I’ve had a long love-hate relationship with the US. Many visits and many friends – much time spent working on the historic relationship between the Scottish and the American Episcopal Churches. So I thought it was a bit ironic that my final working visit to the US began when I preached at the Diocesan Convention in Cleveland, Ohio four days after the 2016 Presidential Election – in the heart of Trump country. I remember a sense of real foreboding as I watched the building of the dais where Donald Trump was soon to be sworn in and would make his notorious ‘America First’ speech.
The commentators are working hard on their assessment of the Trump years – excellent material like John Sopel’s ‘Unpresidented’
But it’s a real surprise that they are now having to come to terms with the speed and determination of President Joe Biden’s move to the progressive left. Many appear dumbstruck by Biden’s sheer audacity. Over a long career, he was many things but never a radical. Reversing normal practice, he ran from the centre, yet now he governs from the progressive left. Perhaps, at 78, he feels he has little to lose and the nation much to gain. Biden is a man in a hurry and spurring him is not only an older man’s zeal but a crude calculation. The Democrats’ majority in Congress is wafer-thin and the 2022 midterms loom.
In part this is about the return of ‘big government’. Some compare him to President Franklin D Roosevelt whose New Deal saw America through the Great Depression and World War II. Irish President Michael D Higgins put it like this:
“The notion was that the state should be small, where it was tolerated at all, but here we are now, where, at the global level, we can’t possibly respond to the challenge of climate change without the state. And now with the pandemic – again it is the state.”
The theorists of minimal government, he suggests, “have all run to the hills but they’re not gone away. They are in the bushes. They will re-emerge on an argument about the deficit. There is no way you can handle the state deficits that are built up in responding to Covid and say it can be done in that [old] model.”
People write with appreciation of the competence of the new administration and its readiness to listen and to take ideas on board.
But some things look very familiar to anyone who has tried to offer radical leadership in a conservative/traditional context. I used to say in the parish that ‘I would always approach from the right’ if I wanted people to go with me. Biden is really interesting in his approach. After Donald Trump’s non-stop Twitter assault on the psyche of the American people, Biden is quiet and invisible for much of the time. They say he has the gift of making his most daring and radical proposals seem utterly boring.
And the polls seem to suggest that it is working. Public support is high. And one more thing …. Biden is a natural ‘crosser of the aisle’ – always wanting to see if he can make a cross-party approach work. At this moment, he has made the pragmatic assessment that that isn’t going to work for him with today’s Republican Party and he is forging ahead anyway. Even the most dedicated healers and reconcilers sometimes need to recognise when that just isn’t going to work.