As the Biden presidency approaches its 100-day mark Friday, is it too soon to attempt a unified theory of America’s 46th president? On the one hand, three months isn’t a very long time (even in politics). On the other, Biden hasn’t exactly been slow to act since he entered the White House, and neither he nor anyone else in Washington is displaying much patience when it comes to defining “Bidenism.”
The striking thing about the Biden presidency so far—for both his fiercest critics and most enthusiastic cheerleaders—is the paradox of the man who campaigned on a return to normalcy governing with FDR-level boldness. Both camps see this as a political trick, either a sinister sleight of hand or a clever packaging of progressive policies in moderate terms, depending on their point of view.
But the inconsistencies of Biden’s first 100 days do not neatly fit this “moderate talk, radical action” pattern. An administration set on selling progressive economic ideas to the widest possible audience would spend a lot less time talking about equity and white supremacy, for example. An administration committed to stressing the need for cooperative action on climate change wouldn’t glibly suggest that pipeline workers who just lost long-held, high-paying jobs could simply learn to build solar panels. Instead, the contradictions point to a more fundamental dynamic, and perhaps the defining feature of the emerging Bidenism: a refusal to acknowledge the existence of any tradeoffs or difficult choices when it comes to governing.
Barely a day goes by without the White House sternly dismissing the suggestion that there might be any sort of downside to anything they are doing. Is there a tradeoff between an aggressive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the next nine years and the fortunes of workers in America’s energy sector? Don’t be silly. Would a minimum wage hike hurt small business owners? Of course not. Is there such a thing as “too much” on pandemic relief legislation? Only if you’re a free-market purist.
In this administration’s mindset, the policies that America urgently needs and that all experts absolutely agree will work just so happen to be exactly the same as those best suited to keeping the Democratic coalition together. What a happy coincidence.
Overseas, America is both “back” and bringing home the troops. China is both a major strategic threat and a vital ally on climate change. Shortly after he was elected, Biden told Americans it was “time to put away the harsh rhetoric,” but when asked about a Georgia election reform bill he accused Republicans of enacting “Jim Crow on steroids.” It is time to respect norms and also time to launch a commission to study packing the Supreme Court. Infrastructure means roads and bridges when the administration wants to talk to blue-collar workers, but paid parental leave when it is talking to urban professionals.
On COVID reopenings, no tradeoffs between different interest groups are acknowledged. The administration paid lip service to reopening schools while at the same time celebrating the teachers unions leaders who have kept them closed, as if there are no downsides to “following the science” and keeping millions students out of the classrooms for an entire year. Insofar as the White House acknowledges the crisis at the border, it is only as an administrative failure to which a technocratic solution can be found. No competing interests between migrants and Americans can be acknowledged.
The Brexit wars that have consumed the U.K. in recent years (and from which I am a traumatized refugee here in the U.S.) birthed a term that sums up the essence of Bidenism nicely: cakeism, as in “having one’s cake and eating it too.” It was generally used to describe proposed Brexit deals that suggested that the U.K. could have all the benefits of leaving the EU without any of the costs. It was a good rebuttal to wishful thinking, and a reminder that to govern is to choose.
The clear thread that runs through everything Biden has done so far is a desire for all the benefits of being a transformative president and a progressive hero, without any of the costs. In other words, his first 100 days are a classic case of cakeism.
A mix of good luck, bad opposition, and a compliant liberal media means that, so far, Biden is getting away with it. The pandemic has given Biden grounds for drastic action and persuaded his more cautious colleagues of the need to act. The Republican Party has been too internally divided and distracted to convince many voters of the internal inconsistencies and pitfalls of Biden’s agenda. And liberal newspapers and networks seem reluctant to break the partisan habits of the Trump era and ask Democrats difficult questions. (If that seems unfair, consider the Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan fretting that the media might be too tough on Biden just to show they are evenhanded.)
Of course, a certain amount of cakeism is just good politics. Which president hasn’t argued that his agenda is a win-win plan that the vast majority of Americans should get behind? Which president hasn’t claimed that the ideas that are good for his party are in the best interests of the country? But there is a risk that Biden stretches the contradictions of his presidency past their elastic limit. Usually it is better to explain difficult decisions and admit complexity than deny their existence. Axios reports that Biden’s second 100 days will be “more audacious” than his first 100 and that he will use them “to re-engineer the very fundamentals of America—inequality, voting rights and the government’s role in directing economic growth.” Sooner or later, the voters who signed up for a return to normalcy might start to notice.
As the legislation and executive orders pile up, the administration’s actions amount to a fairly fundamental critique of American society and the American economy as they existed before he came to power. They also imply that the unwritten rules of a previous political era no longer apply: that there is no risk of the economy overheating, that there is no tradeoff between compassion and security at the border, that the warnings about higher taxes were just big-business propaganda.
At some stage, America will either learn that it cannot escape the tradeoffs that dominated the last political era, or it will discover what new dilemmas it must grapple with in the 2020s. Either way, the country—and its president—will eventually be reminded that difficult choices are inescapable in government. In the meantime, I’ll take another slice of cake.
Oliver Wiseman is U.S. editor of The Critic.