In a twist that months of 2020 campaign coverage did not anticipate, Joe Biden has emerged as the progressive national leader Bernie Sanders always hoped he himself could become. Six months ago, heck, even six weeks ago, that statement might have triggered disbelief or even derisive laughter. Biden? Joe Biden? D.C. establishment guy? A progressive?
But with the passage of the American Rescue Plan, Biden’s first major piece of legislation, he is proving that not only is he an effective champion for America’s disenfranchised and most vulnerable, but that he has something that has long eluded the most progressive voices in the Democratic Party—the ability to translate big ideas into action.
He is president; they are not. He has the support of the entire party; they do not. And he has learned the lessons of his nearly 50 years in Washington in ways that make him more effective than others who aspire to be progressive champions.
It is telling that with the passage of the $1.9 trillion relief package, Biden’s White House spokesperson Jen Psaki described the measure as “the most progressive bill in American history.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called it “the most consequential legislation many of us will ever be party to.” But this was not just a case of establishment leaders congratulating themselves.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus, the 93-member voice of the left on the Hill, said: “The American Rescue Plan is a truly progressive and bold package that delivers on its promise to put money directly in people’s pockets and decisively crush the coronavirus’s spread, which is responsible for our economic crisis. Compared to the response to the Great Recession, this package meets the scale of this unprecedented crisis, delivering the equivalent of 7 percent of GDP for the coming year – exactly what economists say is needed to jumpstart our economy and the labor market.
But the bill is more than just a sweeping and urgently needed piece of legislation. It is a watershed in recent American politics. As Chris Hayes said on The Rachel Maddow Show, “(I)t feels like we drove a stake through a certain kind of anti-welfare austerity politics that was incredibly powerful for four to five decades.” The Center for American Progress (CAP) issued a statement saying, “The American Rescue Plan is transformative because it rejects the long-discredited doctrine of trickle-down economics by directing aid to the working and middle-class Americans who not only need it the most, but whose spending will boost the broader economy.”
The CAP statement cited the fact that the plan will reduce overall poverty by nearly a third and cut child poverty in half. Vox’s story on the bill and where it could lead carried the headline “Joe Biden just launched the second war on poverty.”
The comparison with Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty is apt. It also echoes the perception that existed of perhaps the greatest American progressive icon of the past 100 years, Franklin Roosevelt, of whom few expected revolutionary greatness when he entered office. The point in both cases is that while the progressive movement depends on the vision, boldness, and creativity of the likes of Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or in the past of firebrands like Eugene V. Debs or Robert La Follette, the most consequential progressives are often those who find a way to actually get things done.
One piece of legislation does not a great progressive hero make, of course. Certain key elements of this bill, for example, need to be built upon. For example, the child tax allowance in the bill is only a one-year measure. But if it were made permanent, estimates suggest it could cut child poverty by 40 percent. Biden promises more measures like this one will be outlined in a major address he was to give Thursday night. He said Wednesday, “I’m going to talk about what comes next. I’m going to launch the next phase of the COVID response and explain what we will do as a government and what we will ask of the American people.”
But it is also true that Biden has taken a number of steps since the inauguration that support the contention that his will be not just a presidency that periodically reflects the views of the party’s left wing, but one that actually systematically advances the progressive agenda. That approach begins with a commitment to listening to Warren, Sanders, and other leaders of the progressive movement. But it goes far beyond that. Biden chose Kamala Harris, a woman of color with a strong progressive record on many issues, as his vice president. Biden’s administration has produced the first Cabinet with gender balance in U.S. history; many of them are breaking barriers as the first of the gender or race to hold the offices to which they were appointed.
Taking the step of “going big” on COVID relief and making the break with the past that this bill reflects involved making appointments that stepped away from some of the corporate and Wall Street biases of the Obama and Clinton years. Janet Yellen and the rest of the economic team are not beholden to big money and not cowed by the party’s anti-deficit and anti-inflation hawks.
This past week, Biden made another appointment hailed by Warren, that of Tim Wu, a Columbia Law professor, to the National Economic Council to handle tech and competition policy. Wu is a well-known critic of big tech and is only the latest appointment suggesting Biden is going to take a long, hard look at the power and abuses of tech giants.
Biden has signaled he will be perhaps the most active champion of unions we have seen from a president in several decades. He has placed climate at the center of his agenda, made key appointments to back it up, returned the country to the Paris Climate accords, and will, as part of his upcoming infrastructure initiative, make green energy and transportation a centerpiece of how he “builds back better.”
On foreign policy, he and his team have restored human rights and democracy to a central role, made it clear that they will have a more worker-oriented trade policy than recent Democratic presidents, downplayed interventionism and exceptionalism, called out autocrats, released the damning intelligence report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and argued for a restoration of alliances and international institutions.
While some of us on the left argue he has not gone far enough in some of these areas (I for one have argued for tougher and more direct sanctions on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the Khashoggi murder) and others are understandably frustrated at delays on key initiatives we hoped might be part of the rescue package—like raising the minimum wage to $15—it is becoming increasingly hard to ignore the fact that Joe Biden, fixture of the Washington establishment, a man with a mixed record over the years on progressive measures, has begun to put himself in a position to be seen as a transformational figure who represents a shifting of American views overall to the left.
This last point is critical. What sets Biden apart is that he seems to be uncannily in step at least for now with the American people. He is remaining above and apart from D.C. infighting. He doesn’t hear the Twitter wars and ignores the right’s nonsensical assaults on non-issues like “cancel culture.”
Instead, he is relying on his heart and his longstanding commitment to standing up for the middle class and the vulnerable and, not secondarily, a keen sense of what the American people want. The American Rescue Plan is significant not just because it is bold but because it is so widely popular, even among Republican voters—even without the support of a single Republican on Capitol Hill.
Biden may advance a progressive agenda because on issue after issue, like with COVID relief, the majority of Americans support what Washington calls “progressive” views. Whether it is infrastructure reform or common sense gun control, a higher minimum wage or better health coverage, most Americans share a common view…not with all of DC perhaps, but with the new president.
As with FDR and LBJ, these are the reasons that we may need to set aside our preconceptions about Joe Biden. To borrow from 2021’s most popular photographic meme and a phrase made famous in the O.J. Simpson trial, if the mittens fit, you must admit… Joe Biden is showing promising signs of getting it done as the progressive leader the United States needs and wants.