Biden and the Promise of America

President Joseph R. Biden, in a necessary and heartfelt call for national unity in his inaugural address, gave all Americans his personal commitment to lead the country with honesty, integrity, and truthfulness and to always level with them through the difficult process of collectively confronting the challenges of our time: the pandemic, economic depression, the climate crisis, ongoing inequalities, and the assault on democracy.

Turning the page on the destructive and divisive Trump years, President Biden laid out a vision of America that “will not fail” if it acts together to build a more perfect union. Although the address centered mainly on his personal bonds with the country, the new president described the basic structures of what he wants a newly united country to achieve, at both the personal and societal levels.

Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this. Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.  

Uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome the deadly virus. We can reward work and rebuild the middle class and make healthcare secure for all.  We can deliver racial justice and we can make America once again the leading force for good in the world.

Looking forward, TLP’s co-editors examine the core components of national policy and politics that should drive the Biden administration’s efforts to renew America’s promise.

A new economic foundation (Brian Katulis)

Biden’s inaugural address did not go into exhaustive details on his agenda, but it did hint at his plans to overhaul America’s economy—a necessary step in rebuilding faith that our political system can deliver results for Americans.

First up, another round of fiscal stimulus and emergency relief will be necessary to help millions of Americans. But looking beyond the immediate crisis, the United States needs to make major public investments and develop a more coordinated national industrial policy to create opportunity for all Americans and compete more effectively in the world with countries like China.  

These public investments need to be designed to spark private sector innovation and fair competition that builds the foundation for a new economy in sectors that will create high quality jobs including clean energy, technology, and health care.  

In rewiring America’s economy, the Biden administration should work with Congress and states to connect domestic and foreign policy in a way that makes life better for ordinary Americans. America’s economic strength and its ability to compete in the global economy is rapidly evolving due to shifts in geopolitics and technology around the world. For decades, the United States tried to compete with the likes of China and Europe while skimping on the public investments in infrastructure, scientific research and development, and a social safety net for America’s workers.

A key part of connecting foreign policy with domestic economic renewal will be working to build a new type of global zone with partners in Europe, Asia, and other key parts of the world in a coordinated effort to compete more effectively with the alternative model put forward by China. 

A new internationalism (Peter Juul)

President Joe Biden’s inaugural address offered little in the way of discussion about America’s foreign policy. That’s not surprising given the exceptional crises the forty-sixth president now faces at home. It included traditional calls for repairing alliances and engaging with the world, and vows to “lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” In predicting Biden’s approach to the world, “those beyond our borders” will likely lean on their previous experience with and understanding of the former vice president’s long track record.

Far more important to Biden’s foreign policy will be delivering on his call for practical national unity. As he argued, “without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.  No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.” Nor can there be a coherent or effective foreign policy, either. Biden needs to rebuild domestic public support for active American involvement in international affairs, and that’s not possible without ending “this uncivil war” at home.

Similarly, Biden should put his stated recognition that democracy is precious but fragile to use when it comes to crafting his foreign policy and explaining it to the American people. While he made that acknowledgement in the context of the January 6 assault on the Capitol, it has important implications for American foreign policy as well. The United States cannot simply retreat behind its borders, batten down the hatches, and expect its democracy to remain safe, secure, or prosperous at home.

It will be up to Biden to make that case to the public as he seeks to rebuild the domestic foundations of America’s foreign policy.

A new social contract (John Halpin)

Restoring the economic security of American families and workers will be a chief goal of the new Biden administration. This will require an interlocking set of actions both immediate and longer term to “build back better”—investing in the conditions for overall job creation through domestic manufacturing, clean energy production, and infrastructure investments; making sure all people have decent jobs that pay a living wage; extending health care to all people and addressing costs; enacting new measures to provide paid family and medical leave and childcare support for working families; and modernizing the social safety net to provide more comprehensive and accessible support systems for the unemployed, those lacking adequate housing and food, and people across the country living in poverty.

This is a massive agenda that will require legislative actions beyond a new round of stimulus, as well as the cooperation and ideas of American businesses and employers. But success in building a new social contract is vital for America overall—its people and businesses—and for the political viability of Biden and the Democrats going forward.

America will only prosper if its economy is growing, and its workers enjoy stable foundations for themselves and their families.

A new politics (Ruy Teixeira)

To all those who supported our campaign, I'm humbled by the faith you've placed in us. To all those who did not support us, let me say this. Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart….I pledge this to you, I will be a president for all Americans. All Americans. And I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.

These are not just empty words. Biden understands a great truth about contemporary American politics. Democrats’ electoral performance still falls far short of what it needs to be among white non-college and rural/small town voters to achieve long-term political success, particularly below the Presidential level. The American political system, given the structure of the Senate and the distribution of voters in Congressional and state legislative districts, means the votes of white working class and rural voters are disproportionately important to electoral outcomes and governance success. Thus, Democrats’ tendency to lose these voters by overwhelming margins is a very serious problem that demographic change alone will not eliminate. The Democrats simply have to do better—a lot better—among their challenge constituencies if they hope to develop a stable progressive majority in the 2020’s and govern accordingly.

Biden wants to make that happen by practicing a new kind of unifying politics. That starts with a laser focus on the two big jobs for the incoming administration: job #1 will be to get the coronavirus crisis under control, and job #2 will be returning the economy to full employment and basic health. 

But beyond this, it will be necessary to target as much spending as possible on innovative programs to make the economy, when functioning normally, produce better outcomes for left-behind workers and communities. This will not happen naturally, as can be seen from the recent experience of the recovery from the 2008-09 financial crisis. The economy recovered, albeit very slowly, but the economic gap widened between the country’s dynamic large metro areas and the rest of the country, particularly rural and small town America. Democrats did very well indeed in the former in 2020 but managed only very modest progress, and sometimes none at all, in the latter.

If Biden really wants to be President “for all Americans”, there’s really only one way to do this—bringing all parts of America forward to greater prosperity, rather than allowing the current geographic split in economic trajectory to continue. This will not be easy but Biden’s new unifying politics can and should include this. 

In conclusion, America needs President Biden and Vice President Harris to succeed, and citizens can help advance these efforts by heeding Biden’s calls for cooperation based on liberal values of civility, reason, and mutual recognition of one another:

We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue. Rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment stand in their shoes. Because here’s this thing about life: There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days, when you need a hand, there are other days when we’re called to lend a hand.   

That’s how it has to be. That’s what we do for one another. And if we are this way, our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future, and we can still disagree. My fellow Americans, in the work ahead of us, we’re going to need each other. We need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter.  

With these words of personal encouragement and candor as the backdrop for his efforts, President Joseph R. Biden concluded his address in the tradition of many American leaders: “So, with purpose and resolve, we turn to those tasks of our time, sustained by faith, driven by conviction and devoted to one another and the country we love with all our hearts. May God bless America and may God protect our troops.”