Michael Clifford: Who knew Joe Biden would be a radical president

Michael Clifford: Who knew Joe Biden would be a radical president

President Joe Biden announcing this week that the USA was going to push for pharmaceutical companies to share coronavirus vaccine patents. Now that's radical and it has caused ripples of discomfort in Brussels. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Not so long ago, he was the guy who wasn’t Donald Trump. 

Joe Biden’s bid for the US presidency was, to a large extent, based on that premise. 

He didn’t excite the way that Barak Obama had in 2008. He just offered the prospect of not dividing further. 

Nobody was really expecting much from him. He’s been around Washington for over 40 years. The only real attribute he appeared to possess was a political personality that had a reputation for reaching across the divide in American politics. 

He offered a sliver of light against the enveloping darkness into which Trump was marching the country.

Yet little over 100 days since his inauguration, Joe Biden has all the appearance of a radical who has arrived in Washington to transform the country and even make a positive impact on the world beyond. 

Irish Examiner columnist Michael Clifford.
Irish Examiner columnist Michael Clifford.

The most recent iteration of this was his announcement this week

that the USA was going to push for pharmaceutical companies to share coronavirus vaccine patents. For many Americans, this represents an attack on capitalism.

Biden’s motivation is to make the world a safe place by doing all that can be done to inoculate those in underdeveloped countries. 

The vaccination programme has so far highlighted the appalling inequities across the globe. As of this week, 83% of vaccines have been administered in wealthy countries, including Ireland. Just 0.2% have been put into arms in low-income countries.

In the EU, 31% of the population has received at least one dose. In the USA the figure is 48%. In Africa, it is 1.3%, according to the scientific online publication, Our World In Data.

Until this week, Biden’s administration was at one with those in other wealthy countries, including the EU, Japan, Canada, and the UK. 

Intellectual property as it related to vaccines was not up for grabs. 

The volte-face is a serious, and some would say radical, move. Going from Trump’s America First to America being the first to stand up for the poorest people in the world is a leap nobody saw coming.

People Before Profit support

On Thursday, Biden received support from the most unlikely quarter. 

The Irish far-left political party People Before Profit issued a release under the headline — “People Before Profit call on Irish Government to follow US and back waiving of vaccine IP rights.” 

An extensive search of the archive has not uncovered any other release from PBP in its current or former incarnations using the words ‘call on Irish government to follow US’. 

The standard response to all US policy is to decry it as placing profit before people, but ole Joe has even reached into the core value system of Ireland’s answer to socialism. Truly, the world has been turned upside down.

While there is a confluence of opinion between a US president and the left in this European country, most mainstream politics in Europe remains on the fence on this issue. 

EU discomfort

In fact, Biden’s move has caused ripples of discomfort in Brussels. 

The EU is wary of foregoing intellectual property rights, even in the fight against the virus. Germany in particular is opposed. 

And while the Irish government has not made its views known, the chances that it will in any way discommode the pharmaceutical industry are next to zero. 

Since the US changed tack Australia and New Zealand have joined the cause, but whether the proposal makes it past the wealthy countries in the World Trade Organization remains to be seen.

The vaccine issue is just the latest in a series that have cast Biden in a radical light. He has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by half in the next decade.

This policy occupies a different planet from the one occupied by climate change denier Trump.

He has also introduced a stimulus package that has commentators reaching all the way back to Franklin D Roosevelt’s new deal in the 1930s for comparison.

The radical, by US standards, aspect to the $1.9 trillion package is that it will disproportionately benefit those most in need. The package is estimated to boost the income of the poorest families by up to 20%. There is a particular focus on childcare and the US equivalent of child benefit. 

If it goes according to plan it is expected to cut child poverty by up to a third across the country. For over 50 years, the Democratic Party has claimed to want to put a floor on the income of the poorest in society. 

Despite half-hearted efforts by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barak Obama that has never been achieved. 

Now, this Washington insider has remade himself and gone where none of the predecessors ventured in making a real stab at tackling poverty.


There are caveats to the late flowering of a radical. Much of the economic programme he has initiated is scheduled to last a year. If the US economy has not picked up sufficiently within twelve months, there could be political repercussions.

His climate targets are highly ambitious and it’s difficult to see how they will be achieved without breaking pledges not to impose a carbon tax on lower and middle-income earners. 

But if the president carries on as he has started there is a chance that the USA will begin to reverse the trend of growing inequity, which is at the heart of so much that ails the country.

Nobody saw this coming. Nobody really saw beyond him not being Trump.

Form suggested he would tread carefully through the great divide in American politics. In that respect, the relevant comparison is not with Trump but with Obama. 

The latter came to office on a wave of high poetic rhetoric, yet once in situ his governance rarely reached above pedestrian prose.

As suggested by The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, Obama became more professorial in office. 

He also appeared to have little time for the earthy Biden away from the cameras. Dowd revealed recently that during their eight years in the White House the president never once invited his vice president to dinner in the private quarters. Biden grinned and bore that kind of snub, but in terms of legacy he may end up with more in the credit ledger.

Man in a hurry

He is also a man in a hurry. History dictates that midterm elections tend to favour the party without the presidency in the USA. If the Democrats lose the House and Senate majority, the president will be forced to operate with one hand behind his back in a political culture in which hand-to-hand combat is the norm. 

Results of his package will have to begin feeding through by the time of the elections next year.

For now, though, the old-timer who last year looked as if he may stumble over the line to win the presidency is shaping up to be a real agent of change. Long may he run.

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