normality in Washington, DC, yet it is an open question as to how some elements of the media feel now that they are starved of non-stop, unprecedented drama that drove ratings and sales for the previous four years.

The quiet leader

Those who confuse President Biden’s relatively low profile with a lack of action are profoundly mistaken. He signed a flurry of executive orders in the early days on abortion, the environment and immigration.

This pleased his party’s activist left flank who eventually, if somewhat begrudgingly, rallied to him in the Democratic primary because they saw him as their best hope of denying Trump a second victory.

Since then, big-ticket items have dominated the 78-year-old’s agenda. He managed to get a $1.9 trillion Covid-relief package through Congress without a single Republican vote.

By any objective measure, that is a staggering sum of money. And at present, he is touting the “American Jobs Plan,” which will pour an additional $2 trillion into the economy and into rebuilding the country’s crumbling infrastructure, specifically. There is also an “American Families Plan,” which may set aside a further trillion dollars for individuals and family units.

Republicans on Capitol Hill, espousing conservative principles against excessive government spending, are united in their opposition to these unquestionably big and bold initiatives. The polls suggest that they are out of sync with the electorate on this front.

A Pew poll shows that 70% of the citizenry approved of the expenditure to deal with the fallout from coronavirus. And 41% of the rank and file membership of the GOP agreed with the president.

The data reveals that people are more divided on the infrastructure bill. There is a fascinating detail within the findings, however. 65% of Americans back raising the corporate tax rate to fund the investment, including 42% of self-identified Republicans.

In this context, my suspicion is that – with adjustments to mollify the small band of moderates remaining in the House and Senate – President Biden can get something ambitious and transformative done on infrastructure.

These legislative triumphs, in some ways, exceed the accomplishments of the widely venerated Presidents Clinton and Obama in their eight-year tenures.

Of course, President Biden has a few things going for him that they didn’t. He arrived in office as a well-respected, known quantity in a period of unique public health and consequent economic crisis. Even those on the right, when pressed, would have to concede that he was the one Democrat who could help bring together a splintered nation. His favorability numbers are hovering close to 54%.

Republican ideology floundering

That said – and again allowing for the circumstances precipitated by the pandemic –there are two broader truths about American politics arguably borne out by the reaction to Biden’s first 100 days (or so) as president. First is that traditional Republican economic philosophy is, at best, on life support, if not dead already.

The laissez-faire, trickle-down, pro-free trade, unfettered capitalism that was once sacrosanct has been rejected comprehensively. Most recognise that its dividend has been an extraordinary, visible, repulsive gulf between haves and have-nots.

“Reagonomics” and its variants apparently appeal only to a minority of conservatives in 2021. Given that Donald Trump was dismissive of this general school of thought rhetorically (notwithstanding his tax cut for the wealthy) and that he commands the undaunted loyalty of grassroots Republicans, this should not come as much of a surprise.

The second is that Democrats can win – and win big – when they keep the focus on “bread and butter” topics, such as health care, jobs and the economy. President Clinton may have said that the “era of big government is over.” I would humbly posit that this was a rare instance in which his political assessment, at least in the longer term, was off.

Today, a clear majority of Americans prefer an interventionist government and want programmes to assist those who are hurting.

This was the historic raison d’étre of the Democratic Party. And the Biden administration is rising to the occasion and benefitting as a result. The first 100 days have been a success.

The trickier political pitfalls for President Biden and his party lurk where the deeper fissures in American society and its politics are to be found currently: in and around the culture wars. These will surface inevitably. Painting the Democrats as in tune with wealthy liberal elites on the coasts and completely out of step with vast swathes of the US is the most potent weapon in the Republicans’ campaign playbook as the 2022 mid-term elections fast approach.

President Biden, congressional Democrats and their strategists have no excuse for not anticipating what is coming down the tracks. Will they be ready for it this time?

—-

I wrote initially in this space about my elderly and ailing father in July of 2018. It resonated then with many readers who understood what it’s like to have a struggling parent on the other side of the Atlantic.

When I wrote the piece, I did not think I would see him again on this Earth. But Dad kept going. He died tranquilly in his nursing home early in the morning of 15 April, just short of his 87th birthday. He was in a bad way in the end and it was for the best.

It hit hard, though, especially because I could not travel to Boston for his wake and funeral Mass this last Thursday and Friday and take comfort in the warm company of family and dear friends. My wife, children and I will be back there when conditions permit to pay tribute to his memory in person.

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I want to sincerely thank all of those readers who said such lovely things three years ago and have done so again in the days since his death. Your kind sentiments mean a huge amount.

It never occurred to me not to write this week. I know that the man who was singularly responsible for my insatiable thirst for politics would have wanted me to. This one – with which he’d have fully concurred – was for Dad.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie. 

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