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Enthusiasm for President Biden’s ambition is rampant among progressives. During the first 100 days of his presidency, he inspired the premonitions of Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Coming. In his speech to Congress last week, Biden himself invoked the parallel, “turning peril into possibility.”

And it’s no wonder: After breaking through in the Democratic primaries as a centrist, Mr Biden exceeded his party’s expectations for the breadth of his vision and sharply moved to the left at the start of the campaign. its mandate.

It is not easy to explain Mr. Biden’s “radicalism”. For the more enthusiastic, a grand champion of the spending of a new welfare state was born out of cautious, market-friendly centrism. The American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan herald a “breakthrough” from the era of small government. The exposure by the pandemic of American inequalities and the changes in the thinking of our experts have led many to anticipate a new era in our politics.

However, that is not the whole story. Democrats’ new tolerance for deficits in the name of relief, infrastructure and care goes well beyond the austerity economy of recent decades. But as journalist David Dayen points out, this did not affect a budget proposal promising to ‘cut’ discretionary non-defense spending to levels even lower than in the Ronald Reagan era (as a percentage of domestic product gross). Mr. Biden’s rebalancing of personal tax fairness brings the country, as the president acknowledged on Wednesday, to George W. Bush levels below 40% for the top tax bracket, not Roosevelt levels of 94% at their peak or even before Reagan. 70 percent levels.

If Mr Biden’s first 100 days differed significantly from the New Deal, however, the fear that motivated Democrats at the time is the best explanation for their early actions, especially when it comes to rethinking the social contract. American. At his first inauguration, Roosevelt warned of fear itself. The truth, as New Deal historian Ira Katznelson memorably pointed out, is that anxiety led to many innovations of the time, from the contraction of class inequalities (including high taxes) in the country to the militarized position towards enemies like the Nazis abroad. But the terror over the risks to stability and wealth was at the origin of a redefinition of social equity and the emergence of a new type of state.

This fear can lead to reform, while limiting and spoiling it, this is what we have to consider again. What Democrats fear best explains what they are doing and where they will stop – and maybe that is the problem.

Mr. Biden’s foreign policy staff have been most vocal about their challenges. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that “Americans have asked themselves tough but fair questions about what we do, how we lead – in fact, whether we should lead at all.”

Opinion debate
What should the Biden administration prioritize?

  • Edward L. Glaeser, an economist, writes that the president should use his infrastructure plan as an opportunity to “get the country out of its zoning straitjacket”
  • The Editorial Board argues that the administration should revert to the Iran nuclear deal, and that “at this point, the hard-line approach defies common sense.”
  • Jonathan alter writes that Biden must now do what FDR did during the Depression: “restore faith that the long-wary federal government can achieve quick and tangible achievements.”
  • Gail collins, Opinion columnist, has a few questions on gun violence: “First, what about gun control bills? The other is, what is filibuster? Is all that Republicans can do?

Brian Deese, director of the Council of Economic Policy, is also quite convinced that the prospect of alienating voters in a tightly divided country keeps him awake at night: “Your ability to maintain good policy is tied to your ability to maintain political support for this good policy.

With a higher minimum wage pending (Mr. Biden ordered a $ 15 minimum wage for federal contractors) and the fate of Mr. Biden’s proposed increase in the corporate tax rate unknown, much of the story Democrats write now belongs to Congress. . The red meat of Mr Biden’s proposals will be very different after the sausage mill of the legislative process.

But both the generosity and the limits of fear reformism always depend on what exactly reformers find terrifying – and what they think leads to safety. The threat of electoral loss will diminish as soon as it becomes less credible that Donald Trump or someone like him can capitalize on the failures of the elite. Even if this fear lasts, it can just as easily lead to an optic or rhetorical change as it can lead to structural reform. And fear conditions the type of government investments chosen from the political menu.

It’s not just politicians who seek to stay in power whose fear we need to realistically assess. Much also depends on the level of donor fear that politicians respond to. In the 20th century, the carnage of war and the masses enraged by the depression – and the demand for workers’ rights through street action and union politics – once led the rich to redistribute more willingly to the rest of the country. But it’s unclear whether the wealthy of our generation, whose donations made a big difference to Mr Biden in the 2020 election (just as the votes of affluent commuters did), are really terrified, or in what measure the president will eventually shape the policy to be followed. their requests.

While the New Deal shows that fear can motivate reform, it also reminds us that it can turn reform wrong. The only major foreign policy shift Democrats are making to their pre-Trump understanding of what a “rules-based international order” requires is in China, especially when it comes to trade policy. The fact that Democrats are adopting the model of great power competition with China so strongly that Mr. Trump has embraced – perhaps even a new Cold War – suggests that they know they need more than just money. anxiety that they will lose again or threats to democracy associated with it. with the right (and confirmed by the January 6 assault on the Capitol) to remain motivated, as well as many members of their public.

“When we think of infrastructure,” said Deese, “it goes a lot against what [Biden] sees China doing it. As Mr. Biden himself noted on Wednesday, “China and other countries are moving closer together quickly.”

The New Deal really changed America when it ended not in a welfare state but in a state of war – and it turned out to be a disaster for the kind of ambitious reform Mr. Biden says he wanted. Fearful competition can lead to distortions, excesses and manipulations; it will not simply inspire policy makers to change for the better or make constituencies support that change. Ambition can arise from rivalry, but competition, as the First Cold War with the Soviet Union showed, can also limit reforms and lead to collateral damage and disastrous mistakes.

The limits of Mr. Biden’s ambitions are the limits of fear reformism. For all the good it can cause, a policy motivated by threats from angry voters, domestic uprisings and foreign states cannot break the American impasse. Only hope and higher ideals can.

Samuel Moyn, professor of law at Yale, is the author of the upcoming “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War”.

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