Biden's bet

This week: the president's big idea, the art of small talk, and the value of plain speaking.

Melina Mara/Washington Post


Joe Biden gave his first address to Congress on Wednesday, setting out his first term policy stall to the American public. It was a good speech, well delivered; so far he seems to have been invigorated by office rather than exhausted by it.

Left-wingers who would rather Saunders or Warren have won the nomination seem surprised at the radicalism of his proposals, but what defines moderates is their flexibility - a willingness to consider alternative paths to success - and their belief that most voters share common ground. Moderation is a sensibility, not a policy stance (similarly, moderate voters aren’t necessarily moderate in policy terms, they’re just non-ideological).

Biden always has an eye on voters who aren’t naturally ‘on his side’. Note how he talks about climate change: “For too long, we failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis: jobs, jobs, jobs.” He continues on that theme but that’s basically all he says - there’s no talk of global peril and saving the planet. Why? Because everyone agrees on jobs.

He also said, “We're in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century. We're at a great inflection point in history.” Competitiveness with China was a Trump theme (in some ways, as per Afghanistan, Biden is merely delivering on Trump’s promises). Now, Biden puts this in a way that can be interpreted as straightforward economic competition, in the Trumpian sense. But he’s actually hinting at a grander thought, which he expanded on beforehand in an informal conversation with journalists: “I think they’re going to write about this point in history… about whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century. Not a joke. Whether autocracy is the answer - these were my debates I’d have in the many times I met with Xi.”

I love that ‘not a joke’, by the way. Biden speaks a little like Trump, at least in that he does not have the high-flown fluency of the hyper-educated and prefers colloquial expression. Unlike Trump, however, he’s intellectually curious. In fact, his verbal and cognitive style is like a blend of the last two presidents: a big thinker who didn’t go to Harvard.

Biden believes that technology and science are moving so fast that they pose an existential challenge to democracy itself. The consensus used to be that if China wanted to catch with the West it would have to democratise - become more free, and more diverse, with power less centralised. But Xi has doubled down on autocracy and centralisation, partly by deploying new technologies. China is still growing. For Biden, it’s up to America to show the rest of the world that democracy is still the best platform for economic success.

I came across that passage via Kevin Kwok, one of my favourite online thinkers (as in not a professional writer, not attached to a media institution - the kind of mind I wouldn’t encounter without blogs and Twitter). Kevin adds some reflections of his own and links to a thought-provoking piece he wrote in 2018 about global economic and political changes over the last three hundred years. It’s an exhilaratingly large canvas, yet he manages to makes several great points in a concise blog post.

Here’s the very short version: the Industrial Revolution created a tsunami of economic growth that also had the effect of decentralising income and power. Those things don’t necessarily go together. Are the disruptions we’re currently living through just the beginning of a vast regression to the mean, as capital and power become more centralised again?

Kevin concludes by stressing, correctly I think, that growth is a moral and political imperative. When growth slows, society becomes a divisive, zero-sum game. Growth is what enables groups with opposing interests to find common ground. But only, of course, if they feel they can share in its proceeds.

I am available for online talks and workshops on communication, effective writing, and creating workplace cultures of curiosity and positive disagreement. Drop me an email or hit ‘reply’ here to discuss.

I joined a panel discussion of the Sewell Report organised by Policy Exchange. Unlike the other panelists I’m not an expert on racism, so perhaps it was hubristic of me to accept the invitation, although, as I said here a few weeks ago, one problem with the discourse on this topic is that the experts talk only among themselves. I enjoyed taking part.

The panel, which included Sewell himself, was mainly positive about the report. The Observer’s Sonia Sodha was left to make the case against, and she did so with characteristic force and eloquence. I still think that her side’s emphasis on definitional disputes instead of concrete actions is futile. The fact the report’s critics don’t seem to disagree with its recommended policies tells you something about how meaningful these disputes really are.

Sonia admitted that the idea of structural racism is, for the public, “counter-intuitive” and says she’d like to see it communicated better. But if it isn’t intuitive by now, I doubt it ever will be. And anyway I’m not convinced the public’s common sense idea of racism isn’t superior to this more intellectual-sounding but frustratingly vague and somewhat incoherent theory.

When progressive activists get the idea that the public needs to be educated by them, the result is rarely the one they want. In this superb interview, former Clinton strategist James Carville argues that left-wing political discourse has become hopelessly jargony, academic and abstract: “I always tell people that we’ve got to stop speaking Hebrew and start speaking Yiddish.”