Biden's under-the-radar domestic agenda

Biden's under-the-radar domestic agenda
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President Biden has been very forthcoming about his divergence from President TrumpDonald TrumpMan sentenced to nearly four years for running scam Trump, Biden PACs Meadows says Trump's blood oxygen level was dangerously low when he had COVID-19 Trump endorses David Perdue in Georgia's governor race MORE in terms of foreign policy. There’s a reason for that: Trump’s go-it-alone, personalized, transactional approach, along with his protectionist trade agenda, did not mesh with traditional Republican ideals. With public support for a return to American leadership internationally, it is no surprise that Biden has trumpeted his message that “America is Back” to both international and domestic audiences. Because of this broad-based appeal, the administration has felt emboldened to highlight the change.

A clean break from Trump’s policies is also being made on the domestic front, but in many ways with much less fanfare. Many of Trump’s domestic policies appeal to the types of voters viewed as key to the Democratic Party. For this reason, Biden has had to follow a more cautious approach in selling his policies. One way has been to cast his infrastructure proposal as a “jobs” plan and his American Families Plan as investment in American economic competitiveness. (Who could be against jobs and competitiveness?)

Both the president and vice president have continued this rhetorical packaging of their programs as they tour the country building support for the infrastructure and families plans while claiming credit for the early successes of the Recovery Act. To a large degree, the administration has cast these actions as being about the “unity” promised in Biden’s inaugural address in terms of outcomes for all Americans. 

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Other actions by the new president have been less unifying in both form and substance. What has flown under the radar has been Biden’s reversal of Trump’s approach to domestic policy. He has done this in three ways: By reversing Trump’s executive actions, through his administrative appointees and through his public leadership.

Biden came into office issuing a flurry or executive actions, outstripping his predecessors with 42, compared to 33 for Trump, 19 for President Obama and 11 for President Bush over the first few months. However, half of Biden’s executive orders (21) have been revocations of orders issued by Trump in an attempt to undo his successor’s legacy. Knowing that some of Trump’s orders were popular among key voting blocks, and that such quick reversals undermine the credibility of promised unity, the Biden administration has been much quieter about these actions than it has been about its legislative proposals.

Another way that Biden has quietly reversed the domestic policy direction of the Trump administration has been through his appointees. Many of Biden’s appointees have professional experience in the departments and agencies they have been selected to head, which provides a veneer of credibility for the appointee and signals to the careerists that work for them that they are valued (instead of being denigrated as “deep staters”). The unstated message is that experts are in charge again, and the government is focused on doing the work of the people, not accommodating the day-to-day whims of the commander in chief. The distinctly different approaches of the past two attorneys general are particularly emblematic

The third disjuncture from Trump’s approach to governance has been one of style. While it might be an exaggeration to say that Biden has kept a low public profile to date as president, his approach to the public aspects of governing has been strikingly different than that of his predecessor. 

Biden’s rhetorical tone has not gone unnoticed by many observers, but it is not something that the White House has chosen to highlight. Overt comparisons to Trump’s braggadocios, contentious and hyperbolic style are not something that need to be highlighted; they are obvious. White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiSchumer steps on the gas to move Biden agenda Judge blocks Spicer, Vought bid to return to Naval Academy board Romney praises Biden's boycott of Beijing Olympics MORE’s press conferences are one example. Biden eschews tweeting as governance. And substantively, the president has not made himself the topic of his public engagement. The overall message is that, in contrast with his predecessor, Biden is wholly engaged in doing the work of the American people, especially on the economy and the pandemic, rather than engaging in self-boosterism.

Taken together, these quiet breaks from the Trump administration on domestic policy are significant. There has been a return to normalcy in governing style but also a distinct swing in the policy pendulum. How will the American public deal with such whiplash? In a year and a half, voters will have their say. 

Todd Belt is a professor and the director of the Political Management Master’s Program at the George Washington University. He is the co-author of four books, including “The Presidency and Domestic Policy (2nd ed.) with Michael Genovese and the late William Lammers. Follow him on Twitter @todd_belt.