Everything’s been weird for a year, and it will likely continue to be weird for a while

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And in several areas where there were no constraints, Biden has gone in a more internationalist direction. He rejoined the World Health Organization, eliminated the “Muslim ban,” and reentered the Paris climate agreement.

But these are low-hanging fruit, simple reversals of a handful of especially high-profile and widely criticized Trump policies. On the biggest challenge the global community is facing — the Covid-19 pandemic — the Biden administration’s international efforts have been frustratingly sluggish.

The global south is badly short of vaccines — and current efforts to acquire them, like the Covax purchasing fund, aren’t enough to make up the gap quickly. The Biden administration has been slow to act to address this problem, dragging its feet on exporting excess vaccines and lifting a ban on exporting the raw materials for vaccine manufacturing

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Much of this action has been a response to India’s current crisis, but there’s also a need for a proactive plan designed to prevent the next major outbreak by ramping up vaccination campaigns in poorer countries. So far, public health experts say the US has been largely absent.

Its $4 billion pledge to Covax is a nice gesture but not up to the task, and it’s not clear exactly how many more vaccines will be forthcoming from American stockpiles. On Friday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that “the president hasn’t made a determination about sending additional doses” beyond the excess AstraZeneca jabs already pledged.

“He’s avoided any commitments on global vaccination,” says Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at Yale University. “It’s incomprehensible and baffling.”

Similarly, on immigration, there is no rule forcing Biden to continue using Title 42 to expel asylum seekers. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas claimed “there’s no intention to use the CDC Title 42 authority for a day longer than the public health imperative requires” — and indeed, the administration is currently considering a humanitarian exemption to the policy.

However, as my colleague Nicole Narea reports, the purported public health rationale for the policy is weaker than the administration suggests. Covid screening of asylum seekers has turned up low positivity rates; creating a broader testing regime that identified Covid-positive individuals would likely be sufficient to contain the risk and would certainly be more humane than sending migrants back to Mexico.

“I think it continues to be clear that the Title 42 travel ban is using a public health rationale for what is an ideological and political [policy],” Michele Heisler, a professor of public health at the University of Michigan, told Narea. “They’re afraid of sending a message that people should come.”

And on trade, Biden has voluntarily extended key Trump protectionist policies, including tariffs on metal imports and an effort to undermine the World Trade Organization’s appellate process. He even added to some of them, signing an executive order tightening “Buy American” rules for the federal government and proposing tax incentives for ordinary citizens to purchase American-made electric cars.

“It’s totally America First,” Dan Drezner, a professor at Tufts University who studies international trade, says of Biden’s policies. “I don’t think they’re more protectionist than Trump per se. But they’re not less either.”

America First, Biden-style
Of course, some degree of national partiality is to be expected in any presidency. Biden was elected by the citizens of the United States, not the world; it’s understandable that he’d give their interests priority.

But in the wake of Trump, who attacked the liberal international order that America helped create, Biden has a special kind of burden — recommitting the United States to creating a world where nations cooperate and care for those outside of their borders. But so far, the administration has seemed surprisingly comfortable with America First-style policies, a degree of nationalism that undermines the “America is back” restoration the Biden team has promised.

It’s not clear why the Biden administration is making these choices. (The administration did not respond to my request for comment.) But some hints may be found in Biden’s Wednesday night speech to Congress, where he sold his new legislative economic priority — the American Jobs Plan — by saying that “all the investments in the American Jobs Plan will be guided by one principle: Buy American.”

Overall, the speech seemed directly pitched at a particular kind of voter: economically distressed blue-collar workers without college degrees, the sort that (in some accounts) powered Trump’s surprise 2016 victory.

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