One of Joe Biden’s first acts in the Oval Office was to hang a portrait of Franklin Roosevelt, removing Donald Trump’s choice of Andrew Jackson. Then—against all expectations—he set out to meet the challenges of this FDR moment. In his first 100 days, Biden has shown he intends to marshal the resources of government to address the “cascading crises” we face with the most ambitious agenda in half a century.
Biden began with a barrage of executive orders reversing some of Trump’s follies—ending the Muslim travel ban, rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord, pulling the plug on the border wall. He also moved aggressively to take on the pandemic and to address the climate crisis, naming John Kerry as special envoy for climate with a seat on the National Security Council and announcing an April climate summit.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was passed by Congress under the arcane reconciliation process with no Republican votes. Hailed by Bernie Sanders as the “most significant piece of legislation to benefit working families in the modern history of this country,” the package provides $1,400 in direct payments, as well as extended unemployment benefits, support for rapid vaccination, resources to help open schools, aid for state and local governments, and a dramatic expansion of health insurance subsidies. It also creates a universal basic income for poor and middle-class families with children, which would cut child poverty in half. At about 9 percent of current GDP, it dwarfs FDR’s and Obama’s stimulus packages and will supercharge the recovery.
Next up for passage is the $2.25 trillion, eight-year American Jobs Plan, which Biden described as a “once-in-a-generation investment in America,” with billions of dollars for electric vehicles, broadband, clean water, housing, and the largest investment in nondefense research and development ever. With interest rates low, infrastructure investment will more than pay for itself, but Biden’s plan also boosts the corporate tax rate and imposes a minimum global tax on multinationals.
That will be paired (and is likely to be combined) with a $2 trillion American Families Plan to support the care economy, including childcare, eldercare, paid family leave, and more, which would also be accompanied by raising taxes on the rich.
Promising a trade policy that works for working people, Biden has ordered a review of supply chains and has extended “Buy America” provisions on federal contracting. Announcing “I am a union man,” he made an unprecedented appeal on behalf of the unions trying to organize Amazon.
While Biden’s cabinet appointments have largely been establishment figures, strong reformers have been chosen for several key subcabinet positions, pointing to a potential revival of consumer and environmental protections and antitrust enforcement. On judicial appointments, Biden has promised diversity not only in race but in professions, looking to draw from legal aid, civil rights, poverty, and criminal defense lawyers.
If enacted and strengthened—a big if—Biden’s agenda would represent a profound break with the conservative era of the past 40 years. As a career politician with a history of tacking to conservative winds, Biden is a most unlikely captain to chart this course.
The crises forced his hand—just as the Great Depression forced FDR’s. The calamitous failure of the conservative era also left an opening. With labor unions weakened, progressive movements—Occupy Wall Street, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the Poor People’s Campaign, 350.org, the Dreamers—pointed the way. Sanders won the battle of ideas, if not the nomination. Progressive policy institutes provided ammunition for the debate and alternative ideas, and progressive legislators in Congress have growing clout.
It helps that the agenda of the Democratic left—Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, curbing Wall Street, strengthening labor unions, ending police brutality—is broadly popular, as are Biden’s early initiatives.
Trump also helped by exposing the bankruptcy of the conservative establishment. His indictment of America’s failed trade strategy and his own $2 trillion pandemic recovery plan set the stage for Biden, just as Jimmy Carter’s embrace of deregulation, privatization, military spending, and fiscal austerity presaged the Reagan era.
Will Biden’s intentions come to fruition? The obstacles are formidable. The biggest question is whether he can build support by helping people understand the fix we are in: how we got here, who is to blame, and what must be done.
In his first inaugural address, FDR laid out a clear case for action and claimed the authority to act on his own should Congress fail to move. Ronald Reagan used his inaugural address to announce that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” His staff deployed his acting experience to stage events that captivated viewers.
Biden, in contrast, has been notable mostly for his absence. He has yet to schedule a joint address to Congress and has had just one press conference and scant social media presence. Yet it’s hard to drive a change in direction without repeatedly making a compelling case for it.
Roosevelt was elected with a sweeping mandate—and large majorities in Congress. Reagan took out an incumbent president and picked up a majority in the Senate. In both cases, the election results intimidated any opposition.
Biden comes to office having racked up more votes than any president in US history and the greatest margin ever over an incumbent, but Democrats lost seats in the House and barely eked out a tie in the Senate. Republicans’ gains at the state level position them to pass voter suppression laws and draw gerrymandered districts to help them take back both chambers. Meanwhile, the mighty right-wing media Wurlitzer continues to blast out propaganda.
The result is an opposition emboldened to obstruct. Republicans didn’t give Biden a single vote for his pandemic rescue plan. Mitch McConnell dismissed his infrastructure bill as a “liberal wish-list.” Republicans will torpedo anything that can’t be done with 51 Senate votes—and if they do take back the House or the Senate, Biden’s bold agenda will be dead in the water.
Moreover, one of the most exciting parts of his American Rescue Plan—the universal basic income for poor and middle-class families—expires after a year. It needs to be made permanent. Biden’s green investments—by far the largest ever proposed by any president—fall far short of what he promised during his campaign. Without structural changes, the massive subsidies for the Affordable Care Act are simply multibillion-dollar handouts to the insurance companies.
Biden’s foreign policy also impedes any transformation. While the president wisely moved to extend the New START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, this has been overshadowed by military posturing in the South China Sea and on Russia’s borders. Biden promised to end the forever wars, but he is backing away from Trump’s commitment to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan on May 1. A US return to the Iranian nuclear deal is stalled, even as Biden authorized a strike against an alleged Iranian-backed militia in Syria.
In his first budget, Biden made no significant reductions in military spending—now greater in comparable dollars than at the height of the Cold War. Inevitably, our global commitments will generate unexpected crises, consuming even more attention and resources.
Progressives have witnessed false dawns before. For the promise of Biden’s early days to be fulfilled, activists and movements must drive the change. Progressive leaders in Congress are already pushing the administration. But they will need help to educate Americans about the failures of the conservative era and the rigging of the economy. Systemic change will be sustained only if movements continue to grow and mobilize.
The argument is joined. This time, progressives must make certain we win it.