Joe Biden is, most emphatically, not a socialist. When Donald Trump tried to paint Biden as a “radical socialist” during the fall campaign of 2020, Biden noted that he had gained the Democratic nomination by beating an actual democratic socialist, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. “I beat the socialist,” Biden said during a campaign swing through Wisconsin. “That’s how I got elected. That’s how I got the nomination. Do I look like a socialist? Look at my career—my whole career. I am not a socialist.”
More recently, when Biden was confronted outside a 2022 campaign rally in Illinois by protesters with signs that claimed his administration is steering the country toward socialism, the president announced, “I love those signs when I came in—socialism. Give me a break, what idiots.”
Even so, Biden has begun to deliver a critique of capitalism that, while hardly radical, recognizes many of the complaints made by the system’s critics.
That was clear in the 2023 State of the Union address, which saw the president spell out concerns about the excesses of capitalism in the sort of detail rarely heard from an American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt occupied the Oval Office.
“Look,” Biden said, “capitalism without competition is not capitalism. It’s extortion. It’s exploitation.”
Most socialists would argue that capitalism, even in its most benign form, is fundamentally about exploitation. But Biden’s line of reasoning echoes that of FDR, who used his bully pulpit to identify his presidency as a reckoning with the forces of reckless banking, speculation, and monopoly—going so far as the declare in a 1936 campaign address, “They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
The 32nd president began his first term by announcing,
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
That was not a socialist message. But it was a message informed by an understanding that capitalism could and would spin out of control if government failed to address its most abusive characteristics.
Biden has, in a number of recent speeches (most notably in last week’s speech), positioned himself—much like Roosevelt—as a president who wants to save the system from itself. “Look, I’m a capitalist. I’m a capitalist,” he declared midway through his latest address to Congress. With that reassurance delivered, he pivoted into an extended and quite robust argument for taxing the rich.
“We have to reward work, not just wealth.” Biden said. “Pass my proposal for the billionaire minimum tax.… no billionaire should be paying a lower tax rate than a schoolteacher or a firefighter. I mean it.”
Specifically, he called for “[closing] the loopholes that allow the very wealthy to avoid paying their taxes. Instead of cutting the number of audits for wealthy taxpayers, I just signed a law to reduce the deficit by $114 billion by cracking down on wealthy tax cheats.”
He also talked up a range of new taxes on corporations.
Why? To fund “investments in our future by finally making the wealthiest and biggest corporations begin to pay their fair share.”
Nothing wrong with a little redistribution of wealth. And nothing wrong with acknowledging that capitalism without regulatory guardrails will quickly degenerate into “extortion” and “exploitation.”
So it was that Biden urged Congress to “strengthen antitrust enforcement and prevent big online platforms from giving their own products an unfair advantage,” to crack down on “junk fees, those hidden surcharges too many companies use to make you pay more,” to “pass the PRO Act because businesses have a right—workers have a right to form a union. And let’s guarantee all workers have a living wage,” and to “make sure working parents can afford to raise a family with sick days, paid family medical leave, affordable child care.”
That’s not a New Deal. And it’s certainly not the full agenda for an American social democracy that’s been outlined by democratic socialists in the United States and abroad. But it is a vision for a strong government that recognizes the “first truth,” as Franklin Roosevelt did, that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself.”
What Biden outlined in his State of the Union address was a plan to temper the abuses of capitalism. And he labeled it as such. That’s a good start. Now, if only he would borrow another page from FDR and use his next State of the Union address to call for an Economic Bill of Rights. That’s what FDR did in 1944, when he rejected proposals for a return to economic “normalcy” after the upheavals of the Great Depression and World War II and said, instead, “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.”
Notably, Roosevelt ran on that program and won reelection in 1944 and with more than 53 percent of the vote and an Electoral College landslide of 432-99. He also saw Democrats hold the US Senate and add 22 seats to their House caucus—numbers that would give Biden the ability to move from a critique of capitalism to the vital work of taming its most destructive tendencies.