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Four Ways of Looking at the Radicalism of Joe Biden

Even beyond climate, political risks weigh more heavily on the Biden administration than they did on past administrations. This is another lesson learned from the Obama years. The Obama team had real policy successes: They prevented another Great Depression, they re-regulated the financial sector, they expanded health insurance to more than 20 million people. But Democrats lost the House in 2010, effectively ending Obama’s legislative agenda, and then they lost the Senate in 2014, and then Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, and then Democrats lost the Supreme Court for a generation.

Many who served under Obama, and who now serve under Biden, believe that they were so focused on economic risks that they missed the political risks — and you can’t make good economic policy if you lose political power. The Biden team is haunted by the fear that if they fail, a Trump-like strongman could recapture power. This helps explain why, for instance, they’re unmoved by arguments that the $1,400 stimulus checks, though wildly popular, were poorly targeted. As one of Biden’s economic advisers put it to me, “if we don’t show people we’re helping the dickens out of them, this country could be back to Trump way too quickly,” only he used an earthier word than “dickens.”

Biden is a politician, in the truest sense of the word. Biden sees his role, in part, as sensing what the country wants, intuiting what people will and won’t accept, and then working within those boundaries. In America, that’s often treated as a dirty business. We like the aesthetics of conviction, we believe leaders should follow their own counsel, we use “politician” as an epithet.

But Biden’s more traditional understanding of the politician’s job has given him the flexibility to change alongside the country. When the mood was more conservative, when the idea of big government frightened people and the virtues of private enterprise gleamed, Biden reflected those politics, calling for balanced budget amendments and warning of “welfare mothers driving luxury cars.” Then the country changed, and so did he.

A younger generation revived the American left, and Bernie Sanders’s two campaigns proved the potency of its politics. Republicans abandoned any pretense of fiscal conservatism, and Trump raised — but did not follow through on — the fearful possibility of a populist conservatism, one that would combine xenophobia and resentment with popular economic policies. Stagnating wages and a warming world and Hurricane Katrina and a pandemic virus proved that there were scarier words in the English language than “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” as Ronald Reagan famously put it.

Even when Biden was running as the moderate in the Democratic primary, his agenda had moved well to the left of anything he’d supported before. But then he did something unusual: Rather than swinging to the center in the general election, he went further left. And the same happened after winning the election. He’s moved away from work requirements and complex targeting in policy design. He’s emphasizing the irresponsibility of allowing social and economic problems to fester, as opposed to the irresponsibility of spending money on social and economic problems. His administration is defined by the fear that the government isn’t doing enough, not that it’s doing too much. As the pseudonymous commentator James Medlock wrote on Twitter, “The era of ‘the era of big government is over’ is over.’”

Additional reporting by Roge Karma.

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