We’re one month and change into the Biden presidency, and let’s just say it. He’s been staggeringly good. He has way surpassed my expectations. And it’s small wonder he has a 63 percent approval rating. Most people like what they see.
What’s he done, in big-picture terms? Three things. First and foremost, he and his team are not letting themselves be bullied by the economic supply-siders and neoliberals who’ve spent the last few decades transferring $50 trillion in wealth from the middle class to the rich.
Second, the Biden team understands that the standard Beltway definition of bipartisanship is useless with today’s Republican Party. The Biden people get that congressional Republicans don’t even really represent most rank-and-file Republicans anymore—hence these polls showing significant support even among Republicans for most aspects of the COVID relief bill. This administration shows every sign of not letting itself get suckered into the false promise of trying to win Republican votes that aren’t likely to materialize.
Third, they don’t have contempt for Democrats to their left, which is a great thing to see. History tells us pretty clearly in my view that progress is made in this country when activists on the left go out and agitate and change public opinion and liberals codify that change by writing laws. The Biden people clearly agree with this view.
Along these lines, The New York Times reported an amazing anecdote two weeks ago that showed how different this administration is so far from its two Democratic predecessors. An activist named Melissa Byrne was pressuring the Biden team on student loan debt via Twitter and even big ads in the Wilmington newspaper. She expected that she was raising some hackles.
Instead, according to the Times, Chief of Staff Ron Klain “told her to keep up the pressure, inviting her to more Zoom meetings with the transition team.” That’s the social-media era version of FDR’s famous challenge to labor leaders of his time to “go out and make me do it,” and it was so encouraging to read.
I see Klain’s steady hand in all the above. He’s just a mensch. He’s the polar opposite of Barack Obama’s chief of staff and universally acknowledged jerk Rahm Emanuel (and notice that Emanuel has no big job in this administration). Klain is not afraid of right-leaning conventional wisdom bullies, and he has no fear of or contempt for the left. To the extent that Joe Biden is a different man today than the cautious moderate-liberal who first announced his candidacy 22 months ago, and he surely is, I bet Klain has had a lot to do with it.
It’s also that times have changed. The left is a real force now in the Democratic Party, and the right is more fully economically discredited. If Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were less aggressive, it was partly because they operated in different worlds where there was a weak left and a stronger, pre-Trump right. Thank goodness Biden recognizes all this.
Right now, the focus of course is on the $1.9 trillion COVID bill. If they get it through, even if it ends up at $1.4 or $1.5 trillion and doesn’t include a minimum wage hike, that will be a very big deal—an enormous amount of money, a tremendous political victory, and big jolt for the economy.
Then they have to get the schools open on a schedule something like Biden promised. I wouldn’t say they need to “stand up” to the teachers’ unions; that kind of showy, piss-on-the-base politics is too 1990s. But the GOP attack line that Democrats follow the science except when it comes to teachers’ unions has the potential to do damage, and Biden needs to get everybody on the same page here fast.
After that, and more generally, Democrats need to do two big things. First, stay relentlessly focused on middle- and working-class economics. And second, move heaven and earth to pass the various bills to protect democracy and voting rights.
On economics, read this memo written after the election (pdf) by my friends Nick Hanauer and Zach Silk of Civic Ventures in Seattle. They show first of all that the Democrats who ran on class-based economics won, and those who didn’t lost. For example, they write, “raising the minimum wage, featured in more than 20 percent of all Biden ads, was totally absent from the paid appeals by Democrats in Senate ads. Zip. Nada.”
That could explain why Democrats lost so many Senate races they expected to win. Then after Election Day, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff took note. They emphasized getting people checks and other pocketbook issues—and they won, giving the Democrats the Senate.
Now that Democrats are governing, Hanauer and Silk write, “Democrats and President Biden need to unambiguously articulate what they are fighting for—materially benefiting the majority of people.”
One key appointment curiously not yet made in this realm: who’ll head the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. Maybe they want to get Merrick Garland in there as attorney general first, and it looks like he’ll be confirmed this week. If the Biden DOJ really goes after monopoly power, which harms middle-class people in so many ways, I’ll be in heaven.
On voting rights and democracy, if the Democrats don’t pass legislation that limits the GOP’s ability to rig elections, they’re setting themselves up for defeat in 2022 and 2024. They just have to do it. If it means eliminating or changing the filibuster for just that one thing, they all have to do it, Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema included. Sinema in particular is a complete enigma on this one. She’ll need the Latino votes that Arizona Republicans are trying to disqualify. The broad left, from the big donors on down, has to make this a priority like it did with health care in 2009.
Of course, we’re just a month in. There’s going to be trouble ahead. It’s inevitable. On nearly every issue—student loans, climate, health care, more—Biden isn’t going to do everything the left wants. Every piece of legislation can be only as progressive as the moderate senators are willing to support. That’s life (more precisely, that’s the United States Senate). Things are going to happen in bits and pieces. It’s important that the left understand this—and it’s important that the administration keeps dealing with the left in good faith.
But so far, signs are positive. The Biden administration is clearly walking away from 40 years of cautious conventional wisdom about how a Democratic administration is supposed to think. Just to hear a Democratic president say we don’t need to worry about deficits right now is so important and necessary.
You probably could not have convinced me two years ago that Joe Biden would be this man. You definitely could not have convinced me 20 years ago that he would be this man. But he seems to understand very well the historical moment he’s in. It’s just a month, but wow, what a month.