Politics throws up two sorts of leader. There are those forever reaching for an umbrella and others, far fewer in number, who set out to change the weather. Western democracies have lately boasted a superabundance of politicians sheltering from the storm.
Youth and energy are supposed to be synonymous. But it seems the task of rediscovering the power of agency has fallen to the 78-year-old who has moved into the White House. Still short of his first 100 days in office, Joe Biden has already shown that government can change things.
The west’s story has become one of democracies at the mercy of what British prime minister Harold Macmillan called “events”. The global financial crash, the rise of China, Russia’s military adventurism, populist insurgencies and most recently Covid-19 — all have elicited defensive responses. Ambition has been replaced by damage limitation. And then politicians wonder why voters have lost faith.
Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 promised to mark a break. As it turned out, presidential audacity did not measure up to hope. How strange then that it is Biden, his loyal, scarcely visible vice-president, who is now summoning up the energy and resolve that often eluded Obama.
This was not in last year’s election script. Former president Donald Trump dubbed his opponent “sleepy Joe”, mocking his opponent’s age and linguistic snarl-ups. Many of those cheering Biden from the sidelines harboured concerns of their own. Biden’s designated role was narrowly defined: beat Trump, restore a measure of integrity to American democracy and rebuild old alliances. A return to normality would be enough.
Instead, we have seen the most ambitious economic expansion programme since Lyndon Johnson’s 1960s Big Society. Biden wants the $1.9tn economic stimulus bill already passed by Congress to be followed by an infrastructure and education package that could be worth $3tn. Comparisons with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal look anything but fanciful.
The eye-wateringly large sums of money are only part of the story. The real significance, symbolised by a new federal allowance to alleviate child poverty, lies in a bold reassertion of the responsibilities of government. “There’s so much we can do,” Biden said at his first White House press conference, nailing down the coffin on swim-or-sink laissez-faire.
Sceptics might say Biden has done no more than capitalise on the Covid “moment”. The havoc wrought by the pandemic has brushed aside fears about “big” government. It is true that the president has seized a moment. The goal, though, is anything but fleeting. It amounts to a fundamental rebalancing of the market economy.
Ironically, Europeans, long cheerleaders for a softer-edged capitalism, have the most to learn. The defensive incrementalism of the recent past has had no truer champion than Europe’s most powerful leader, Angela Merkel. The German chancellor’s approach to politics has been to drain it of energy.
France’s president Emmanuel Macron has been alone in challenging the status quo — and been thwarted at every turn by Berlin. True, Merkel consented to a €750bn Covid recovery fund, but in scale and timing, this pales against Biden’s plans. Germany still marches under the banner of fiscal fundamentalism. Even with much of Europe still shut down by the pandemic, Berlin insists the eurozone books must be balanced. Never mind that weak growth, insecure employment and stagnant incomes provide rich feedstock for the populist politics of grievance.
There is no guarantee that Biden will succeed. The divisions in American society run deep. Trump still stalks a Republican party in the embrace of identity politics. As with Roosevelt’s New Deal, the rich will fight back against proposed tax increases. And piling such a fiscal expansion on to historically loose monetary policy will surely carry some risks.
Biden’s audacity, though, must be measured against the dismal results of the politics of inaction. Democracy is under siege because its elites have allowed unfettered markets to ride roughshod over the postwar social contract, leaving voters trapped in a lethal equilibrium of low growth and rising inequality.
Liberals never cease fretting about how to meet the threat from the world’s autocrats. Whatever the eventual fate of his experiment, Biden has come up with the answer. Democracy flourishes when the system works for everyone.