Donald who? How Biden is outshining Trump (and Obama)

The promise and perils of the Biden presidency in comparison to other presidents.

US President Joe Biden has signed more than 50 executive actions since taking office [File: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque]

Joe Biden is on a roll.

The United States president has already surpassed the 100 million vaccinations benchmark he set for the first 100 days of his administration, and last week, he predicted 200 million would be administered before the end of April.

All attempts by Donald Trump to take credit for the successful vaccination drive in the US fell on deaf ears nationwide. “The other guy”, as Biden likes to refer to the former president, seems to be out of sight and out of mind.

With three-quarters of Americans happy with Biden’s handling of the pandemic, according to a recent poll, the new president has successfully passed a mammoth $1.9 trillion relief bill, one of the biggest stimulus plans in the nation’s history.

Biden’s rescue plan offers more direct help to more Americans than any stimulus plan since the 2008 financial crisis, focusing more on people than corporations or banks, to help the economy turn the corner after the coronavirus ran havoc.

And it will also expand welfare for more American families as a way to tackle poverty, mainly by raising taxes on corporations and the rich.

But the rescue plan now looks modest in comparison to Biden’s even more ambitious recovery plan worth $3 trillion, which the administration hopes to spend on national infrastructural, housing and environmental projects in its first $2 trillion phase, and on healthcare, childcare, etc in its second phase.

The plan is not only meant to help the US catch up with other major developed nations in terms of quality of its infrastructure, digital and social services, but also to help put millions of Americans back to work, and in the process, tackle poverty, marginalisation, and racism more effectively.

Biden has also signed over 50 executive actions – more than any of his recent predecessors – many of which were aimed at rolling back or dismantling Trump-era policies.

And there is more ambitious legislation in the pipeline.

The administration is working with its allies in Congress to pass “For The People Act”, a popular draft resolution that aims to expand voting rights of disenfranchised Americans and to curb the influence of money in politics.

Since the US Supreme Court rejected limits on corporate political contributions in 2010, corporate spending has run amok, deforming the electoral and legislative process, in both the GOP and the Democratic Party.

If Biden is successful in his endeavours, his growing popularity may help preserve and even expand the Democrats’ working majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives at the 2022 mid-term elections.

In short, Biden has wisely seized the historical moment, in the belief that one does not let a big crisis such as the pandemic go to waste, when major change is possible at such a critical juncture.

His ambitious legislative agenda is already inviting comparisons with other transformative and consequential presidents.

Generally, such parallels are pervasive in the US media and academia. Americans love to rate and compare their leaders as they do their athletes, movie stars and music artists.

And while presidential analogies are complicated, they do provide, even the presidents themselves, with wider perspectives on prospects for success and failure.

Biden has already met with historians to get their comparative perspectives, just as President Barack Obama did on many occasions. Trump needed no such consultations to compare himself with Abraham Lincoln and, well, Jesus Christ.

Analogies, of course, vary. They can be ideological, political, personal, structural, or related to personal pedigree. But the most relevant are those, which focus on the most consequential attributes of a given presidency.

For example, the Obama-John F Kennedy analogy seemed attractive in 2009, when America’s first Black president was compared with its first Catholic president.

Both were seen as relative outsiders, young, charismatic and eloquent speakers, and both won the Americans’ hearts and minds in landslide elections. But while the two were consequential inspiring figures, neither was truly a transformative president.

By the way, if you thought Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech was ground-breaking, you have not read Kennedy’s Algeria speech of 1957.

Another interesting parallel is Trump-Richard Nixon. While one was politically experienced and strategically savvy, and the other populist and silly (I will let you decide who was what), they shared a wicked streak, appeasing the religious fanatics, assaulting the free press, playing the race card, and deceiving the American people, all of which led to their demise.

Biden, for his part, seems to be increasingly compared with Lyndon B Johnson. The analogy focuses on their legislative agendas and policies, namely comparing Biden’s “For The People Act” and his rescue and recovery plans with Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act and his Great Society programmes that solidified America’s social and economic safety nets.

It is no doubt a convincing analogy even at this early stage in the Biden presidency, and even though comparing the policies of different presidents from different eras can be tricky when devoid of historical and strategic contexts.

But Biden and Johnson also share one of the most essential ingredients of a successful and enduring leadership: experience.

Both presidents had long careers as members of the Congress and both served as vice presidents in the shadows of more inspiring figures with far less experience, which seems to have rubbed off on them.

And so when their time finally came, both hit the ground running, armed with deep knowledge of the legislative process and keen familiarity with Washington’s political culture.

As Johnson surpassed Kennedy so, in my opinion, Biden can and should surpass Obama on the major challenges America faces today.

It is tragic that half a century after Johnson took it upon himself to tackle the issues of, racism, poverty, and voting rights, the US is still suffering from those very same ills.

With the benefit of hindsight and experience, Biden can and must strive to do better than Johnson by expanding on his domestic achievements, but also avoiding his terrible foreign blunders – namely shunning the prospects of another American war in Southeast Asia and support for another Israeli war in the Middle East.

At this early stage, I remain sceptical. But to my surprise and that of many others, Biden is proving a bolder and more dynamic leader than his predecessors, old and young.