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Joe Biden’s Surprising Focus on the Future
From infrastructure to democracy to this week’s action on AI, he’s laying a foundation for coming generations to build on.
JOE BIDEN IS OUR OLDEST PRESIDENT, as everyone keeps saying, but he’s also—despite and possibly because of his age—an unusually forward-looking president.
I’ve had this thought often throughout this administration, and it struck me again when word leaked that Biden would be signing a sweeping executive order this week on artificial intelligence. It’s not the first one, but based on a draft order it obtained, Politico deemed it “the most significant single effort to impose national order on a technology that has shocked many people with its rapid growth.”
Like so much else Biden has prioritized, the AI order is geared toward a better, safer, more livable world for today’s children and generations to come. It’s the latest in a series of Biden administration moves to meet U.S. challenges that former President Donald Trump largely ignored, failed at, or made worse.
Infrastructure is one major contrast. Trump talked about it incessantly but never closed a deal. The bipartisan law Biden signed two years ago not only rebuilds current infrastructure for the future, it also expands high-speed broadband to underserved areas, strengthens and upgrades the power grid, improves coastal resilience, and makes the first-ever federal investment in a national electric vehicle charging network.
On China, Biden signed the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act designed to fast-track domestic research, development, and production of the semiconductors that are crucial elements of computers, smartphones, medical equipment and countless other electronic devices. The goal is to raise U.S. competitiveness and reduce China’s edge on AI, clean energy, and other rapidly growing fields of the future. Trump took more of a sledgehammer approach, declaring a trade war that ended up costing 245,000 U.S. jobs, according to one study, and China retaliated so hard against U.S. farmers that over 90 percent of the tariff proceeds went to bail them out.
The tariffs Trump imposed are largely still in effect under Biden, who is also trying to collect on a Trump deal that required China to buy an extra $200 billion of American exports by the end of 2021. As of mid-2022, the Chinese had completely reneged on that. Meanwhile, if Trump somehow returns to office, his one-time trade representative and current campaign adviser, Robert Lighthizer, is back with a Trumpian vision of the highest tariffs and trade barriers in decades along with restrictions on Chinese ownership of U.S. farms and companies. Bob Davis, a journalist with decades of experience covering U.S.-China relations, calls it “a dangerous new plan” to “decouple” the two countries.
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The Inflation Reduction Act is another attempt to deal with future risk. It’s notable mainly for its record spending on clean energy, and for passing without one Republican vote. But its many tax credits—for clean fuel, vehicles, electricity, manufacturing, and more—are spurring investment all over the country, even and especially in red states and counties. In addition, its $35 a month insulin cap for Medicare participants took effect this year, and over the next months and years they’ll see more cost reductions and caps as well as negotiations to lower prescription drug prices. The popular provisions will save money for both consumers and the federal government.
BIDEN’S FUTURE FOCUS is evident as well in his concern for U.S. democracy and democracy abroad, and his alarm at the prospect of an aggressively resurgent Russia invading one sovereign nation after another if it is not stopped in Ukraine. “I think we’re putting the world together in a way that is going to make things significantly . . . more secure for people,” Biden told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in July. “Whether it is the Far East, whether it is NATO, whether it is Europe, whether it is what is going on in Africa, I think we have enormous opportunities. And I think I just want to finish the job. And I think we can do that in the next six years.”
That was before Hamas’s brutal attack on Israeli citizens, provoking a full-scale war with Israel that could spread. Yet Biden is carefully walking the Middle East tightrope, supportive of Israel while publicly hoping, still, for a two-state solution and peaceful coexistence someday for Israelis and Palestinians.
The new, sweeping AI order creates government offices and task forces, explores how to expand AI use in constructive ways, and streamlines the entry process for high-skilled immigrants. It instructs federal agencies to use their market influence and enforcement tools to protect fairness, privacy and cybersecurity, and to watch for anti-competitive behavior. Trump in fact signed AI executive orders in 2019 and 2020, before its sudden high-profile emergence in 2022—most famously via ChatGPT and its competitors, and image-generating programs like DALL-E and Midjourney—as both a threat and an opportunity.
Would a future Trump administration take this kind of thing seriously? Or would a reinstated President Trump be fixated on slotting in hundreds, even thousands of loyalists into the federal bureaucracy to replace merit-based civil service employees? Would he resume his rollback of steps meant to reduce carbon pollution, slow climate change, and accelerate the transition to clean energy? Would he ever consider making it easier rather than harder for even the most coveted immigrants to work in America? Would he declare a new trade war on China, cut off funds for Ukraine, resume friendly overtures to Vladimir Putin and other autocrats he admires? Or would he be preoccupied with his own ongoing court cases, legal disasters, and business failures?
LAST THURSDAY, THE NEW HOUSE SPEAKER, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, told Fox News after meeting with Biden for the first time that of course the president is in cognitive decline, it’s just “reality”—although his curious example was that Biden sounded worse giving a speech now at 80 than he sounded making an argument “a few years ago” (actually, it would have been at least 15 years ago) as a senator.
All of which is to say, whether the 2024 choice comes down to age, cognition, democracy, values, economic policies, the world we leave for future Americans, or who will have more time to spend on the job he’s supposed to be doing for us as opposed to huddling desperately with his lawyers, the choice is obvious. Or should be. And I have to believe more than enough voters across the entire political spectrum will get that in due time, if they don’t already.