When any US president speaks of accomplishments made during his first 100 days at the White House, we should be circumspect. This applies to former, incumbent and future presidents. Fulfilling campaign promises is merely proof of credibility in the eyes of voters, but it is no real accomplishment. Judgement on proposals and plans in domestic and foreign policy that the president talks about remains contingent on the future and the impact of these proposals on the lives of citizens at home and the US’s image abroad.
In his address to the joint session of Congress, US President Joe Biden discussed his administration’s “accomplishments” during the first 100 days of his tenure, such as fulfilling his promise to confront the Covid-19 pandemic. Biden said one third of the US population has been vaccinated and framed that as an accomplishment even though his predecessor Donald Trump had promised the same goal within the same timeline during his election campaign. There is no evidence that Biden should be credited for the vaccination campaign or its scope, since this was not contingent on the president’s policies but on finding a vaccine approved by the FDA. Whether it is Biden or Trump in the White House, the vaccination process would have been the same in terms of timing and scope. It cannot therefore be described as an accomplishment on the part of Biden or a failure on the part of Trump.
Biden’s focus on the success of mitigating the pandemic not only hoodwinks the public, but is also too early a judgement on the efficacy of a vaccination campaign that should take at least two years to prove whether it was successful or not. More importantly, the economic crisis that the pandemic caused still exists, and without improving economic conditions along with mitigating the pandemic, one cannot say Biden passed the test.
Biden believes that passing the stimulus package in Congress was his victory alone, but the truth is that his Republican opponents did not obstruct legislation even though it included part of the agenda of the left wing of the Democratic Party. Republicans understood that, at a time when the nation is experiencing a calamity that impacts the lives of most citizens, there should be no partisan machinations especially since the crisis affects the lives of all Americans, whether Democrats or Republicans.
The real test of whether Biden can impose his agenda, will be his ability to pass a law restructuring the tax system. Biden plans to raise taxes on large companies and individuals whose income is more than $400,000 a year. He also wants to fund a massive infrastructure overhaul that would create millions of jobs, and make the US more competitive with China and other emergent economies. However, making this plan a reality requires consensus on both sides of the aisle, especially since Republicans do not usually support high taxes on the wealthy and major companies. They also usually worry about the link between increased taxes and expanding funds for state-funded social welfare projects, because it negatively impacts the market, competition policies and the efficiency of labour. These policies also increase inflation and public debt, which have plagued the US economy for many years.
Biden’s flirtation with the left wing of his party was apparent in his 100 Day address to Congress. In his speech, Biden said, “Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle-class built this country. And unions built the middle class.” This statement made him sound like part of the anti-globalisation movement Attack Wall Street which emerged in the late 1990s and over the past two decades has worried conservatives in the US. This perspective, represented by the new Left, opposes capitalism and supports far-left policies on human rights. This threatens American national identity and culture, and opens the floodgates to immigrants without any consideration of the impact on economic and social conditions inside the country, which is also of concern to US society.
Biden ignored the concerns of 70 million Americans who elected his opponent Trump and support his policy of limiting immigration, especially from countries where immigrants have no skills that benefit the US economy and are not truly willing to integrate into US society or respect the values and traditions of that country. Biden is giving Republicans more opportunity to oppose his economic plans and social welfare proposals by continuing to champion the left-wing minority in his party, forgetting that a substantial number of Democrat supporters share the concerns of Republicans regarding the immigration policies and social welfare he is promoting.
To further provoke Republicans, Biden said: “By the way, let’s also pass the $15 minimum wage”, even though he knows that Republicans do not support this idea which is a top demand of Bernie Sanders’, the leader of the far-left wing in the Democratic Party. This confirms the general impression that Biden is channelling Sanders and the left wing of the Democrat Party, without caring about the impact of these policies on the US economy in the foreseeable future or the internal cohesion of the US.
Biden further complied with the vision of the Democratic Left when he talked about what he sees as achievements in foreign policy. He did not address the real threats posed by China and Russia on US economic and security interests, but boasted of his dislike for what he called “autocratic” regimes, and highlighted the battle between them and democracy and the values of freedom. He promised that he would not compromise on this issue and would champion US values: “I told him [China’s leader Xi Jinping] what I’ve said to many world leaders -- that America won’t back away from our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms,” declared Biden.
What Biden told Xi can be interpreted in one of two ways, or even both. Biden is determined to appease the left camp in his party, who believes the fight against what they perceive as authoritarian regimes is a holy mission. The statement can also be interpreted as Biden continuing with the failed policies of his predecessors, namely using human rights issues to pressure the US’s rivals who pose a security and economic threat, such as China and Russia. Just like his predecessors, Biden is not interested in assessing the outcomes of these policies, which developments in US relations with Iran, Russia, China and North Korea have shown to be futile and not in the interests of the US.
Biden’s promise to continue spreading democracy around the world not only means applying policies that have failed US interests, but also -- paradoxically -- that he is not interested in examining the calamities that spreading US democracy around the world has caused for the people in several regions around the world, especially in the Middle East. The so-called Arab Spring has shown that encouraging rebellions against regimes there in the name of defending democracy has caused the collapse of three countries (Libya, Yemen, Syria) which are in the grip of civil wars that have destroyed any meaning of human rights. These countries suffer from the death and displacement of millions of people, as well as economic free fall in Tunisia and Egypt suffering from terrorism by political Islam groups that have killed hundreds of police and army personnel, and burdened the economy with huge losses.
Biden’s tendency to abstain from military intervention overseas could appease the American public in general, especially on the Left, but it contradicts his proclamation to fight for the cause of democracy, and overthrowing what he called autocratic regimes. Not intervening in crises triggered by democratisation policies adopted by him simply means abandoning Washington’s moral responsibility to the people who believe the US would support them in their pursuit of democracy, but later found themselves drowning in horrific security and economic disintegration rendering all principles of human rights void, most notably the right to life.
What Biden is promoting can be described as “irresponsibly spreading democracy”, similar to a concept the US invented after World War II known as “compensation without admitting responsibility”. This concept applied to residents of some Pacific islands whom the US displaced in order to carry out nuclear bomb tests, and when they were allowed to return after the war many fell seriously ill from radiation. When the issue was later raised, the US government paid compensation, but without admitting responsibility for the loss of their homeland and exposure to a slow death.
Biden’s administration wants to repeat this. After 100 days, it promises to continue its policy of destabilising countries and societies in the name of defending democracy. But once these countries and societies collapse, it will make no greater intervention than offering assistance to those displaced by civil war and sending a special envoy who will spend many futile years trying to address the consequences of “spreading democracy without admitting responsibility”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly