A lot has gone right for the new president. Here are three things that could go wrong.
The first two months of the Biden presidency have gone about as well as anyone in a new administration could reasonably hope. The policy battle over the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill managed the neat trick of simultaneously uniting the Democratic Party, energizing the Biden-skeptical left and putting the Republicans way on the wrong side of public opinion. The vaccination push continues to meet its targets and the “dark winter” wave of new cases receded much faster than the new administration probably anticipated. What will hereafter be known as the “Neera Tanden gambit” appears to have successfully provided cover for the rest of Joe Biden’s cabinet to win approval, widely or narrowly, without bruising conflicts. The president’s approval/disapproval averages sit around 55 percent/39 percent, and you can shave a few points off the average out of poll-skepticism without changing Biden’s fundamentally enviable position.
There’s a possible future where this pattern just continues. The country enjoys a post-pandemic economic boom and an era of (relative) good feelings, with Americans hopping into self-driving cars on their way to nightclubs and wedding chapels. Biden pushes popular economic policies against a Republican Party that can’t agree on what it stands for, let alone offer something that a majority of voters might support. And as in the 1990s, culture war and foreign policy debates stir strong passions but don’t dent the popularity of the Democrat in the White House.
But it’s also possible, already, to see three places where a shadow might fall: three challenges waiting that might dash this administration on the rocks.
The most immediate of the three is the crisis on the southern border, where the Biden White House is already facing the same challenges as its predecessors — trying to prevent a humane policy toward asylum-seekers from becoming an open door to all comers — but with unique stresses created by how liberals reacted to the Trump era.
All immigration policy short of open borders involves a certain degree of harshness, in which some sympathetic migrants are denied entry and the promise of detention and deportation persuades others not to make the trip. Before Donald Trump, mainstream liberal politics gave a certain latitude to Democratic presidents to act harshly: For instance, even though Barack Obama took plenty of fire from the left, he was able to run a border crackdown after the migration surges of 2014 without dividing his party.
The specific cruelty of Trump’s child-separation policy, though, forced liberals to confront detention policies and conditions that they had been more likely to ignore under Obama. This in turn established a new standard for the Biden administration: It’s supposed to control the border without recourse to either the tough tactics the Trump White House ultimately settled on — the “remain in Mexico” requirement for asylum-seekers, especially — or the detention policies of the late Obama years, which also placed migrants, including kids, in the cages that caused so much scandal under Trump.
So far the new administration is failing that test. Under the pressure of a new wave of asylum-seekers, the Biden White House is simultaneously reproducing the kind of detention conditions that were regularly denounced in the Trump era and failing to slow the flow of migrants over all — a policy neither notably humane nor notably effective.
Eventually it may find a better balance, but the danger is that there isn’t one: that for the near term, at least, the United States faces a choice between policies that treat migrants, including children, harshly, and kinder policies that regularly overwhelm the asylum bureaucracy and the Border Patrol’s capacities. In which case immigration could once again become a chronic problem issue for the Democrats, returning us — after a pro-immigration shift in public opinion in the last four years — to the political landscape that helped get Trump elected in the first place.
Then beyond immigration on the policy horizon is another of Trump’s issues: the ambitions of the People’s Republic of China. The Trump-era suite of debates, on trade policy and human rights, is likely to be a backdrop to U.S. domestic politics, not an agenda-setter. But Beijing may have more than trade war and domestic repression on its mind. The combination of the Communist regime’s sense of its own post-Covid strengths and the palpable Western desire for a return to normalcy could create a window in which there’s a real danger of war over Taiwan.
Here the Biden White House, to its credit, seems well aware of the danger. If anything the administration is taking a tougher rhetorical line than Trump on some China-related issues (Trump was not exactly a zealous promoter of democracy or self-determination), while seeking a military recalibration that would prepare the U.S. for a possible defense of Taiwan against invasion.
But as Elbridge Colby and Walter Slocombe argue in a new essay for the online journal War on the Rocks, the recalibration may not keep up with China’s growing strength, and as the China-watcher Tanner Greer pointed out last September, Taiwan’s preparedness is open to question. Even with a White House attuned to the threat, an attempted annexation and a shocking American defeat are within the realm of possibility.
To that longer-term peril for Biden’s presidency abroad, add one at home: the risk that instead of a Biden boom we get a Biden blip, a year or so of fast growth followed by a return to the middling-to-mediocre economy we’ve had for much of the 21st century. (This seems more likely than suddenly skyrocketing inflation; inflation is more likely to build slowly, as a drag on the economy rather than a crisis.)
In the blip scenario, Biden-era economic growth might not feel strong enough to compensate for America’s various forms of social crisis — opioid abuse and suicide, teenage depression and middle-age despair. The coronavirus era has made some of these unravelings worse — through the rising crime rate; the academic and psychological damage to children; the postponement of work, relationships, marriage and kids for young adults; the isolation of the old. The social liberalism of the Democratic Party doesn’t have obvious answers to these problems, should its economic liberalism fail to get growth going faster than before.
You will notice that I haven’t mentioned the current ideological outgrowth of social liberalism, “woke” progressivism, in this list of forces that could weaken or unmake a Biden administration. That’s not because this kind of progressivism is particularly popular: Conservatives are attacking activist excesses and “cancel culture” rather than attacking the relief bill because they know which is more of a vulnerability for the Democrats.
But in a world of strong job growth and relative domestic tranquillity, Biden should be able to maintain some distance between his administration and the censorious left, adapting just enough to satisfy progressives while continuing to avoid the lure of activist jargon and the pitfalls of Twitter fights.
Where the new progressivism could become a big problem for the Democrats is if it seems connected to some specific crisis that’s clearly the Biden White House’s responsibility, in a way that makes “weakness and wokeness” a reasonable line of conservative attack.
For instance, a scenario where it seems like the Biden White House can’t get control of the border because it’s too worried what “Latinx” activist groups will say, even though none of those groups necessarily represent the Hispanic vote writ large.
Or a scenario where the U.S. military spends several years bragging about its commitment to diversity and clapping back at attacks from the likes of Tucker Carlson — and then gets smashed to pieces in the Taiwan Strait.
Or a world where the economy sags and the pan-racial social crisis deepens, and progressivism’s anti-racist fixations become a symbol of privilege in their own right — a “let them read ‘Antiracist Baby’!” signifier of a left that’s completely out of touch.
A fear of wokeness will hold the conservative coalition together no matter what. But that coalition is currently a minority, and for Biden’s coalition a prosperous return to normalcy will probably suffice to hold power no matter which books disappear from eBay or from Amazon, or what the San Francisco Board of Education tries next.
If the Biden administration begins to fail conspicuously, though, wokeness could be the anchor dragging liberalism down to repudiation and defeat.