David Moscrop, Ph.D., is a #FESFellow2020. This is his seventh piece in a series on social democracy and the U.S. elections.
In just under two months, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. The former vice president will immediately face extraordinary and urgent challenges, including, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic, but also democratic decline, growing inequality, an economy stacked in favor of the wealthy few, racism, sexism, and decades of foreign policy disasters from the second Iraq War to the abandoned Iran nuclear deal. The Biden win was welcomed in the United States and around the world, but congratulations and expressions of relief are easy. The difficult part will be governing. For social democrats — and socialists — it is an open question whether the incoming president will be ready, able, and willing to pursue a progressive agenda.
As I have written previously, the Biden platform is friendlier to social democratic politics than one might expect from a politician who has long prided himself on moderate centrism. While there are significant concerns with the would-be policy agenda — such as Biden’s opposition to Medicare for All and his opposition to a Green New Deal — there are encouraging ideas, too, including labor reform, boosts to entitlements, more education funding, and a hike in the corporate tax rate and top individual rate. The Biden environment plan, while not styled as the Green New Deal, and notwithstanding his support for fracking, includes nearly $2 trillion in green infrastructure spending and a promise to hit net zero emissions by 2050. The agenda is something between centrism and social democracy, and unsurprisingly it shies away from bold left politics under the direction of the man who, when charged with being a socialist, responded “I beat the socialist.”
To be fair to Biden, his promises amount to more than being better than Trump, a comment with which some have already criticized and dismissed him. But the test will come when his administration begins setting priorities and making trade-offs. The first 100 days is a familiar if arbitrary measure of a president’s plan (and performance). Biden has said he will begin with a focus on the pandemic, which will be welcome. Indeed, he has already started with a task force. Of note to social democrats, the president-elect has listed raising corporate taxes as a day-one priority along with re-entering the Paris climate accord, and pursuing immigration reform to create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented individuals living in the United States. Biden also plans on reversing Trump policies such as family separation at the border with Mexico and the Muslim-majority country travel ban. A considerable amount of White House energy — and perhaps political capital — will thus be focused out of the gate at undoing some of the devastation of the Trump administration. To the extent that Biden is successful in his first months, the U.S. may begin to resemble its recent, Obama-era, self — though that does not suggest widespread structural change of the sort needed to ensure lasting equity, inclusion, and justice. But even a staunch social democrat would have to start somewhere.
The first roadblock to big progressive leaps may be Biden himself, but beyond the president-elect lies Congress. While Biden trounced Trump, Democrats down ballot performed less well. The Democrats lost House seats in the November election and have been left with what NPR is reporting as “the slimmest majority in decades.” In the Senate, as things stand while awaiting two run-off contests in Georgia, the Democrats picked up one seat from the Republicans, with control of the chamber coming down the results for Georgia’s Senate representation. As Lisa Mascaro writes for AP, Biden is facing a difficult Congress and Republican hopes of upending his plans — potentially including an essential undoing of the filibuster rule, which could hamper the Democrats and their agenda. Odds are that everything is going to be a long, difficult bargaining process for Biden, especially if he will have to face a Republican-majority Senate under Mitch McConnell, who went out of his way to stifle Obama’s agenda, and the “McConnell veto.” For progressives who wish to see major advances on key policies, Congress is a disconcerting obstacle to consider.
If the House of Representatives and the Senate are reason for serious concern, a handful of progressive 2020 wins are much more encouraging—if insufficient. In October, I wrote about the social democratic candidates who could pursue a left legislative agenda. Of the eight candidates I highlighted, seven won their races: newcomers Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, and incumbents Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ed Markey. The hope is that these lawmakers will keep Biden honest on the left while advancing a progressive agenda in Congress, and they will certainly try. Nonetheless, they will face not only opposition from Republicans, but also from centrist and establishment Democrats. Expectations should be moderated accordingly—with Politico going so far as to warn of an internal Democratic “civil war.” Cannon to the left of them, cannon to the right of them.
Biden’s White House staff picks comprise familiar faces along with some newcomers, though the general thrust of the choices seem to signal more continuity than change. Not the least of these choices are chief of staff Ron Klain and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Cedric Richmond, who has been criticized by climate activists for his links to oil and gas. Cabinet speculation continues as January approaches. For Cabinet, early picks suggest continuity with the Obama era, such as Janet Yellen at treasury and Antony Blinken at state. Alejandro Mayorkas will become the first Latino Secretary of Homeland Security. John Kerry will become the administration’s climate czar. Kerry is no aggressive progressive, but he comes to the job with the capacity to deal and support for the Paris Climate Accords. It is an open question, however, as to what will be on the table.
Other possible names Cabinet names including Tammy Duckworth (Illinois senator), Doug Jones (recently-defeated senator from Alabama), and Andy Levin (Michigan Congressman) suggest the possibility of some degree of divergence from the old ways and priorities. Of the lot, the choice of Levin — a Michigan congressman with union and climate bona fides — could indicate how serious Biden is with labor reform and tackling climate change, too.
Of note on the Cabinet front, Biden looks to be excluding senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren from spots, which some see as moves to protect the Senate for the Democrats, preventing Republican governors from naming replacements and leaving strategic core assets in the legislature long-term rather than shifting them to short-term executive portfolios. Writing In Jacobin, Luke Savage pushed back on that assessment suggesting those are convenient — if plausible — reasons “calculated to mask Biden’s conservative preferences with the logic of regrettable necessity.” His critique is compelling, though watching Biden’s eventual picks will indicate just how accurate it is. So far, it seems plausible enough that the Cabinet will lean center to center-right, draining some enthusiasm on some progressive fronts, though not necessarily all of them.
If a week is a long time in politics, the life of an administration is an eternity. Lots can happen in four years. But the structural limits of the U.S. congressional terrain, the centrist suggestions around the Biden Cabinet, and the history of the president-elect himself suggests more centrism and progressivism in the coming years. However, Biden’s platform, a handful of Cabinet wildcards, and a growing bloc of left-wing lawmakers could help deliver some social democratic wins in Washington — for instance, on climate change, labor, education and even to some extent on taxation, though not nearly enough.
The Biden Administration will have a low bar to step over in improving on the Trump years, but social democrats are hoping the chaos into which the Democrats enter will be taken as an opportunity for structural reform, not merely a return to the pre-Trump status quo. After all, the status quo helped deliver the Republicans the White House last time around. Hope thus springs exhausted but eternal from progressives who see a possibility for better, but worry about more of the same. At the very least, the chances for better are higher than they have been for decades. That may not be saying much, but it is something.
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