Lorcan Nyhan - Biden cloaks his revolution in the language of the moderate

4th May 2021
Share this blog post:

Originally published in The Sunday Independent

Joe Biden’s first 100 days have seen him beckon in the start of a palatable revolution. And in doing so, he’s proven Donald Trump partly right.

The Republican president consistently claimed that the Biden candidacy was a Trojan horse for the policies of the Democratic party’s more radical left wing.

After three months of Biden’s agenda, it’s clear that his platform could indeed be seen as ‘radical’ and ‘socialist’ — if judged by the traditional, and warped, Republican definitions of the terms.

Biden has either passed or proposed legislation that would lead to $6trn-worth of federal spending. For context, the entire federal outlay in 2019 was $4.4trn.

Biden is proposing two years of free pre-school education, two years of free community college, $2.3bn in infrastructure spending and a $15 minimum wage, while a temporary childcare credit is expected to reduce the number of children in poverty by 50pc. And he wants to pay for it all with the largest single corporate tax increase since Harry Truman’s administration.

No other Democrat could have even dreamed of delivering an agenda this ambitious. Biden can, in large part due to his political image — that of a political moderate.

Republicans have attacked his platform — predictably branding it as radical and socialist. But just like Trump’s election claims, those criticisms are unlikely to stick.

Many voters simply won’t accept Biden could possibly be a socialist, or reckless or radical. People don’t judge on the reality they see, they judge based on the perceptions they hold.

And the public perceive Joe Biden as a middle-of-the-road moderate. No policy he now promotes will remove that filter. And so he has the freedom to be bold, without causing the public to baulk.

Polling shows Biden’s 100-day agenda is popular with the majority of the American public. More importantly though, they also believe it’s achievable.

Polling from YouGov in the aftermath of Wednesday’s State of the Union shows that 75pc of viewers thought that Biden’s speech, outlining many of his positions, was ‘realistic’.

A policy can be popular, but if it’s not seen as deliverable that popularity is irrelevant.

Take Labour’s defeat in the 2020 UK election. Jeremy Corbyn was partly correct when he claimed to have “won the argument” after losing the election. The Corbyn policies, such as free broadband, were wildly popular — in isolation.

But voters didn’t feel Labour could deliver on that platform safely. The popularity of individual policies wasn’t ultimately enough.

People like the Biden policies in theory and believe they are feasible in practise — that’s a golden recipe for success.

If the entire platform can pass through Congress, it could start reversing decades of income inequality.

Policies alone, though, won’t be enough to broaden the Democratic coalition before the 2022 midterm elections.

Due to the eccentricities of the US electoral system, white, rural voters hold outsized influence in elections and Democrats need to reduce their losses with this cohort.

James Carville, the former strategist to Bill Clinton, gave an interview to Vox last week that spelled out this point.

Democrats won’t win the majority of these rural voters back from the arms of the Republicans, but they can, and must, reduce the hammerings from “80-20 to 72-28”.

Biden knows this. And his first State of the Union address was aimed at this group.

Biden is delivering the policies his progressive wing have long coveted; but they’re arriving cloaked in the language needed to make them palatable to these voters.

In discussing his climate agenda, Biden didn’t focus on emission targets or moral obligations.

Instead, he pledged to start creating wind turbines in Pittsburgh, not Beijing, and made it clear that, “For too long we’ve failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis — jobs.”

When promoting his infrastructure plan, his focus was on making it clear that this is a “blue-collar blueprint to build America” and that “nearly 90pc of the infrastructure jobs created don’t require a college degree”.

Likewise, he didn’t frame his battle as his good progressives vs Trump’s evil conservatives, but as America vs China — “We’re in competition with China… to win the 21st century.”

An unmistakably Trump-like nationalist vibe, but clever politics.

Biden wasn’t wasting his time looking for plaudits from his left, he was making an attempt to convert those to his right.

Impressively, the left wing of his party are smart enough not to complain — they’re getting their policies, they don’t need the credit.

Joe Biden has done exactly what Trump warned his voters he’d do — he’s proposing a progressive agenda welcomed by Bernie Sanders. But he’s explaining it in their language.

And he’s teaching other political movements a valuable lesson — if you want to achieve something monumental, cloak it in something moderate.