The most compelling response to President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress was not the ably enough delivered yet largely predictable recitation of Republican talking points by South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.
The most compelling response of the night was the appeal by a progressive who celebrated what was big and bold about Biden’s message, but who did not hesitate to say that the president and the Democratic Party must do much, much more “to meet the gravity of the moment.”
“We are capable of big, powerful, transformative change,” declared Representative Jamaal Bowman, the New York Democrat who responded on behalf of the Working Families Party.
Bowman put the moment in perspective for progressives, speaking not just about what has been done in the president’s first 100 days but also what must be done in the days to come.
“We have taken steps to abate the immediate crises of Covid-19 and the economic shutdown it caused. But we, as the governing party, have to go beyond putting a band-aid on the virus,” the newly elected congressman explained to Working Families Party activists across the country. “We need to rebuild our nation with a new foundation. A foundation rooted in love, and care, and equality. Where justice is truly real for all of us, regardless of race, class, gender, orientation, or religion. I fully believe we can. And the moment is now because this moment is historic.”
President Biden’s speech to the Congress made many progressive points—declaring that “white supremacy is terrorism,” speaking of a duty to “root out systemic racism” in our criminal justice system, advocating a renewal of labor rights, calling for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, addressing the need to end “the forever war in Afghanistan”—and that was good. But Bowman sharpened those points, and extended them. At every turn, he argued, “We need to think bigger…. to solve the crises of job, climate, and care…. to address the burning crisis of structural racism in our country.”
Bowman bluntly urged the president to be more aggressive and specific in calling out police violence. While he recognized the “important steps” contained in Biden’s Covid relief and infrastructure plans, he warned that the president’s initiatives “don’t go as big as [we] truly need.”
Regarding the climate crisis, the representative spoke of the need for many Green New Deals.
“We need a Green New Deal for Public Housing, as my colleague and friend Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has proposed. We need a Green New Deal for Cities, as my friend Cori Bush has proposed. And,” said the former school principal, “we need a Green New Deal for Public Schools. Every part of our society must become part of the answer because this crisis is urgent. We can create those new, green jobs, and we must make the jobs people already have better. That’s what the Thrive Act is all about, which would create 15 million green union jobs.”
I spoke this week with Bowman about why he felt it was important to present a progressive response to the president’s address. Here is some of our discussion.
JN: You’re a new member of Congress. What made you decide to step up and deliver a response to the president’s first address to a joint session of Congress?
JB: The Working Families Party asked me if I would be interested in doing it, and I love the WFP. I love their leadership. I love the direction that they’re trying to go, and I was happy and honored to be asked and happy to do it.
It’s important for the progressive movement overall to stay vigilant in this moment. A lot of things are going well, and every day that goes by is one more day away from Donald Trump. But we have to remain vigilant. We have to remain engaged and we have to remain organized, both inside the Congress and on the ground with the grassroots.
JN: What are some areas where you think the president has done well?
JB: The American Rescue Plan was an unprecedented infusion of resources into the economy in response to Covid, from the perspective of the Earned Income Tax Credit; the Child Tax Credit, increasing that and lifting 50 percent of children out of poverty; the money going to Title I public schools; the money going to cities, states, and counties, and areas that need it the most.
The American Rescue Plan was tremendous. And I’m excited about where the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan are going as well: raising corporate tax rates, raising tax rates on multinationals, requesting $400 billion for the care economy specifically for home care for our seniors.
These are all very good things. These are all remarkable things. And the White House has been engaging with my office and, I know, with the offices of other progressives as well. So all of those things are going very well.
JN: So what are some areas where you feel that the administration needs to be pushed?
JB: We need to go bigger in terms of affordable housing. I know that there is [$40 billion in funding for public housing in the infrastructure plan], but that barely handles the issues that are happening in NYCHA [the New York City Housing Authority] here in New York City. So we need to go much bigger when it comes to affordable housing as part of infrastructure.
If we go bigger, we can create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and we can go green in the area of public housing, which is huge.
I think we need to go greener overall, in terms of our infrastructure. I like ending the fossil fuel subsidy. That is big, but we want to be bolder, we want to be bigger, and we want to be greener—similar to Senator Bernie Sanders’s $16 trillion position when he rolled out a Green New Deal as a candidate for president. We need a federal jobs guarantee that puts everyone to work toward a green, clean renewable energy economy.
Then the issue of racial justice and racial equity. President Biden has spoken out for racial justice and for racial equity, and we want him to continue to be a leader on that front. I’ll be very specific in terms of how the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan should be implemented in historically redlined communities. That is a key piece there, and we need to be more vigilant in speaking out against police brutality. Police need to stop killing black people, period. We need the president to say that and to be a leader on that. And if there are executive orders that he can sign to that effect, we need him to do so.
JN: In some of these areas, you’re talking about the president using his bully pulpit. But it’s a frustrating circumstance, where the House is approving vital legislation—the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, as an example—but the Senate is not taking it up.
JB: Yes, absolutely. That’s a great point, and we also need the president to be a leader on ending the filibuster or, at the very least, making sure the filibuster doesn’t get in the way of us passing transformative legislation with regard to democracy reform like H.R. 1 (the For the People Act of 2021) and H.R. 4 (the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019), with regard to immigration like H.R. 6 (American Dream and Promise Act of 2021), with regard to H.R. 40 (the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act) once it passes the House.
The president was in the Senate for a very long time. He has a lot of relationships there. He knows how it works.
The White House has a ton of power and a ton of resources, and this is the opportunity for President Biden to become arguably one of the best presidents in our nation’s history—if he responds accordingly to this moment, in alignment with the American people, not so-called moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, because they’re not about the American people. They’re about minority rule in terms of being in the Senate, with Republicans in the Senate having less votes than Democrats but still exercising way too much power.
We want Biden to stand with the people.
JN: It’s been said that when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as president, met with labor, social, and racial justice activists in the 1930s and 1940s, he encouraged them to put pressure on his administration. That he said things like, “Go out and make me do it.”
Is that the role for progressives now, to make the president do things that he may well believe in but isn’t sure he can pull off? Is that a fair way of looking at it?
JB: That is absolutely a fair way of looking at it, and I’ve had a very high-ranking official in the White House tell me that to my face. You know, “Make us do it. Push us further. Push us harder. You want us to go bigger? That’s fine. Push us to go bigger.”
So that’s what I mean about the engagement, right? If the American people continue to mobilize as we have been, I think we can get even stronger.
When we galvanize and engage, say, the 80 million people that did not vote in the last presidential election, we get them mobilized and get them excited, we can reach a point of no return to the wealth-hoarding and the oppression of the working class that’s been going on for several decades now.
JN: Historically when the president gives his address someone from the opposition party responds. Now we’re seeing more voices come in, and what you’re doing is an example of that, speaking on behalf of the WFP. Does that open up the debate?
JB: Yes, absolutely. We’re a multiracial democracy. We’re a beautifully diverse country, right? We have all ethnicities, religions, economic statuses, orientations, genders, so much diversity. We need to make sure that that diversity is seen, is heard, is respected, has a seat at the table, and is pulling a lever of power—either from a community perspective or from the perspective of elected officials.
It’s necessary, it’s healthy. The more we hear from one another, the more we realize we’re more the same than we are different. That puts us in a position to move forward together in peace, as opposed to the horrible anti-Asian hate, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and all the ugliness that continues to permeate the world. It’s time for us to move together in peace and harmony as a people.
The more a diverse group of people are heard from, the better.