A formula for disappointment? Joe Biden’s center right return to ‘normal’ at home and abroad

Having a new occupant in the White House is a relief for many people but the current moment clearly requires radical change.

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Considering a vaccine roll out that’s the envy of much of the world, a stimulus package that’s already providing at least some relief to Americans living with the economic fallout of the continuing health crisis and a proposed infrastructure bill, the Biden administration appears to have done more in its first 100 days domestically than most of the left suspected was even possible in such a divided country.

The infrastructure bill announced at the end of March and officially called the American Jobs Plan doesn’t go as far on issues like climate change as the country’s progressives were promised in the lead up to the 2020 election, but at least provides for some investments that should have been made long ago.

It would be easy to make conservative arguments for such spending, especially in an era of rightwing populism, but this hasn’t stopped politicians and pundits from this milieu from using the plan’s contents to concern troll about how the administration is defining the word itself. Some have claimed, for example, that provisions to create employment opportunities in home care by raising wages and providing more benefits to these long neglected essential workers can’t be called ‘infrastructure’ spending.

For American progressives like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the problem with the American Jobs Plan is the opposite; in her reading, it isn’t ambitious enough, “The important context here is that it’s $2.25T spread out over 10 years,” she wrote after the bill’s initial release, “For context, the COVID package was $1.9T for this year alone, with some provisions lasting 2 years,” she recently wrote.

Ocasio-Cortez might also have mentioned that the administration is planning on increasing defense spending from $704 to $715 billion this year (the only area where Biden is sure to get some Republican support), a budget that, if it remains the same or grows over the next 4 years, will be larger in that time frame than what’s proposed in the American Jobs Plan over a 10 year time frame.

One of the biggest obstacles to making these long delayed investments in modernizing and building upon the country’s crumbling infrastructure might be the new president’s belief in an ideal of bipartisanship that can’t be reconciled with the stark divisions in contemporary U.S. politics. All this belief has done for many years is push the leadership of the Democratic Party to the right in a vain attempt to own the neoliberal ‘center’ and made the party less likely to even attempt to craft policies that polling has suggested appeals to voters across the political spectrum, like the proposed infrastructure spending, universal health care or student debt relief.

“I’m prepared to negotiate as to the extent of my infrastructure project, as well as how we pay for it,” Biden announced after a meeting with a cross party group of lawmakers on April 12th, all but admitting that the legislation will be scaled down and possibly stripped of its meager sustainability goals. This will further complicate the president’s relations with his party’s growing progressive wing, whose own credibility is increasingly at stake with constituents and the larger movement as the administration turns its back on many of the promises they campaigned for him on.

Still, in purely political terms, quickly getting the legislation passed, flawed as it may be in some areas, could have a very positive effect on Democratic Party prospects as a whole in the 2022 midterms, creating enough excitement among working people to counter ongoing Republican efforts at disenfranchisement and voter suppression.

Despite mixed but somewhat positive developments domestically, in terms of America’s place in the larger world, the dangerous belief in American exceptionalism seems immune to changes in government. The really problematic parts of the Biden Administration’s foreign policy, excluding what’s happening on the country’s southern border, are in two main areas.

The first revolves around U.S. involvement in the Greater Middle East.

While Biden promised to end ‘offensive’ operations in Yemen, the administration later clarified that they would continue ‘defensive’ ones in aid of Saudi Arabia and its allies. As reported by Walter Bragman, there are interesting connections between the current Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, and Raytheon, which the previous administration allowed to manufacture smart bomb parts in Saudi Arabia, eliminating the need for American help in this area.

Then there is the country’s clearly illegal involvement in Syria (including the occupation of the country’s oil fields), which seems set to continue, along with other militaristic adventurism like support for France’s imperialistic foray into the Sahel region of Africa.

On a more positive note, the former president’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of failure was one of the few promising aspects of his predecessor’s foreign policy. Barring a change in the position of negotiators for the Taliban insurgents, the Biden administration does seem to be following through on ending the costly intervention over a longer timeline than established by the Trump administration.

At the same time, it appears likely that the United States and its allies will continue to flex their military muscle in Afghanistan through more covert means like drone warfare and the deployment of military contractors. One need only look at the ongoing campaign in Somalia to see that war does not need to be declared for continuing interventions that result in massive civilian casualties.

In terms of the second area of concern, much more is at stake in how the administration deals with its already frayed relations with near peer or rival nations, specifically the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. It should be clear that calling for diplomacy is not an endorsement of the sometimes malign actions and policies of these governments. One of the most remarkable things about the U.S. foreign policy ‘blob’ as it’s sometimes called is a complete inability to view relations with other countries in nuanced terms.

Besides being blamed for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, liberal interventionists and neoconservatives in media and in government spent a year playing up the now thoroughly discredited story (sourced from unnamed intelligence sources) of Russia putting bounties on the heads of American troops in Afghanistan.

What was often missed by mainstream reporters during the last Administration was that despite Donald Trump’s obvious admiration for Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian style of governing, his foreign policy was driven by neoconservative hawks like John Bolton and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and was arguably more aggressive than President Obama’s before it.

The Russia Federation offers an interesting parallel to regional powers subject to economic warfare in the form of sanctions like Iran and Venezuela in that its decline from superpower status resulted in a kind of super charged petro-state that would appear at first to be vulnerable to them. Despite this, the country’s permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, size and strategic location, large military and often savvy diplomacy has allowed it to continue to play an outsized role on the world stage.

Adding to the worries of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, a long running Russian rivalry with China has been eclipsed by a closer relationship to confront the U.S. and its allies. One worrying example of this for American policymakers should be the decision by Russian authorities to ditch the American dollar in favor of the Yuan in trades with the People’s Republic.

This alone shows that the latter country is a different kind of threat to those who believe that the United States should remain the world’s superpower at all costs rather than accept the growing reality of a multi-polar world. While America and its allies should be prepared to criticize China’s actions in Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and other areas subject to resurgent Chinese nationalism, there are opportunities offered by the country’s growing influence in the world.

Unlikely as it might be, American involvement in some of China’s Belt and Road initiatives to aid in the construction of infrastructure in countries as diverse as Ethiopia and Italy would allow the United States to not only win new friends in these places but also influence the price that will almost certainly be extracted from recipients of this aid by the People’s Republic over time.

It may also be good for the Biden administration to concentrate more effort closer to home as the long term focus across party lines on shrinking most government while devoting ever more resources to a ballooning military was leading to a decline on many fronts before the current health crisis even began.

Presuming that the American Jobs Act passes, the U.S. and its allies, especially Canada, which is deeply involved in mining and other extractive industries, might begin to see the practicality of devoting some resources to a kind of Marshall Plan to do similar things in Central America and the Caribbean, whose people have given so much wealth to them and their European allies over centuries without receiving anything in return. A program like this could also begin to limit the impact of rightwing hysteria around migration, especially in the U.S.

In many ways, just having a new occupant in the White House is a relief for many people far beyond the country’s borders. At the same time, the current moment clearly requires radical change at home and unprecedented international cooperation abroad to deal with global issues from growing militarism in many regional hotspots to the pandemic to climate change that no country can tackle alone.

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