European leaders are “weak”, the American president is “bold”. It’s a trope so old, at this point it tells us more about the people who perpetuate it than elected officials on either side of the Atlantic.
A year before the election of Donald Trump, Robert Kaplan disparaged the “grey, insipid ciphers” who wandered Europe’s halls of power. An article in Foreign Affairs accused the continent’s “cowardly” leadership of rendering the EU “irrelevant”. A 2005 op-ed in The New York Times lamented the “weakness” of European leaders at the very time President George W. Bush called for a “renewal” in transatlantic relations. (The same George W. Bush who two years earlier had created the deepest crisis in transatlantic relations since the end of the Cold War by invading Iraq.)
Here we go again. Jef Poortmans, a commentator for Belgium’s Knack magazine, compares Joe Biden’s “zeal” with Europe’s “washed out” leaders. Timothy Garton Ash, whose expectations the EU has never met, argues the bloc faces “one of the biggest challenges of its life” (again). Philip Stephens contrasts Biden’s “ambition”, “audacity”, “energy” and “resolve” with the “defensive incrementalism” of his European counterparts, in particular Angela Merkel.
The “real significance” of Biden’s agenda, writes Stephens in the Financial Times — a $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue program and a $3 trillion education and infrastructure bill — “lies in a bold reassertion of the responsibilities of government.”
His mistake is to assume America and Europe are starting from the same point.
American social democracy
Biden is bringing social democracy to America, and it’s about time.
A year ago, I argued America should imitate the child and health care, housing and tuition policies of Northern Europe.
I advised Biden to focus on making child care, education and health care more affordable; transitioning the United States to a green economy, shrinking the gap between “gig” workers and full-time employees, and raising taxes to pay for it.
His child benefits could cut American child poverty — high by Western standards — in half. The hope is that they will outlive the pandemic.
A minimum wage hike was taken out of the recovery bill to make it more palatable to moderates, but Biden still supports legislation to ban noncompete clauses, no-poaching agreements and mandatory arbitration clauses, which only protect employers. He wants to liberalize occupational licensing requirements, which make it difficult for uncredentialed entrepreneurs to start a business; one point of overlap with Republicans.
Biden would expand Obamacare to give millions more Americans access to subsidized health insurance.
He would invest hundreds of billions of dollars in the green economy, from electrical vehicles to lightweight materials, and raise taxes on capital gains and corporate profits.
This is all good — but all of it exists in Europe. Or, in the case of the European Green Deal, is in the works. We have child benefits. We have high taxes. We have labor laws that are on the side of workers, not corporations.
Who needs “bold” leadership when you have affordable health insurance?