As Air Force Once lands and President Joseph R Biden junior arrives in the United Kingdom for the G7 summit and tea with Queen, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the impact he has had since he was sworn in as 46th President of the United States just six months ago.
In his inauguration speech to a socially distanced crowd on the Capitol lawn he changed the tone of American politics almost instantly and his words sent flickers of hope and possibility around the world.
It was a signal to countries led by populist, nationalist leaders that progressive politicians could win again.
As important as that was, there was a line in the speech which resonated so much with me that it now sits on my desk.
I’m usually far more likely to roll my eyes at an inspirational quote than print one out, I promise. But the line was “Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path.”
So simple and true, but I’d completely forgotten it. Like a lot of people I’d got so used to the increasingly binary nature of politics that means if you’re “for” something you have to be vehemently, angrily against its opposite.
It’s not just constitutional issues like Brexit and independence that it applies to, but everyday domestic policies like how big the role the state should have in our lives, how generous the welfare system should be, what should and shouldn’t get taught in our schools.
Two worlds collide
Five years ago, I went on the most amazing work trip courtesy of the US State Department.
Our delegation traversed four states in three weeks and I stayed on for a fifth, attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia which would confirm Hillary Clinton as the nominee to stand against Donald Trump.
The United Kingdom had just unexpectedly voted for Brexit and Barack Obama was still President. Just five years ago, yet it feels like a lifetime away.
As we travelled from state to state meeting government officials and NGO leaders, the small talk at the start of every meeting was the same.
The Americans would ask us why Britain had voted for Brexit and we’d question whether Trump could really win.
Looking back now, the two issues are so inextricably linked. Trump winning should have been obvious but so few saw it coming.
Both represented a brand of populism which banks on emotion and identity rather than evidence and fact.
It seeks to divide people in order to rule and provides leadership for one half of the country by “othering” the other.
It was a winning formula the world over, until Biden.
That belief that politics can be better than this really speaks to me. I’m really taken with the need for us to disagree better as a country and it’s a big part of our work at the John Smith Centre.
Talk yet to translate into unity
Biden’s victory gave me hope that could happen in the UK, but when you look at what he’s done in his first six months, there’s scant evidence that he’s bringing red and blue together despite making huge progress tackling the pandemic, creating jobs and protecting livelihoods.
His most successful and significant action is without doubt the Covid Relief Fund which is investing £1.9 trillion in supporting the US economy.
It provides the US equivalent of furlough, federal aid for schools and cold hard cash to alleviate child poverty, but it passed through Congress without a single opposition Republican voting for it.
Donald Trump found taking his policies through the US Senate and House of Representatives frustrating too and ended up abandoning that path in favour of Executive Orders.
Trump faced huge criticism for doing so, accused of exceeding his power and bypassing the democratic will of the American people. Yet the truth is Joe Biden has used more executives in the past 6 months than the past three presidents.
In fact he passed more than a dozen on his first day in office, including one to halt the building of a wall along the Mexican border and another to re-join the Paris Climate Change Accord.
Orders of magnitude
Later executive orders froze debt on student loans, kept the USA in the World Health Organisation, made masks compulsory on public transport and restored collective bargaining power.
The travel ban to and from Muslim countries was revoked, as was the plan to separate siblings by border control as a means of deterring immigration.
He enhanced the rights of LGBT+ people seeking asylum and passed several measures to make it easier for working people to vote.
There’s not one item on that list that I’d disagree with, but that’s the problem really isn’t it?
It would be hypocritical of me to condemn Trump for abusing his presidential power and then be at peace with Biden doing the same because I’m more inclined to support what he’s doing.
The heat from that raging fire of politics might have been tempered in the United States, but it’s clear to me now that you need more than softer words to unite a country.
When it comes to populism and populist styles of leadership being things of the past, we’re still Biden our time.