If we compare President Biden’s statecraft in his first 100 days with the nine presidents we have seen since John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, objective observers should agree that he has earned high marks. The essence of Biden’s success has been strategic clarity. He took the advice of the great German strategist Otto von Bismarck who defined statecraft as listening for the footsteps of God and catching his coattails as he strides by. After listening carefully for the footsteps, Biden and his team recognized two powerful forces striding by and are holding fast to both. They are counting on momentum from these forces to transform the weak cards he was dealt to a new and much stronger hand with which to address challenges both at home and abroad.
First, by driving the vaccination of Americans to defeat the deadly coronavirus that took the nation into a long, dark funk last year, Biden is leading the nation back into the light. As students return to school rooms in the fall, offices reopen, and companies scramble to hire workers, he might even be tempted to repeat Ronald Reagan’s declaration of “Morning in America.” Second, by doubling down with the largest stimulus any national economy has ever seen—$1.9 trillion on top of two earlier injections that together amount to more than $5 trillion, or one-quarter of GDP—he has ensured not just that the American economy recovers, but that it roars back. 2021 will see the highest rate of growth most American workers have ever experienced.
Biden knows that a rising tide raises most boats. He is betting that the impact of victories in both campaigns in his first year will be transformative: on American psychology, American confidence, and American citizens’ belief that Washington can deliver more than words. Abroad, as others see what an American-invented, American-made, American government-certified gold standard vaccine achieves, their views of the United States will change. Every leader of every sector in the world has thought deeply about coronavirus—since it has posed an existential threat to them personally and their families. Each of them has thought about when he would get vaccinated and with who’s vaccine. Each has thought about when his country or company or non-governmental organization will be open for life as we knew it before coronavirus. With uncertainties surrounding Chinese and Russian vaccines, and repeated stumbles of the European entry in this race, AstraZeneca, American success here could shape views as profoundly as JFK’s sending a man to the moon did. And as the United States overtakes China to become again the primary engine of global growth this year, narratives about a nation in irreversible decline will become suspect.
Take a step back and try to remember the hand Biden inherited when he took office just four months ago. Contrary to those who now want to imagine that the Trump era was just a nightmare from which we have now awakened, Biden knows that Trump was as much symptom as cause. He has compared his job to that of a captain who has boarded a ship that is listing, taking on water, at risk of sinking. Historians will judge 2020 one of the worst years in America’s history. U.S. incompetence in responding to the coronavirus killed hundreds of thousands of Americans unnecessarily—resulting in more infections and more deaths than any other nation in the world. The U.S. economy shrank by more than 3%, ending the year smaller that it had been at the beginning. January 6 saw a real constitutional crisis in which the orderly transfer of power was in doubt for the first time in a century and a half. And the nation’s Capitol was attacked for the first time since the British burned it in 1812—but this time by fellow American citizens. The impact of all this on Americans’ sense of ourselves, and other nations’ views of the United States, is hard to exaggerate.
Beyond the unique failings of 2020, Biden recognizes that in a real sense, the nation he was elected to lead is at risk: its polity so sharply divided that it has become the primary threat to itself, its national government largely dysfunctional, its economy failing a majority of its citizens so consistently for a generation that they have lost confidence in the American dream of their children having better lives than they do. He has internalized the fact that on the bottom-line question—whether citizens believe that the nation is going in the right direction or wrong direction—for a generation a majority of Americans have answered: wrong direction.
Many foreign policy experts would like to relegate all this to domestic policymakers, as if that were a separate subject. For them, domestic policy is essentially about providing the resources to deal with the foreign policy challenges that really matter. But even though he is a foreign policy aficionado whose first choice of committees when he was elected to the Senate almost a half century ago was Foreign Relations, Biden knows better. As he stated clearly in his Inaugural Address: the paramount challenge for this nation in 2021 and beyond lies here at home. He frequently quotes Lincoln’s warning: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” As the leader of a nation more deeply divided than at any time since the Civil War, he knows that what Americans do—or fail to do—at home will have a greater impact on the world than any action outside our borders. Unless the country can find ways to reunite its red and blue tribes, restore confidence in its democratic institutions, and return to the great American project of providing equal opportunities for all its citizens, the nation will lack the foundation from which to play any significant, sustainable role in the world.
On the foreign policy front, has Biden essentially been hiding? Not quite, but the quip captures a point. “Hide and bide,” of course, was the banner under which Chinese foreign policy marched for decades before the arrival of Xi Jinping. Deng Xiaoping’s guidance to “hide our capacities, bide our time, and be good at maintaining a low profile” was widely applauded by American policymakers. Few paused to ask: hide what, and why? Bide until when, and then?
In Biden’s case, the answers are clear. Biden is biding his time to allow the two grand coattails of history he has latched onto to carry the United States to new positions of strength. If his analysis of the structural realities is right, visibly defeating coronavirus and bringing back an economy that roars will deal him new cards in a much stronger hand. How he will use that to begin to reweave Martin Luther King’s tapestry of our united destiny at home, and to engage adversaries and competitors abroad from a position of greater strength remains a work in progress.
Graham T. Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the former director of Harvard’s Belfer Center and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?