Joe Biden’s Liberalism Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

After an initial period of liberal euphoria around the Joe Biden presidency, reality is starting to set in. Maybe Biden isn’t burying the era of Democratic neoliberalism after all.

US president Joe Biden speaks in Dearborn, Michigan on May 18, 2021. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images)

Opinions differ, but the early months of his presidency have seen a firm consensus crystallize around the idea that the new Joe Biden is nothing like the temperamentally conservative moderate most Americans had come to know. The old Biden was a compromiser, keen to reach across the aisle and strike bipartisan agreements. The new Biden, it is said, has embraced an ambitious and potentially transformative agenda more traditionally liberal than any in generations.

Whereas the old Biden accepted the post-Reaganite view that the role of the state should be radically scaled back in many areas, the new one hopes to lead the transition to a new American social democracy. The old Biden was a notorious deficit hawk. The Biden of 2021 has already passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package and is seeking out more new spending.

The perceived change in Biden has yielded what can safely be called a deluge of media commentary drawing comparisons between the new administration and those of FDR and LBJ. However we choose to interpret Biden’s early moves, it’s a story that warrants considerable skepticism.

For what it’s worth, a nearly identical media cycle surrounded the early months of the last Democratic president and was subsequently less than borne out by events. More importantly, though, it remains to be seen whether the administration’s embrace of new spending will really go beyond the current context of economic and social crisis: new programs established, cash transfers and social benefits made permanent, budgetary taboos broken in the long-term, etc.

In this respect, the management of expectations ahead of Biden’s forthcoming budget push offers very real clues about how the administration plans to govern in the months ahead — and the evidence continues to stack up against the idea that it will mount a serious attempt to reconfigure America’s political consensus or inaugurate a new progressive era.

As recent reporting from the Washington Post makes clear, the next Biden budget proposal (expected later this week) will jettison key campaign commitments: most notably its pledge to overhaul health care policy by enacting a public option, arguably the centerpiece of its domestic agenda during last year’s Democratic primaries. Also on the chopping block this week are promised measures to lower prescription drug costs, raise the estate tax, and relieve student debt (an issue on which the new Biden has quite audibly begun to sound like the old one).

In the most charitable interpretation imaginable, the administration is simply punting these items to a later date on its legislative calendar: measures like the public option being set to return once the more rudimentary business of infrastructure dealmaking has been concluded. It’s for this reason that the language currently emerging from the White House is potentially so revealing, its increasingly conservative lawmaking strategy beginning to look a lot more like garden variety liberal triangulation than canny maneuvering. According to the Post, plans for a more ambitious legislative program have been shelved amid concerns that it “could fuel criticisms that the administration is pushing new spending programs too aggressively.”

Between these noises and a series of utterly quixotic attempts to strike a bipartisan deal on infrastructure spending, we are left with a picture of liberal governance that looks more conventionally managerial than it does transformative with each passing week — and a White House that seems increasingly likely to follow recent precedent by gradually shedding any serious effort to make permanent changes to the political or economic status quo.

Officially, of course, items like the public option are going to reappear at a later date. Still, there’s a very real kernel of truth in the conventional wisdom that new administrations tend to enjoy their largest windfall of political capital — and thus their greatest latitude in which to legislate — during their earliest months.

By most appearances, the Biden White House’s main ambition is to pass a wave of new social and infrastructure spending in the wake of the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, levying a few new taxes to pay for it along the way. Though in some respects a break from the kind of budgetary diffidence that defined Obama’s early months, this goal is still patently distinct from pushing lasting changes to America’s economy, health care system, and social safety net.

Notwithstanding the very real obstacles to realizing such an agenda, an administration serious about at least making the attempt would not be sounding conservative notes about its legislative program or climbing down in the face of anti-spending agitprop after less than two hundred days on the job. The new Biden, in other words, is looking and sounding an awful lot like the old one.