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Joe Biden’s trouble? He overestimated the clamour for change.

That history is “one damn thing after another” is such a good line, it’s almost a shame it isn’t true. For the most part, history is the sum of all that does not happen. The failure of post-apartheid South Africa to succumb to race war is part of history. The failure of most viruses to shut the world down is part of history. The absence of a nuclear strike since 1945, the continuing non-collapse of the EU: each merits as much study as any actual occurrence.

The idea of a historic non-event matters, for we are living through a profound instance of one. By far the most striking thing about the pandemic is how little it has changed politics. Across the world, the state has reigned over excess deaths or curbs on freedom, or both. Few have been toppled in consequence. Few have even been made to sweat.

After 11 years in power, Britain’s Conservatives are still ahead in the polls. Justin Trudeau has been re-elected as prime minister of Canada. Germany has just held an election of almost self-parodying good sense (the populist AfD dipped to one-tenth of the vote). Emmanuel Macron is favoured to renew his presidency in France. Among the non-democracies, no major autocrat has fallen. Of the most prominent departures in world leadership, Angela Merkel was retiring anyway and Japan’s Shinzo Abe had health problems.

This leaves Donald Trump as the political “victim” of the past 18 months. And even in the former US president’s case, it is hard to know if it was the pandemic that told in the end. He was polling badly enough before it. When he sank to a double-digit deficit against Joe Biden, in mid-June 2020, it was during his response to Black Lives Matter protests. The pandemic was three months old by then.

Perhaps, on a keep-ahold-of-nurse basis, this continuity of personnel around the world is natural enough. Voters were never going to relish a change of leadership amid so much upheaval. It is the continuity of ideas that is harder to explain. At the start of the pandemic, when governments underwrote their stilled economies, I was among those who anticipated a lasting move to a bigger, more redistributive state. Eighteen months on, as the bills mount, that cause is petering out.

Elementary error

There are lots of reasons why Biden’s presidency is ailing. But the core of it is that he has overestimated the clamour for change. A man who was elected for narrow purposes – retire Trump and give Americans a breather – has strived for too much more.

Democrats blame their right-leaning senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, for the delay and dilution of his spending bills. But the party failed to win the clear Senate majority in 2020 that would have made their intransigence moot. That should have been an early clue as to the less-than-revolutionary state of the national temper.

In appealing to the public over Sinemanchin’s heads, the party makes a weirdly elementary error. It mistakes what the pollsters call “preference” for “salience”. Yes, voters like almost all of Biden’s ideas for education, healthcare and infrastructure. But none concerns them as much as the inflation-dogged economy or the still-live pandemic. (Or, increasingly, immigration.) Immediate grip, not remote change, is in demand.

Treating the pandemic as Year Zero brings tonal problems, too. Across the west, there are smarmy injunctions against “going back” to the pre-virus world, as though 2019 was a pre-Neolithic hell for the average person. You would not know that it was a time of economic growth and low unemployment.

Even the name of Biden’s plan, Build Back Better, assumes that people look back at the recent past with a cringe or a shiver. It is, among other things, an implied rebuke of the economy he bequeathed to Trump as Barack Obama’s vice-president.

After the 2008 crash, progressives equated the disgrace of capitalism with public approval for their alternative. The western centre-left spent much of the ensuing decade in opposition. In that getting ahead of events, there is a warning.

Yes, in the US and elsewhere, taxes and spending may go up a bit, and on a lasting, not just emergency, basis. But it is no longer clear that 2020 has joined 1945 and 1979/80 as a true rupture in economic thought. It has plainly not matched 2011 (the Arab Spring) or 2016 (the year of Brexit, Trump and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte) as a roiler of political establishments.

The times are rightly billed as historic, but for the wrong reason. If Biden is to salvage his presidency, he will have to open his eyes to the wonder of all that is not happening. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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