Democrats tend to leave easy points on the playing field out of a misguided sense of modesty, the term Joe Biden used recently when recounting his experiences in the Obama White House. By refusing to take a “victory lap” and crow about his accomplishments, President Biden argued, Barack Obama failed to maximize the political benefits from the things he did.
Political scientists call this the art of credit claiming: convincing voters that you are the reason something good has happened. Biden himself missed an opportunity when he declined to put his name on the $2,000—er, I mean $1,400—economic relief checks sent out earlier this year, as Donald Trump had done. Liberals tend to see that kind of politicking as tacky, which of course it is. It’s also important and necessary.
There’s nothing wrong with taking the layup, with pandering to voters’ most basic interests. With control of the White House and Congress, and with the predictable pushback to Biden’s proposed infrastructure spending bringing his honeymoon period to an end, Democrats could make an easy play to curry favor with voters by creating new federal holidays.
Sure, some of the same people now loudly complaining that “no one wants to work” will oppose the idea of Americans working less for any reason. But it’s difficult to imagine that the issue would be, on balance, anything but a net political win. (The dearth of polling on the question “Do people like holidays?” suggests that the answer is not complicated.)
Creating a federal holiday requires a vote in Congress. Presidents can declare holidays unilaterally, but only for a single, nonrecurring date (such as when July 4 falls on a weekend, and a different date, like July 3, is given temporary holiday status). The worst-case scenario, politically, for a unified Democratic House and Senate proposing new holidays would be to force Senate Republicans to defend using their various obstructionist tricks to prevent passage. If Democrats can’t collectively win a rhetorical battle framed as “We voted to give you more holidays, they refused,” then perhaps politics is the wrong line of work for them.
There are obvious candidates for additional holidays—Juneteenth and Election Day leap to mind—but it’s worth remembering how little most Americans use holidays for their “official” purpose. Is Labor Day really used to solemnly remember the victories and sacrifices of the labor movement? Or is it just a three-day weekend at a point in the calendar when most of us could really use one? Growing up in Illinois, I learned firsthand that having Casimir S. Pulaski Day off from work or school was enjoyable even for the majority of people who neither knew nor cared who Pulaski was.
While the number of federal public holidays in the United States is below but roughly comparable to that of our peer nations, the absence of paid vacation time (or the meager amounts for many who have it) puts American workers at a serious disadvantage when it comes to leisure. And messaging that leisure is good, that quality of life is important would be effective. For all the political posturing around the joys of work, most of us are thrilled to take a day off when the opportunity arises.
One complicating factor is the disparity between salaried and hourly workers, since the latter are often not paid if they do get a holiday off. But the hourly pay on holidays is often at time-and-a-half or better, giving the pro-holidays faction an argument that people can still benefit economically, if not in additional leisure time.
The usual suspects like the Chamber of Commerce will wail and rend their garments over any proposal for new federal holidays, and right-wing media will try to turn it into a culture war issue regardless of whether Congress proposes Juneteenth or National Corn Dog Day (the third Saturday in March, obviously). Let them. The counterpoint—“Wouldn’t it be nice to have another three-day weekend?”—is formidable.
Expanding the holiday calendar is not the nation’s most pressing matter, but that is precisely the point. With other, more difficult issues that lack consensus still on the table and Republicans forever inventing issues that pander to their base (“campus cancel culture”), Democrats need to find issues that enable them to do some posturing of their own. Arguing that Americans work too much and deserve some additional days off has a very limited downside.
It’s OK to do some politics. I promise. Democrats should learn to pick the low-hanging fruit when it’s available.