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Opinion The pluses and minuses of Bidenism

President Biden attends an event with governors of Western states and members of his Cabinet on Wednesday in Washington. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

This article has been updated.

I wasn’t really sure what a Biden presidency would look like. He hasn’t been associated with some school of thought or particular wing in the Democratic Party, and as a senator and vice president, he never had the power to implement his own vision. Now, five months into his presidency, we have a better sense of President Biden’s inclinations and priorities. So here’s my view of the good and bad of Bidenism.

First, the good:

Economic populism. When Biden announced his $1.9 trillion economic stimulus plan before his inauguration, I assumed this was a negotiating posture. Surely, he would come down to $1 trillion, maybe $1.3 trillion. I am still shocked that legislation became law at that number. And it’s not just the stimulus — we’ve heard strong rhetoric from Biden about “full employment” and the need for companies to pay workers more, and he is proposing trillions in spending on infrastructure and other things on top of the stimulus.

A real commitment to issues of race and identity. Biden is fully embracing the equality-minded, multicultural ethos of his party, from the administration’s focus on racial equity to a diverse slate of judicial appointments that includes the first-ever Muslim federal district court judge to the designation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. And Biden is using the bully pulpit in important ways on racial issues, such as giving a speech in Tulsa for the 100th anniversary of the attack on Black people there.

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Also, it’s notable what Biden is not doing: taking Sister-Souljah-type steps to distance himself from the party’s Black activists in an effort to appeal to White voters. When the White House announced recently that Biden would give a speech on crime, I was sure Black Lives Matter activists were going to be harshly scolded for their attempts to rein in police. Nope. Biden offered actual ideas for reducing crime.

Respect for the Democratic left. Biden isn’t of the Democratic left, but his approach has been to bring the left into the fold and push for incremental versions of progressive ideas instead of distancing himself from that wing of the party.

Useful outreach to Republicans. Republicans are not all the same: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) is an extremist; Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) is a normal Republican who will be polite to Biden but is unlikely to embrace much of his agenda; and Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) actually is interested in working with Biden on some issues. There are also many rank-and-file Republican voters who back their party but aren’t anti-democratic or racist. Biden seems to understand this. So he holds respectful meetings with people such as Capito but concentrates on cutting deals with Republicans such as Romney and uses rhetoric that might appeal to Republicans outside the Fox News bubble. This is laudable. The country is divided, but we don’t need the president stoking that division the way Donald Trump did.

Detail-oriented governing. Rolling out a new health-care initiative with a website that didn’t work, as President Barack Obama did, was a disaster. Team Biden seems obsessed with executing policies well, particularly in terms of the covid-19 vaccine process.

One key item is still to be determined:

Deference to bipartisanship and tradition. Biden was, in my view, overly excited about getting GOP support for his infrastructure proposal — a bill isn’t inherently better or necessarily more popular with the public because a handful of GOP lawmakers support it. He also isn’t pushing ideas such as major reforms to the federal judiciary that are important and necessary, nor is he using his executive authority as much as he could. I worry this is because a longtime Washington insider such as Biden is invested in cutting deals with his onetime colleagues on Capitol Hill instead of advancing partisan legislation or executive policies. But an alternative explanation is that Biden is constrained by a federal judiciary full of conservatives who are likely to strike down his executive actions and that his focus on bipartisanship is really designed to woo centrist Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.). It is just too soon to tell whether Biden himself is too cautious and incremental, or whether he is being forced into that posture at times.

But there is some bad:

A lack of urgency on the threat to democracy. I understand why Biden is not spending a lot of time on the various voting rights bills in Congress — they are long shots because some Democratic senators won’t vote to get rid of the filibuster. But there are times when Biden is acting like it’s 1995, without really grappling with the events of the past year. The Supreme Court’s decision Thursday further weakening the Voting Rights Act only adds to the urgency of Biden addressing these core democracy issues. A Democratic president in 2021 should put the radicalization of the Republican Party and the resulting decline of American democracy at the center of his presidency — even if he doesn’t have the power to fix those problems.

Status quo foreign policy. The fresh thinking on domestic issues in the administration doesn’t extend to Biden’s foreign policy, which seems stuck in outdated norms (including reflexive U.S. defense of whatever Israel does). The one new wrinkle (compared with past Democratic administrations) is a Cold War-like mentality regarding China. Maybe China is the biggest long-term threat to the United States — but it seems to me that climate change and the authoritarian drift in the GOP are more urgent.

Overall, and early on, Bidenism looks like a bet that effective policies on economic and identity issues, managing the government well and projecting a positive attitude toward the other side will address this democracy crisis. I hope Biden is right. I fear he is wrong.

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