It is hard to overstate the audaciousness of President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, which will be marked April 30. Behind it lies a presidential ambition to recharge America while at the same time improving U.S. odds in its escalating contest with China.
Biden’s boldness can be measured most graphically by the numbers: the $4 trillion and counting that he hopes to generate to finance an American pandemic rebound, a surge in U.S. jobs and growth, and a mountain of national infrastructure investments (defining “infrastructure” liberally).
Never in my memory has any U.S. president so closely associated domestic investments with U.S. global standing—and now he is acting on that conviction.
Biden made sure no one missed the connection to China when he rolled out his infrastructure spending proposal this week, which he called “the single largest investment in American jobs since World War II.”
Asked Biden, “Do you think China is waiting around to invest in this digital infrastructure or in research and development? I promise you they are not waiting. But they’re counting on American democracy to be too slow, too limited, and too divided to keep pace … We have to show the world. Much more important we have to show ourselves that democracy works. That we can come together on the big things. It’s the United States of America for God’s sake!”
Biden administration officials, who are veterans of the Obama years, say they are acting on several lessons: Don’t be distracted by cable television criticism of your plans, don’t be thrown off by economists, don’t count on bipartisan support, and don’t set your sites too low.
“Go big or go home,” said one former Obama official to me, summing up the attitude driving Biden’s first 100 days. That has been made easier to achieve due to the Democrats’ continued control of the House and de facto hold on the Senate with a 50-50 split—and, where necessary, a tie-breaking vice presidential vote.
President Biden first showed how big he was willing to go through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, passed in early March, one of the largest economic stimulus bills Americans had ever seen. It was far more than Republicans, or many economists, thought necessary but Biden had the votes.
Then this week he rolled out plans for $2.3 trillion in infrastructure spending. Define that term to include everything from bridges and broadband networks to spending on the elderly and educating the young. As with the first bill, expect this one as well to pass largely along partisan lines.
The mistake many of Biden’s critics make is concentrating on the head-spinning numbers—instead of the breath-taking politics.
Think about all these trillions less as a boatload of money than as Biden’s down payment on securing America’s place in the world, his place in history and his party’s re-election. Over the short term, that means enough Americans see results to ensure mid-term elections in 2022.
Seen that way, what may seem to fiscal conservatives to be reckless economics seems prudent politics to the Biden team.
In some respects, what President Biden is doing is leveraging his luck. Though Biden has suffered a great deal of misfortune in his life, both personal and political, the stars have been aligned since his election.
Recovery from Covid this year was inevitable, but his administration’s disciplined management of vaccine distribution has accelerated the process and his political standing. Biden last week moved the deadline for all adults to be eligible for the COVID vaccine to April 19.
An economic rebound this year also was inevitable, but the Biden administration’s stimulus measures are likely to result, according to IMF projections, in 6.4% growth this year, the highest since 1984, and then 3.5% in 2022.
It remains to be seen how much economic and political momentum $4 trillion can buy, with more to follow. However, J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon reckons that vaccines and deficit spending could bring a U.S. economic boom that could last through 2023, so beyond the mid-term elections, where the Biden team knows victory is crucial to their larger aims.
It is also hard to know what impact this will have on China, but thus far the contest between Beijing and Washington has been sharpening in the early weeks of the Biden administration.
International visitors to China over the past years have noticed an increasing confidence among Chinese leaders of the inevitability of American decline and of their rise.
Many Chinese actions at home and in the world—the bullying of international partners, the building out of South China Sea islands, the reversal of Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms and increased threats to Taiwan—all reflect that confidence that they could act with relative impunity and modest cost.
China also is wagering that because many of America’s most valued allies and partners—Japan, South Korean, Germany and the European Union as a whole—have China as their number one trading partner, they will be reluctant to join any common cause against Beijing.
The bitter exchanges at the first face-to-face meeting of Chinese and American leaders in Alaska underscored how difficult it will be to manage an increasingly combative relationship.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for President Biden to combine his domestic and international goals is that he is far more likely to find political consensus around the need to confront China than he will find for any of his spending plans on their own.
Before Kurt Campbell joined the Biden administration as its Indo-Pacific coordinator, he wrote with Rush Doshi, who is now China director in the National Security Council, that the Chinese challenge could be a blessing in prompting the U.S. to make the investments that would be prudent in any case.
“The path away from decline…may run through a rare area susceptible to bipartisan consensus,” they wrote, “the need for the United States to rise to the China challenge.”
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.
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