It has been a wonderful relief to many of us to encounter the sheer normality of the Biden presidency, which is now six months old. This is a president who proposes actual policies to address obvious public needs, negotiates with both parties in Congress about the details, and uses social media only in the carefully bland promotional way that most chief executives do.
The Biden administration already has largely achieved its most pressing immediate goals, which were to rush distribution of COVID vaccines to the American public, get the economy revved again, and get kids back to school. I have been struck by the professionalism of the administration, its clear goal setting, consistent messaging and creative problem-solving efforts. (The fact that at least one-third of the public would prefer to risk dying from COVID rather than get a vaccine is staggering, but not the fault of the administration.)
I have been so pleased by the evident maturity of the president, his willingness to not be at the center of every day’s news, his substantial efforts at bipartisanship, and his restoration of a tone of respect and civility from the White House. He has reminded us of earlier norms for presidential character, tone and behavior.
The policy agenda of the Biden White House came out aggressive and fast. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, passed without any Republican votes on March 11, packed a number of policies into a bill that was mainly marketed as about vaccines and emergency economic stimulus.
The most notable of the extra measures were expansion of the child tax credit and child and dependent care credits, but there was much more in the law, including expansion of the earned income tax credit, aid to state and local governments, and new funding for education, housing, mass transit and struggling pension plans. If these provisions had been disaggregated and passed separately, it would have been easier to see how many different policy goals were pursued — a first term’s worth of work, in one law.
Essentially, Biden used the health and economic emergencies to address child poverty, child care, and a large number of other nitty-gritty challenges facing mainly the most disadvantaged Americans, challenges that have been with us for far longer than the COVID crisis.
“A substantial federal investment even in basic old-school infrastructure, if passed in a bipartisan way, would symbolize at least a bit of repair in the functioning of our crumbling politics and not just our crumbling bridges.”
The current sluggish debate over an infrastructure bill, or bills, has been discouraging in comparison to the swiftness of the American Rescue Plan. But Biden really seems to want a bipartisan deal on this most basic task of government — providing safe and adequate roads, bridges, airports, ports and so on. How green this bill should be, and what else should be considered “infrastructure,” are legitimate debates. But still, a substantial federal investment even in basic old-school infrastructure, if passed in a bipartisan way, would symbolize at least a bit of repair in the functioning of our crumbling politics and not just our crumbling bridges.
Other problems needing attention
Our political polarization and brokenness have left many other policy problems needing attention as well. We just have an awful lot of governing to do in this country, governing that has been pushed to the side while we have been fighting bitterly with each other, mainly over symbols.
Besides ongoing efforts to address the evolving COVID challenge, Biden administration policy proposals and some Congressional efforts are lined up like planes on the runway. Issues include police/criminal justice reform, climate change, voting rights, gun safety, health care access, racial equity, immigration reform, and a number of foreign policy issues — the last mainly a matter of executive action and leadership.
Anyone following the news knows that on the Democratic side of the aisle, differences between moderate, liberal and radical Democrats are quite real, a matter of constant negotiation, and a threat to legislative progress, especially because Democrats’ majorities are so very thin. Those who want to see laws get made are frustrated by these differences.
“This looks like politics at normal room temperature in a decently functioning democracy.”
But, again, this is the stuff of normal politics, the routine unsightly sausage-making of democratic politics. For a veteran politics maven like me, the sheer normality of these arguments and this process, its continuity with all the politics that I have witnessed since I started paying attention during the (gulp) Jimmy Carter era, is deeply reassuring. This looks like politics at normal room temperature in a decently functioning democracy.
The Trump cancer
The problem is that we do not know whether this return to something like normality is going to last. That’s because the Republican Party has largely lost its mind under the impact of Donald Trump. Despite his two impeachments, significant legal troubles, loss of the 2020 election, mishandling of the pandemic, incitement of an insurrection on Jan. 6, and constant undermining of confidence in our elections — through claims about electoral fraud that his formerly loyal attorney general, William Barr, has called pure “bullshit” — Donald Trump remains the beloved leader and top influence in the Republican Party and among millions of everyday Americans.
Trump is a cancer on American democracy in a way that no president has been in my lifetime, and that lifetime includes Richard Nixon. Indeed, I believe that no national political figure since the Civil War has posed as great a threat to American democracy itself. He continues to spread his toxicity through a remade Republican electorate and a cowardly Republican political class.
“Trump is a cancer on American democracy in a way that no president has been in my lifetime, and that lifetime includes Richard Nixon.”
The most recent threat is found in bills undermining nonpartisan election administration, now spreading through GOP-dominated states. Republican legislators in many places are simply torching the homely but essential infrastructure of democracy itself, under the influence of a man so profoundly unworthy of being followed anywhere.
I will just note in passing that this political arsonist won 84% of the white evangelical Christian vote in November 2020.
So, yes, I am breathing slightly easier during this so-far Very Normal Biden Presidency. But how easy can one really breathe while one of our major political parties remains under the sway of Donald Trump?
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. He serves as Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and is the past president of both The American Academy of Religion and The Society of Christian Ethics. He’s the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
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