The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden seems like Trump’s opposite in every way. He’s not.

President Biden visits Section 60, where U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
President Biden visits Section 60, where U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

It has been four months since Joe Biden replaced Donald Trump as president and Democrats took control of Congress. The most underreported story of the transition is not how much things have changed, but how much they haven’t.

Biden has brought a dramatically more decent and professional style to the White House, and changed Trump’s course on climate, taxes and relations with traditional U.S. allies. Meanwhile, Republicans attack his administration as a leftist threat. The two parties are locked in racially tinged battles over the rules of U.S. democracy, from voting rights to law enforcement.

The importance of this moment can also be measured, however, by the issues politicians are not arguing about. In several key areas, Biden’s policies resemble those Trump probably would have pursued if reelected.

Entitlements: For decades, reducing the long-term costs of Social Security and Medicare was the stuff of congressional and media discussion, with Republicans, led by former House speaker Paul D. Ryan, generally arguing for cuts, but many Democrats also calling for savings. Even the Obama administration offered ideas to make the programs, which accounted for 45 percent of federal spending in fiscal 2018, more efficient.

Openly deriding the unpopularity of Ryan’s approach, Trump got elected in 2016 on a promise not to “touch” entitlements, and later signed a budget-busting tax cut that made a mockery of GOP deficit hawkery. End of discussion.

Follow Charles Lane's opinionsFollow

So broken is the taboo against welfare-state expansion that Trump felt free to call for $2,000 stimulus “checks” last December; Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) proposes new cash payments for families with children.

To be sure, even Biden’s $6 trillion spending plans don’t include expanding Social Security and Medicare, which many progressives support.

But the bottom line is clear: The first baby boomers, born in 1946, reached Social Security age in 2008, and there probably will be no overhaul of the program by the end of Biden’s term in 2025, when all 71.6 million boomers will have qualified, except for those born in 1963 and 1964.

Tariffs: In 2018, Trump launched a trade war against China, imposing new tariffs that now affect two-thirds of all U.S. imports from the People’s Republic, at an average rate of 19.3 percent, according to the Peterson Institute of International Economics.

Biden has maintained these tariffs since taking office. A major Democratic constituency — organized labor — likes them, and free trade faces a broad reconsideration in both parties, given China’s refusal to match U.S. engagement by modifying its mercantilist policies.

Biden does believe that Trump’s tariffs on allies such as the European Union prevented a potential Western united front against China, and is therefore working on a compromise to end the transatlantic trade skirmish Trump bequeathed him.

But U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai has confirmed that Trump’s China tariffs — adopted by executive fiat pursuant to a controversial “national security” provision of trade law — will stay for now because they strengthen the United States’ hand in potential talks with Beijing: “No negotiator walks away from leverage, right?” she told the Wall Street Journal.

“Forever wars.” Biden actually used this phrase — equivalent to Trump’s “endless wars” — in announcing a pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11. This is almost exactly what would have happened if Trump had been reelected, which helps explain why Republicans raised only relatively mild objections.

Like Trump, Biden has concluded that the United States long ago achieved whatever it could, and that the troop presence in Afghanistan was costing the United States billions that could be better spent on domestic needs or more pressing foreign policy interests, rather than the fight on terrorism, which has abated.

Biden’s “forever war” epithet carries an implication of “never again.” At the very least, it reflects a foreign policy that, like Trump’s, de-emphasizes Middle East conflicts and diplomacy in favor of containing China.

The fact that U.S. policy-makers may be converging on these broad policies does not mean that they’re right.

To the contrary, it’s risky to ignore the long-run finances of old-age programs, and the federal deficits and debt to which they contribute.

Tariffs on China raise costs to U.S. consumers while often shifting production elsewhere in Asia — not restoring jobs to this country. The post-U.S. situation in Afghanistan is bound to be ugly; for women under Taliban rule, perhaps unimaginably so.

A major crisis — a resurgent virus, say, or rampant inflation — could overturn everything. For now, though, domestic and international trends are tugging the United States toward a different paradigm from the one that dominated between the Cold War’s end and Trump’s election: more spending on domestic government programs, more protectionism, more focus on Asia and great-power competition.

This paradigm could define the 21st-century United States, if its society and culture can avoid being torn apart by the divisions over race, gender, region and ideology, which the Trump years inflamed, displacing conventional policy debate. Alas, it’s a big “if.”

Read more from Charles Lane’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this column: The differences in presidential administrations

The Post’s View: A slaughter at a girls’ school may foretell Afghanistan’s future

Jeanne Shaheen and Angelina Jolie: Here’s how to ensure Afghan women are protected after the U.S. withdrawal

Bernie Sanders and Ro Khanna: Withdrawing from Afghanistan is a courageous step. Here’s what must come next.

Henry Olsen: Joe Biden hasn’t lifted Trump’s tariffs on China. Good.

Mitch Daniels: We were right to worry about the nation’s fiscal future. But I know when to fold ’em.