Potus report - Issue 143 - Magazine | Monocle

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One way to assess the early days of Joe Biden’s presidency is to count the ways in which he is different to his predecessor. Biden lacks Donald Trump’s impulsivity, need for attention, taste for conflict, appetite for manufactured drama and general shamelessness. But the more useful contrasts for understanding his presidency are with the man who brought him into the White House 12 years ago.

After his election, Barack Obama repeatedly emphasised the theme of “change”, arguing that his victory should be understood as a clear break from, and repudiation of, George W Bush. That contributed to a broad euphoria surrounding his arrival in Washington but left Republicans and moderate Democrats sceptical that it represented any mandate to action. As a result, Obama struggled with healthcare reform and failed to pass climate and immigration bills, despite big congressional majorities. A Washington veteran of 40 years, Biden used his own inauguration to tell a different story about his path to office. He framed his victory not as a rejection of Trumpism but as a call to action on what he called four “converging crises”, although coronavirus and the related recession did not exist when he launched his candidacy in 2019. Other challenges, such as “a rise in political extremism” and “a cry for racial justice”, hit boiling point in the past year. “We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era,” said Biden in his address.


Biden’s inauguration address


Flags line the National Mall


Marching to the new president’s tune on 20 January

His first effort on entering the White House was the awkwardly named American Rescue Plan Act, a pandemic-era spending bill totalling $1.9trn (€1.6trn), mixing funds for vaccines and other anti-coronavirus measures with cash infusions to rev up a stalled economy and support local government and transport. Congressional Democrats adopted Biden’s grim determination to act big in the face of crisis. Within weeks, and after the most minimal legislative struggle, Biden signed into law a bill almost two and a half times larger than the 2009 stimulus.


Badges honour president 46


Musicians tuning up ahead of the inauguration


Amanda Gorman steals the show


The presidential party ascends to power


Signing one of many executive orders


A salute on safely landing at the White House


The first couple on the big screen at the Super Bowl

On the right track:

Vaccines were developed and approved before Biden took office but his new federal distribution system administers jabs in needy communities.

Soft power
Biden has sent unused doses of the vaccine overseas to compete with China’s aggressive vaccine diplomacy.

Crisis communications
The White House has kept doctors front and centre when talking about the pandemic.

“Boring but radical” was Republican senator Ted Cruz’s condemnation of Biden’s first 50 days but it could also be read as praise for the political acumen the president showed in guiding the American Rescue Plan Act into law. Biden has been able to pursue grand policy goals at the outset of his presidency specifically because he is such a bore. In recent years, Republicans have proven themselves deft at rallying for tribal conflict and aimless at organising around policy questions. The loudest Republican voices in Congress, along with conservative media such as Fox News, remained occupied with petty culture-war distractions, largely ignoring what Biden was up to. He delivered the most ambitious spending bill in US history without voters hearing a sustained argument against it.

As the bill moved through Congress, Biden and his fellow Democrats were cannily modest about the fact that it was far more than merely a short-term response to the crisis. In fact, its provisions went well beyond survival – new health-insurance subsidies and emergency cash payments to families represent the most significant steps in decades towards social democracy. Eleven days after the bill became law, The Washington Post acknowledged that it had failed to initially grasp its impact, under the headline: “How Biden Quietly Created a Huge Social Program”.

On the wrong road:

The arrival of many Central American migrants has revealed that a more welcoming border policy, especially during the pandemic, will be much harder than Biden promised.

Foreign policy
The new president disappointingly backed away from a confrontation with Saudi Arabia over its responsibility for the killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The pandemic put an end to entertaining at the White House but there’s little sign that the Bidens want to use their perch to promote the arts.

The president is typically a ubiquitous presence in US life, and both Obama and Trump pushed that to an extreme. Biden, however, has made himself scarce. He delayed his annual speech to Congress, dodged interviews and press conferences, rarely makes appearances outside the White House and keeps a low profile on social media. His first primetime address, marking the pandemic’s one-year anniversary, was must-watch TV not for its content but its rarity. For the first time in a while, Americans yearned to hear more about what was on their president’s mind.


Marking 500,000 coronavirus deaths at a vigil on 22 February


Visiting a vaccination facility in Houston


Tripping up on the job


House speaker Nancy Pelosi signing the Rescue Plan


Back to business after the first primetime address


Promoting the American Rescue Plan Act

Biden’s timidity before cameras and microphones is new to him, as are the humble promises he makes. At times, low expectations have served him well. An early pledge to deliver 100 million vaccine doses in his first 100 days was quickly outpaced by reality. But this reticence with the press has also caused concern. When challenged over slow progress on a pledge to reopen half of the country’s schools within that same timespan, the White House answered with caveats and evasions. And as the country reckoned with a potential humanitarian catastrophe due to a build-up of migrants at the Mexican border, Biden’s spokeswoman was unwilling to use the word “crisis”. Democrats had stumped for years against Trump’s immigration policy but when challenged that little has changed, Biden’s team responded with the same cynical reflex that Trump’s had: restricting journalists from even visiting sites where migrants were being held.

Too soon to say:

The Recovery Plan should keep the country from falling deeper into recession but we’ll have to wait and see whether it can help to produce growth.

Biden immediately re-entered the Paris Agreement and hopes to load up an infrastructure bill with green-friendly projects. But can he get a big climate-focused package through Congress?

The president’s cabinet is a mix of confidants and Obama administration veterans, as well as experienced state officials new to the national scene. The test is whether he trusts them equally.

During his campaign, Biden stood apart from Trump with his honesty about the extent of the pandemic and the work it would take to end the crisis. But while candour can be reassuring, it is rarely inspiring. As president, Biden needs to be more fulsome in presenting a sunny vision of post-lockdown life, if only to convince those who have accepted the reality that their sacrifices will soon pay off. If he can find a space between Obama’s idealism and Trump’s denial, Americans will want to hear more.


Facing the press at a White House news conference


Migrants at the country’s southern border

Biden began his presidency with talk of crisis and his first few months delivered a promising start in areas of urgent need. The coming weeks and months will focus on a more enduring problem, as Democrats prioritise passage of a “Build Back Better” spending bill to address shortcomings in national infrastructure. That issue, more than any other, has been viewed for decades as something that the two parties can work on together. If Biden can succeed here, the US will have a glimpse of what his presidency will look like on the other side of crisis.


The Fixers: Why Lisa D Cook is counting on a fair economy

Over the next year, a changing of the guard is expected at the US’s central bank, when up to four places become vacant on the influential, seven-seat Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Whoever Joe Biden’s administration appoints to these posts will shape monetary policy in the world’s largest economy for years to come.

Among those rumoured to be under consideration for the board’s current single vacancy is economist Lisa D Cook. She has, by traditional standards in economics, an eclectic array of expertise. A professor at Michigan State University, Cook was an adviser for Barack Obama’s administration and has worked with three presidential-transition teams, including Biden’s. 

“I don’t have any comment on that,” says Cook of the rumours of her nomination. “But, with respect to public service in general, I would consider it if the opportunity arose.”

A nomination for Cook would represent a historic first at the Federal Reserve as well as reflect the broader push that’s underway to diversify the make-up of those who dictate monetary policy in the US, a field historically helmed by white men. That, in turn, would amount to a broader assertion of what economic growth should be built on. 

“I sometimes find that economists don’t believe that human experiences matter,” Cook tells monocle from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “It absolutely does matter. It shapes the way that we think about the economy; it shapes the way we interact with it. It’s difficult to make policy if you haven’t had a lot of experience with the economy; if you haven’t seen the good and bad of how it actually works.”

Cook was born and raised in Georgia, which convulsed, often violently, with the process of desegregation during her late-1960s childhood. She speaks four languages and holds degrees from universities including Oxford, where she studied on a prestigious Marshall scholarship. Often described as an “accidental” economist, Cook has said that she was persuaded to switch to economics by a stranger during an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in the late 1980s. She was a philosophy student in Senegal at the time. 

Her own research is broad and includes a groundbreaking examination of how violence against African-Americans has, historically, diminished overall economic activity in the US. Her current areas of study include economic growth and development, particularly when it comes to innovation. All are fields that feed into the challenges now facing the US economy.

“It’s difficult to make economic policy if you haven’t seen the good and bad of how it actually works”

“When you’re confronted with a crisis, you have to be nimble,” says Cook, suggesting that it’s difficult to achieve anything if those tasked with solving the problem all think in the same way. “You need people who have had a wide range of experiences in the economy to be able to understand what’s going on.” That will be key in ensuring that the policies aimed at kick-starting the US’s economic recovery are far-reaching, she says. “In many countries, micro businesses – and not necessarily the largest ones – fuel the economy. In the US, it’s roughly half and half, so there are a lot of people employed by small businesses here. Support for them should be paramount. Individuals, families and households are going to need more support rather than less.” 

“We need all hands on deck,” adds Cook as she considers how to build a sustainable, equitable post-pandemic economy. “We face some of the most difficult economic problems in our history. So we have to ensure that we’re taking advantage of all the resources we have.”


The Fixers: Now is the time for truth, says journalist Richard Engel

For Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent at nbc News, the new presidency can reset the US’s image in the eyes of a global audience. “After a tumultuous, ferociously disruptive period, it is a realignment; America’s re-engagement with the world,” he says.

A key question during these opening months of Joe Biden’s presidency, says Engel, is an important one: “Is the US going to be welcomed back?” He believes that the answer is yes. It’s an outlook Engel is qualified to give, thanks to the breadth of international stories he has covered for the network, where he has worked since 2003.

“My norm has always been that I’m on the road,” says Engel, speaking to monocle from London. His early career was as a war correspondent and he was one of the few US journalists to cover the 2003 US-led Iraq War in its entirety, from his base in Baghdad.

He has reported on the Middle East extensively since. Following extended assignments covering the conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Egypt, he and his team were kidnapped in a rebel-held area of Syria in 2012. They were freed after five nights, following a gunfight between their kidnappers and members of Syria’s rebel forces. “I was normally the guy who lived in the place,” says Engel. “I’ve never been a fan of the guy who parachutes in. Luckily I had 17 years of experience being the local person.”

In December 2019 the focus of his reporting shifted to the emergence of coronavirus in Wuhan, China. “I had the first interview on camera with Anthony Fauci, [when he said] that this is probably going to be a pandemic,” says Engel. “Suddenly the virus was spreading everywhere and every country was reacting differently. Journalistically it was actually quite exciting because it kept changing.”

“When I’m doing a report, I don’t care if it’s going to offend liberals or conservatives. Things are what they are”

The rigours of the breaking-news cycle aside, his own investigative TV show, msnbc’s On Assignment with Richard Engel, has allowed him to spend longer on stories and to delve more deeply. His most recent investigation was focused at home: the 6 January storming of the Capitol in Washington by supporters of Donald Trump.

“[We’re investigating it] through the details,” says Engel of the story he has undertaken alongside the UK investigative-journalism website Bellingcat. “It’s granular, minute by minute. In some cases we’re dating video based on the shadows against walls and counting how many police officers were on one staircase versus another staircase. We’re going frame by frame through key events and individuals that were involved in the Capitol assault.”

For many, the siege not only represented the nadir of an unpredictable presidency, it demonstrated the polarisation that has taken root in the US, fuelled, some would argue, by certain elements of the US media. “I don’t think about it at all,” says Engel. “When I’m doing a report, I don’t care if it’s going to be offensive towards liberals or conservatives. For years people have tried to pin me down – ‘Oh, he’s liberal,’ or ‘He’s a warmonger,’ or ‘He’s a conservative.’ I don’t care. Things are what they are.”

Ultimately, the increasingly angry discourse that often masquerades as news can be countered by the pillar of objectivity in journalism, no matter how buffeted the principle might be. “Truth is the key,” says Engel. “If you’re talking about ‘from my perspective’ or ‘your perspective’ then you get into the idea of looking at a house of mirrors,” he says. “You’ll tie yourself into knots. Don’t think about it. Don’t worry about it. Just tell me what’s true.”


The Fixers: How Shirley Ann Jackson advocates opportunity for all

Natural talent is one thing but having the opportunity to exercise that talent is quite another. It’s a lesson that Shirley Ann Jackson, one of the US’s leading theoretical physicists, knows all too well. Although she was interested in sciences from a young age, she cites two pivotal historic moments – the desegregation of US schools and the launch of Sputnik, the first satellite, by the Soviet Union – as opening up educational opportunities that enabled her to succeed. “My life was affected by the social, political, scientific and technological,” she says from her office in Troy, New York.

The impact of these events drew Jackson into public policy, as well as a career in academia. Awarded the National Medal of Science in 2016, she was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the second African-American woman in the US to earn a doctorate in physics. She’s conducted telecommunications research at Bell Laboratories and nuclear physics at Cern in Switzerland. Since 1999 she has been president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, the country’s oldest technological research university.

Jackson, who has been serving on an advisory panel concerned with reopening New York state after the pandemic, had already put “extremely comprehensive plans” in place at Rensselaer, with five core elements to deal with the virus: “Testing, tracing and tracking, surveillance, quarantine and isolation.” The university has its own coronavirus-testing centre, serving the community as well as the students who have been going back to classrooms on staggered schedules. The goal remains to “augment” the classroom, not replace it. “There’s no substitute for that direct human contact among the students, particularly for young people who are going through a critical stage of their lives.”

Jackson says that the pandemic hasn’t been the US’s finest hour. “It has exposed a lot of inequities in our health system: who has access and who doesn’t; who trusts the health system and who doesn’t.” She says the situation has begun to improve under Biden, who has worked to centralise vaccine distribution and co-ordinate aid to states where possible. “The Biden administration has made a point of shipping supplies and developing relationships with pharmacies, as well as having more stand-up sites to reach under-served communities.” The key is getting as many different groups as possible involved in manufacturing vaccines or medicines or protective gear. “People don’t realise how much of a supply-chain issue this is,” she says.

“The pandemic has exposed inequities in our health system: who has access and who doesn’t; who trusts the system and who doesn’t”

More broadly, she believes that fixing public policy is about recognising how everything is connected. That goes particularly for confronting systemic racism in the US. Many hurdles still need to be overcome that prevent many minorities from getting a good education, whether it’s overt social biases, financial inequalities or a simple lack of role models. “People in leadership have a responsibility to make sure that the doors are open for everybody,” she says. “I believe in rigorous early education. What led me to where I am had to do with my mother teaching my siblings and me to read before kindergarten, and my father nurtured my interest in all things mechanical.” As to anyone who might question the need to overcome racial or gender barriers to education, Jackson offers a simple answer: “How can you waste talent? How can you not tap the complete talent pool and think you’re going to solve anything?” 

Photographer: Brittany Greeson. Images: Magnum Images, Reuters pictures, Getty Images 

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