One hundred days is not a very long time. In that time, however, U.S. President Joe Biden has brought about a seismic shift in American politics and policy. What is most immediately noticeable is a change in the tone of political discourse. His predecessor, Donald Trump, was well known for his braggart approach to all issues. He routinely used his speeches to inflame passions and to demonize his opponents. From his diatribes against Hillary Clinton to his incitement of mob violence in his final days in office, he was a thoroughly negative force on all fronts. The contrast with his successor could not be more stark. Biden comes across as a thoroughly rational, humane and compassionate man. He is not devoid of passion as his remarks about gun control and systemic racism make clear, but it is gentle passion directed at good causes, not vilifying others. Perhaps the simplest way of putting it is that Trump was a boor whereas Biden is a gentleman. The change is welcome indeed.
In his short time in office, Biden has totally turned around the American approach to COVID-19. Routinely wearing a mask, he has emphasized the terrible toll the pandemic has taken on the American people. He has expressed genuine sympathy for those who have suffered the loss of loved ones and those who have been otherwise impacted by the disease. He has re-instated the medical experts who had run afoul of Trump, most notably chief medical adviser to the president Dr. Anthony Fauci, and has made it clear that his administration’s policy would follow the advice of the scientific community. And above all he has given a remarkable boost to the campaign to vaccinate Americans. He has surpassed by a significant margin the targets he had set himself on taking office. The American vaccination effort, which had lagged badly before, now stands as a model for other countries to emulate.
Biden has been energetic and imaginative in his initiatives to take the United States beyond the pandemic. He has put forward a trillion-dollar-plus package to provide economic relief to those adversely affected by the pandemic. He has put forward another package of similar size to provide investments in infrastructure. This will not only create thousands of jobs but will address some of the country’s problems with collapsing bridges, pot-holed highways and inadequate transportation networks. And in his first address to Congress on April 28, he announced a $1.8-trillion plan to help American families cope with the costs of education, child care and health insurance. All in all, these initiatives represent an act of faith in the future of the United States and are remarkable for their sheer boldness.
Biden has also decided to address head-on some of his country’s most troubling social problems. In a direct challenge to the National Rifle Association, he has signed some executive orders aimed at countering some aspects of the spread of lethal weapons and has urged the Senate to pass legislation on the subject. While deploring the racism displayed by certain police departments, he has promised to put forward legislation to make the police more accountable and transparent. And he has instructed the Justice Department to conduct investigations of at least two police departments whose members have recently shot and killed Black men for questionable reasons. He has also used his bully pulpit to preach the need for unity to a badly divided country.
In foreign policy, Biden has been prompt and decisive in reversing some of the blunders of Trump. He has rejoined the Paris Accords on climate change and taken the initiative to host a virtual summit on the climate issue while committing the United States to new, more ambitious targets on the control of carbon emissions. He has rejoined the World Health Organization, something that is vital in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. He has resumed diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority and restored American funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees. All of these measures will help to refurbish the reputation of the United States as a responsible contributor to the multilateral world order.
Biden has displayed a fine mix of firmness and conciliation in his dealings with America’s adversaries. After calling Vladimir Putin a “killer,” he imposed a new set of sanctions on Russia and expelled 10 Russian diplomats from the United States. This was in response to Russia’s meddling in the 2020 presidential election. While doing this, however, he reached agreement with Putin to extend the START arms reduction treaty by five years, and in the course of a phone conversation proposed that the two leaders hold a summit meeting in Europe in the summer. His approach to China has been somewhat similar. While condemning China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority as “genocide,” his administration has indicated a willingness to work with China on the question of climate change. In his dealings with Iran, Biden has indicated he is prepared to resume negotiations on reviving the Iran nuclear deal, but he has not so far lifted the sanctions imposed on that country by the Trump administration.
Perhaps the most important thing Biden has done in the realm of foreign policy is to recalibrate his country’s relations with its major allies. To say those relations had become badly frayed during the Trump years would be an understatement. Biden has made a point of reaching out to the leaders of America’s allies in North America, Europe and Asia. (His first official phone call abroad was to Canada’s prime minister and his first official visitor to the White House was the prime minister of Japan.) He has already made good headway in reassuring allies of America’s goodwill and of its support for their security. He is now in the process of rallying America’s allies to create a united front to resist the hegemonic activities of China in the Far East.
Finally there is Biden’s courageous decision to terminate the American military presence in Afghanistan after 20 years of failure to achieve the mission’s objectives: the destruction of the Taliban and of al-Qaida. With no end in sight for a positive outcome, it was long past due. But in the process, Biden had to overcome strong opposition from his generals and from the Pentagon. It is to his credit that he did the right thing in putting an end to the bleeding of American lives and treasure in a hopeless cause.
Distinguished Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin recently published an article titled, “Joe Biden has had the best start of any presidency in almost a century.” This is essentially true, and one does indeed have to go back to the first term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 to find anything comparable. Martin went on to conclude his piece with this comment: “While he attempts to forge an American renaissance, he exhibits a sense of calm and reassurance, qualities that his broad perspective brings and that his country needs.” This, too, is very true. Given the mess he inherited from Trump, Biden’s accomplishments have been nothing short of remarkable.
Louis A. Delvoie is a retired Canadian diplomat who served abroad as an ambassador and high commissioner.