When Joe Biden became President of the United States six months ago, he entered the position amidst two major complicating factors, first being the COVID-19 pandemic. The second came in the form of his opponent Donald Trump’s refusal to recognize his defeat, encouraging a political uprising which culminated in the January 6 assault on the US capitol. In the wake of the attack, Trump was absent from Biden’s inauguration. The political crisis came in the wake of the most serious racial disturbances suffered by the country since 1968.
In the first six months of his mandate, President Biden has focused his strategy on combating the pandemic while using it to launch an ambitious internal political agenda. If successful, this shift could turn out to be the largest expansion of US federal power since the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963.
Thus far, Biden has maintained public support: 51.6 percent of the population approve of the President’s actions, while 42.2 percent reject it, according to FiveThirtyEight’s weighted survey averages. In recent weeks, Biden’s popularity has slightly declined, consistent with the trend marked by his recent predecessors: Trump, Obama and Bush.
“Vice President Kamala Harris is tasked with finding solutions for undocumented immigration into the US”
Joe Biden’s Team
Biden’s team reflects different trends within the Democratic Party, and is diverse in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation, a fact many in the party hold dear. In the presidential cabinet, multiple “heavyweights” are close to Biden ideologically and personally, having an in-depth knowledge of US operations.
Vice President Kamala Harris is tasked with finding solutions for undocumented immigration into the US, a role Biden himself fulfilled when he served as Vice President to Barack Obama. This issue touches on key points of Biden’s agenda, and could have sweeping effects on the upcoming elections of 2022 and 2024. There is no doubt that the Republican Party will use migration at the Mexican border as an argument against Biden. At the same time, handling the situation has proven to be extremely complex, due to both intrinsic difficulties and the variety of involved stakeholders and communities. It will be very difficult for Biden to achieve clear results in the short term.
Biden’s most influential team member is his chief of staff, Ron Klain. Biden knows him very well, as he held the same position from 2009-2011, during Biden’s tenure as Vice President. Klain is the lynchpin of the Biden administration, responsible for the President’s day-to-day affairs, coordination of the administration as a whole and supervision of its communication policy. Klain (whose father-in-law is Spanish) has even acted as presidential representative in congressional negotiations. It is difficult to understate his power in formulating internal policy, one of Biden’s central tenets.
Biden’s inner circle contains others with a similar profile, including Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. In general, Biden has sought out centrists for positions requiring Senate approval, while reserving other positions for more liberal minds.
“Compared to Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency, Biden’s actions are thus far tremendously disciplined”
Compared to Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency, Biden’s actions are thus far tremendously disciplined, with no surprises or sudden changes in direction from the administration. His political objectives reflect his own ideology, but regardless the White House always tries to reach a consensus, offering dialogue to Republicans and right-leaning Democrats. This practice is essential, as the Democratic Party holds fewer senatorial seats, with only the Vice President’s tie-breaking vote to give them power.
“Biden’s team efficiently controls his messaging in a manner unprecedented in recent US history”
The Biden administration’s discipline is most evident in its communication practices. Biden’s team efficiently controls his messaging in a manner unprecedented in recent US history. Again, this makes a huge change from his predecessor, whose messaging primarily took the form of tweets, often spurred by personal grievances. A strategic goal of this White House is to generate the least news in decades.
In part, this strategy takes advantage of the political environment, as Biden is a poor speaker, and his victory was due in large part due to polarization caused by Trump and COVID-19, not widespread voter support. Pandemic-related restrictions have even given Biden the perfect excuse for limiting public appearances.
Thus far, this administrative style has proven effective. It is yet to be seen whether the White House will achieve its goals over the coming weeks, though at this time it seems probable. As the 2022 congressional elections grow nearer, Biden will likely adopt a more proactive communication policy.
In recent weeks, the White House has begun to question this communication model’s efficacy in interactions with Latin America, particularly on the topic of undocumented immigrants.
Priorities and Strategy
Biden has pledged action on three topics:
- COVID-19 countermeasures
- Economic stimuli, infrastructure, renewable energy, and expansion of the welfare State
- A return to traditional US foreign policy
Biden is most dedicated to the first two points, as his re-election depends on them, and they carry a greater sense of urgency than foreign policy issues. In this regard, Biden is following a traditional path for US Presidents, who often focus on domestic policy during their first term, leaving foreign matters for their second. The current US internal crisis gives him no reason to break this trend.
COVID-19 presents a serious threat, with an urgent need to achieve “herd immunity” and minimize spread. Meanwhile, on the political front, elections will be held on November 8, 2022 for 34 of the 100 senators, as well as for all 435 members of the House of Representatives. It is very possible that the Democratic Party could lose its House majority in these elections, rendering it virtually impossible for any White House legislation to be approved.
Thus, Biden’s team has a keen awareness that they must push through their legislative goals as quickly as possible. Starting in 2022, lawmaker attention will turn to the elections, further reducing their margin for action.
If the Democratic Party were to lose control of Congress, Biden would use the second half of his term focusing on international and regulatory policy, for which congressional approval is not required. In particular, his strategy aims to avoid what happened to Barack Obama, who was rendered incapable of achieving any of his legislative goals after the Democratic Party lost their House majority in 2010.
The Fight against COVID
Upon arriving at the White House, Biden immediately launched a suite of COVID-19 countermeasures. Following a period of mass vaccination, numbers began to fall in June as safety measures were slowly relaxed. As a result, the White House did not achieve its stated goal: to have 70% of the US adult population vaccinated by July 4th. The twenty states with the highest vaccination rates voted for Biden in the elections, while the fifteen states with the lowest percentage voted for Trump. This politicization of vaccines, together with the appearance of new strains of the virus, pose a tenacious threat. The shifting debate on vaccines is difficult to grasp, as polarization has only grown among the populace. For those refusing to be vaccinated, rejection is even stronger now than it was a few months ago, as evidenced in LLYC’s Vaccine Conversation Trends Study. Overcoming this obstacle is one of the primary challenges facing Biden’s team.
The economy is Biden’s major focus after COVID-19. Here, Biden’s potential courses of action center around three major expenditure programs. If they are implemented, which is seeming highly probable, they would have a permanent effect throughout the United States:
- The stimulus package (the American Rescue Act) in March established an expenditure of 1.9 trillion dollars (1.6 trillion euros) to combat the effects of Covid-19. It also included other items for groups close to the Democratic Party, including protections for labor union pension funds and major transfers to local administrations.
- The infrastructure plan (the American Jobs Act), at the cost of roughly one trillion dollars (850 billion euros), of which more than 50% will be new spending, with the remainder coming from other budget items, over five years. If the plan is extended to eight years, it will amount to 1.2 trillion dollars. This law has not yet been passed, but has sufficient Republican support in the Senate to become a reality in the next few days.
- The Welfare State expansion plan (the American Families Act) as well as the fight against climate change are only seeing support from Democrats, which would still allow its passage were Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a favorable tie-breaking vote, likely this September. Its estimated cost is 3.5 trillion dollars (3 trillion euros) over ten years. The final details have yet to be straightened out, but the financing will likely come mainly from the following:
- Strengthening the fight against tax fraud
- Tax increases on companies, the highest income brackets and capital gains
- Establishing a 15% minimum rate for Corporate Tax on large multinationals agreed by the G-7
- A renegotiation of federal payments to pharmaceutical companies as part of the public-private Medicare health program
Biden’s policies could lead to a structural public expenditure increase equivalent to 2% of the US GDP. The impact on economic growth is proving very significant. In the second quarter of 2021, the US GDP was above pre-Covid-19 levels. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that GDP growth in 2021 will be the highest in 37 years, putting the US second only to China among major global economies. Biden’s plans regarding the environment and sustainability are leading to increased investment in sectors such as public transport, building insulation, the automotive industry and renewable energy.
Regulation and Technology
Joe Biden’s administration has restored a number of regulations which had been removed by Trump, particularly regarding environmental protection and occupational safety. He has expanded the power of supervisory groups over major technological companies, though the most drastic measures have come from the House of Representatives, which is currently debating a number of laws which, if passed, could lead to some industry giants being forced to split their lines of business. In any event, this aspect of the administration will likely not play a major role until after the 2022 elections. In general, Biden’s regulator appointments have been further left than his cabinet.
Biden’s main foreign policy lines are:
- A return to US multilateralism
- Restraining Russia
- Competing strategically with China
- Increasing global economic coordination and reducing trade tension
- Re-establishing the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran
- Creating an asylum and immigration policy more open than Trump’s
“The Biden administration has made the phrase “the United States is back” into one of its slogans”
As expected, US foreign policy under Biden has returned to its usual state since World War II, marked by multilateralism, coordinated action with its allies and support for democracy and human rights. This is especially notable in Europe, as the United States has reaffirmed commitment to the Paris Accord, a key point for the EU. In addition, the US is once again assuming its role as leader in NATO, and both Washington and Brussels have decided to remove trade sanctions resulting from Airbus and Boeing subsidies. Blinken and Sullivan are declared Atlanticists and multilateralists, and the Biden administration has made the phrase “the United States is back” into one of its slogans. The US has requested that its European allies contribute more to the US effort to contain China in return.
France and Germany (where Blinken spent his youth) have become much more significant, while Great Britain has somewhat declined, due in part to Brexit and its consequences regarding Northern Ireland. Biden is of Irish descent, and the US Irish vote was decisively in his favor, as it was for Trump in 2016.
Biden has maintained a very tough stance against Russia, which has led to diplomatic tension between the two countries. However in practice, not only has he failed to adopt practical measures against Moscow, he has approved the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will transport natural gas from Russia to Germany, a project potentially leading to improved relations between Merkel, Macron and Putin.
The US may be allowing European nations to strengthen ties with Russia, but it takes a stricter attitude toward China. On this matter, Biden has retained his predecessor’s policies, although with a different strategic frame. True to his multilateralism, the US President has undertaken coordinated action with China’s neighbors, specifically involving the “Quad,” an informal alliance between the United States, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Trade and Economic Coordination
Much like the issue of China, Biden’s trade policies are not a major departure from his predecessor’s. The United States has retained most of Trump’s customs tariffs (ie. on steel and aluminum). Regarding China, Biden has not shown any intention to ease tensions, though he has abandoned past attempts to gain trade concessions from Beijing. His multilateral focus has been clear in other respects, particularly the fight against tax evasion via the minimum corporate tax rate for large multinationals. On this issue the United States has been instrumental in smoothing negotiations and reaching a favorable
Iran Nuclear Agreement
This item is among Biden’s primarily international focuses, but it is also among the least certain. In theory, this issue is Sullivan’s and Blinken’s primary task. The two played a key role in the previous agreement, which Trump unilaterally abandoned in 2018.
On his first day in office, Biden sent an immigration reform proposal to Congress. But unlike his infrastructure plans, economic aid and welfare expansion, the administration has not spent significant political capital promoting this proposal.. With the prospect of close congressional elections looming, this reform would not be passed until 2023 at the earliest, meaning it would rely on Democrats maintaining control of both congressional bodies.
Biden has suspended the construction of the US-Mexico border wall, and has committed 4 billion dollars (3.3 billion euros) for a four-year plan to address structural issues causing poverty in “Northern Triangle” countries (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras). Of immigrants illegally entering the US, refugees from these countries constitute a significant portion. Regarding the border, Biden has retained Trump’s policy of demanding that Mexico prevent the entry of Central American immigrants into the US. Vice President Kamala Harris has been put in charge of coordinating these actions. Thus far, Washington’s efforts have been called insufficient. If COVID-19 is not properly controlled in the region, which may ultimately require US-Mexico cooperation, economic detriment will likely worsen, which will in turn exacerbate the immigration crisis.
Biden has increased the number of refugees authorized to enter the United States, though this number remains lower than pre-Trump levels.
Despite the heightened importance of foreign policy, Latin America has played a limited role within the US government. However, opinions in the White House are progressively shifting toward higher involvement with Central America. Some in the Biden administration believe that the region will inevitably require more attention and resource allocation, if only to slow the worsening migration situation.
Generally, Biden’s policies regarding Latin America been limited to the migration question. Washington D.C. has relaxed its stance on the Nicolas Maduro regime, offering a potential removal of sanctions in exchange for more democratic acceptance. Conversely, the US has imposed sanctions on Nicaragua for the country’s repression of opposition. However, in neither of these cases has Biden or his cabinet shown particular interest in the region at large. Furthermore, relations with Brazil are not good, largely due to President Jair Bolsonaro’s vocal support for Donald Trump and his accusations of voter fraud. Biden has moved to prioritize relations with Mexico, but only to the extent that it supports Mexican control of migratory flow. Paradoxically, despite Donald Trump’s absolutist and standoffish attitude regarding immigration, he appeared to have much better relations with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador than Joe Biden has now. Ultimately, US policy involving Mexico has changed very little, and is almost entirely limited to migration control.
A key part of US-Latin American relations is “vaccine diplomacy.” According to official calculations by Latin American governments, the region has been by far most affected by COVID-19. Thus far, Russia and above all China have been very active in sending vaccines to Latin American countries (particularly Chile, Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico), while the United States has been slower to act. If this situation continues, Washington could see China’s economic significance in Latin America grow significantly. Both Democrats and Republicans have been lacking in responses to this issue, despite outward concern to the contrary.
“A key part of US-Latin American relations is vaccine diplomacy”
Generally speaking, Biden’s political agenda is making progress amidst a highly complex political environment, with a steadfast and multifaceted opposition. Over the coming 6-18 months, the main challenges facing the Biden administration are:
- Reporting on Crime: Media in the US has reported an increase in crime since last year, despite empirical data to the contrary, coinciding with popular criticism of police actions. This issue is a difficult one for Biden, as law enforcement typically falls under state control, rather than federal, but public opinion regarding his response could have negative consequences, especially in the 2022 elections.
- Inflation: Successive fiscal stimulus plans and the “calendar effect” (the result of comparing this year’s expansion prices to last year’s recession) have pushed inflation to its highest level in three years. Biden’s administration, the Federal Reserve and international institutions firmly believe that this increase will be temporary. However, there is a danger that economic parties will incorporate inflation into projections, leading price rises to become structural. Inflation may turn out to be a major point of Republican opposition in the 2022 elections.
- COVID-19, Latin America, and Immigration: If the pandemic continues uncontained, China will likely be able to heighten its influence in Latin America even further, and migration flow to the US will likewise increase. Immigration will almost certainly be a key talking point of Republican opposition.
- The Racial Divide: The President has managed to somewhat curtail US racial violence after a 2020 marked by crises. Even so, the situation is still volatile, and hate crimes, especially against Asian-Americans, remain a present issue.
Joe Biden’s presidency appears on track to achieve his main domestic policy goals, potentially achieving the biggest expansion of state power in the last five decades.