It’s not 100 days yet, and the administration of US President Joe Biden has already passed the most ambitious legislation in more than a decade. The huge spending package that has now passed both houses of Congress is much more than a Covid-19 relief package. It’s a major healthcare bill, a childcare bill and a state-government financial stabilisation bill. Almost all families with children will receive thousands of dollars in federal assistance, even if neither parent lost a job in the pandemic. If Mr Biden retired right now, he would already have met a full term’s worth of Democratic Party priorities.
But, of course, Mr Biden is not retiring now. He is turning to his next priorities – and those are likely to be more contentious, not only for the opposition Republican Party, but also within his own coalition of Democrats.
The exact order of what comes next will depend on Democratic leadership in the two legislative houses – the House of Representatives and the Senate. They are looking at several issues, and all of them matter not only for the US, but also the global economy.
Mr Biden has already announced principles for a big immigration bill. He wants to offer some kind of legal status in the US to people who entered the country illegally, and to make it easier and faster to gain asylum.
Mr Biden also wants to enact a big infrastructure programme: not only the traditional roads, bridges and airports spending, but also the acceleration of the drive to a post-petroleum economy. In a video interview on March 9, White House chief of staff Ron Klain pledged that an infrastructure bill would fund hundreds of thousands of new charging stations for electric vehicles.
Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are itching to challenge China on trade and manufacturing. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, wants the party’s very next priority to be a bill that would support US supply chains and assert US control over global 5G mobile networks.
Looming behind all of these proposed legislative items is the existential challenge of climate change. Mr Biden rejoined the Paris climate accords at the very beginning of his administration. Now he has to devise ways to honour his commitments.
Those big four commitments – immigration, infrastructure, competing with China and tackling climate change – all come attended by risks and costs. Mr Biden’s early signals on immigration have already summoned a huge flow of unauthorised migration to the US: 100,000 people crossed the border with Mexico illegally in February, followed by almost 5,000 a day thus far in the month of March.
While liberal voters in pro-Democrat states generally welcome more immigration, and are unfazed even by unauthorised immigration, the prospect of a huge, unauthorised flow is very upsetting to swing voters along the border – very much including Hispanic voters. The Rio Grande Valley along the border with Mexico is majority Hispanic. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the valley in the 2016 election by massive, double-digit margins. But in 2020, Donald Trump’s tough-on-illegal-immigration policies cut the Democratic margin in the area dramatically. Zapata County, just south of the Texan city of Laredo, is 85 per cent Hispanic, and Trump won it outright – the first Republican to win the county since the aftermath of the 19th-century Civil War. In the state of Arizona, which is split between Democrat and Republican supporters, the newly elected Democrat senator Mark Kelly faces his first re-election campaign in 2022. Uncontrolled unauthorised migration into the state could cost his party that seat – and with it, control of the Senate.
Mr Biden’s infrastructure programme is already behind schedule. It was originally supposed to be second in line after Covid-19 relief. But the Covid-19 bill has been signed into law now – and there is no infrastructure bill in sight. Cost issues are a worry, but an even bigger problem is the argument over who gets what, and how much. An infrastructure bill is also more vulnerable to Republican obstruction in Congress – unless Mr Biden can find ways to rent the votes of 10 Republican senators. Despite four years of promising, his predecessor Mr Trump never managed even to write an infrastructure bill, never mind bring one to a vote. Can Mr Biden do better? The clock is ticking.
If not, the anti-China bill could displace the infrastructure bill. Mr Trump started trade wars against half the world. Mr Biden has suspended the Trump administration’s punitive tariffs upon the UK, but many Democrats are in no hurry to end Mr Trump’s trade quarrels with China. During the 2020 campaign, Mr Biden repeatedly vowed to insert “Buy American” provisions into all government procurement – upsetting not only close trading partners like Canada and Mexico, but raising shadows over all world trade. Since the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, global trade has grown more slowly than world economic output. Economists have called the 2010s the era of “slowbalisation”. Mr Biden seems in no hurry to change this, to the cost of the whole planet.
Even costlier to the planet is inaction on climate change. Over the past decade, the US has moved sharply away from burning coal. By 2022, the US will burn half as much coal as in the peak year, 2007. There are early indicators that 2018 will prove to have been the peak year for US consumption of crude oil. Mr Biden wants to hurry that transition along. But how? A cap-and-trade scheme collapsed in the Democratic-controlled Congress the last time a Democrat, Barack Obama, was in the White House. Carbon taxes are obvious targets for Republican attack. Encouraging and subsidising new green technology does not get the job done anything like fast enough. Yet if Mr Biden does nothing, he’ll rip apart a Democratic party in which the base increasingly sees the environment as the important issue once Covid-19 is overcome.
William Ewart Gladstone, who dominated 19th-century British politics into his 80s, was once mocked by a political opponent as “an old man in a hurry”. That opponent was onto something. The older Gladstone got, the faster he moved. Something similar seems to be happening with President Joe Biden, another old man in a hurry. He can count on control of Congress for only two years. He’s already crammed through a lot. More, more, more seems on the way.
David Frum is a writer at the Atlantic who was speechwriter and special assistant to former US president George W Bush