Newsweek

Can Bi­den Suc­ceed Where Obama Failed?

The NEW PRES­I­DENT has a stark choice: Make friends or make progress. There are TOUGH LESSONS for the left as well

- BY DAVID SIROTA

The pre­vi­ous Demo­crat showed you can make friends or make progress–but not both.

TWELVE YEARS AF­TER JOE BI­DEN was sworn in as the vice pres­i­dent of hope and change, hope is in short sup­ply and the need for change is even more acute. Pro­gres­sives have a rare op­por­tu­nity to en­act their agenda—but they will need to play the kind of hard­ball they have backed away from in the past, be­cause Bi­den con­tin­ues to send con­flict­ing mes­sages. For ev­ery prom­ise of trans­for­ma­tional change, he sig­nals a de­sire to ap­pease a Re­pub­li­can Party in­tent on de­stroy­ing his pres­i­dency.

The stakes could not be higher: One out of ev­ery thou­sand Amer­i­cans has died from a lethal pan­demic, with no end yet in sight. The econ­omy is of­fi­cially still hum­ming along, but mil­lions face evic­tion, bank­ruptcy and hunger. Even our democ­racy is un­der un­prece­dented siege by an in­sur­rec­tion­ist move­ment en­cour­aged by the out­go­ing pres­i­dent and his loyal min­ions in Congress.

The path for­ward is dif­fi­cult to en­vi­sion amid the fog of cul­ture war, po­lit­i­cal war and the threat of ac­tual, real-life civil war. But it is clear that Bi­den is at a cross­road and still un­sure which way to go.he can fol­low his boss, Barack Obama, who pur­sued bi­par­ti­san­ship, comity and com­pro­mise—ac­com­mo­dat­ing cor­po­rate power. Or he can break to­ward the path of Franklin Roo­sevelt, who did bat­tle with oli­garchy, stood down fas­cism and wel­comed the ha­tred of the rich.

The les­son of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is that you can have ap­pease­ment or trans­for­ma­tive progress, but you can­not have both.

Obama won the 2008 cam­paign de­spite be­ing falsely branded a for­eign-born so­cial­ist bent on rad­i­cal re­dis­tri­bu­tion, and he as­sumed of­fice in a sim­i­lar caul­dron of divi­sion and des­ti­tu­tion. Amer­ica's psy­che was bat­tered by the Iraq War, and our econ­omy was shred­ded by a fi­nan­cial cri­sis that ru­ined mil­lions of lives. It was his FDR mo­ment—which he used not to forge a New Deal that re­bal­anced the re­la­tion­ship be­tween cap­i­tal and la­bor, but to prop up the sta­tus quo in­stead.

→ He backed his pre­de­ces­sor’s bank bailout pro­gram, then ter­mi­nated it to reduce the deficit rather than re­di­rect it to aid strug­gling home­own­ers.

→ He pushed a stim­u­lus bill, but one that was far too small, which ended up de­liv­er­ing one of Amer­i­can his­tory's slow­est eco­nomic re­cov­er­ies.

→ He promised a change from a Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion that tried to pri­va­tize So­cial Se­cu­rity, then formed a com­mis­sion to try to slash the pro­gram.

→ He cham­pi­oned a slightly more lib­eral ver­sion of Re­pub­li­can health care re­form, but steered clear of a more con­tentious fight for a pub­lic health in­sur­ance op­tion or Medi­care for All.

→ He touted get­ting tough on Wall Street, but his ad­min­is­tra­tion re­fused to pros­e­cute bank ex­ec­u­tives, force fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions to ac­cept mort­gage losses and break up the big­gest banks.

→ And he ef­fec­tively shielded the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion from any sys­tem­atic in­ves­ti­ga­tion into its Iraq War lies and its law­less tor­ture regime, out of “a be­lief that we need to look for­ward as op­posed to look­ing back­wards.”

Through it all, Obama en­joyed the ado­ra­tion of lib­eral vot­ers and the ac­qui­es­cence of con­gres­sional pro­gres­sives, who of­ten re­frained from a con­fronta­tion with the Demo­cratic White House even when Obama's ad­min­is­tra­tion was steam­rolling their agenda.

In seek­ing com­mon ground with the GOP, Obama may have ex­pected some friend­ship in re­turn. In­stead, they gave him few con­gres­sional votes and even fewer words of praise. Then they de­liv­ered a midterm shel­lack­ing that ef­fec­tively ended the pos­si­bil­ity of trans­for­ma­tional change.

Obama would later write that he avoided a crack­down on Wall Street be­cause that might have “re­quired a vi­o­lence to the so­cial or­der.”

That rev­er­ence for the sta­tus quo—and def­er­ence to Wall Street ul­ti­mately helped cre­ate the back­lash con­di­tions for the rise of Trump. One data point sug­gested a di­rect link­age: In one third of the coun­ties that flipped from Obama to Trump, there had been an in­crease in the num­ber of res­i­dents whose mort­gages were un­der­wa­ter in 2016, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress.

“We would not have Trump as pres­i­dent if the Democrats had re­mained the party of the work­ing class,” Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia-irvine pro­fes­sor Bernard Grof­man re­cently told the New York Times. “[Obama] re­sponded to the hous­ing cri­sis with bailouts of the lenders and in­ter­linked fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions, not of the folks los­ing their homes. And the stag­na­tion of wages and in­come for the mid­dle and bot­tom of the in­come distri­bu­tion con­tin­ued un­der Obama.”

Obama en­joyed the ado­ra­tion of LIB­ERAL vot­ers and the ac­qui­es­cence of con­gres­sional pro­gres­sives, who did not put up much of a fight even when his ad­min­is­tra­tion was STEAM­ROLLING their agenda.

“We Should Be In­vest­ing In Deficit Spend­ing”

A DECADE LATER, it's un­clear what Bi­den gleaned from his ex­pe­ri­ence with Obama.

At some mo­ments, he ap­pears to fi­nally be lean­ing away from his decades-long record as a bud­get-cut­ting fis­cal hawk, in­stead cam­paign­ing to ex­pand So­cial Se­cu­rity, then em­brac­ing the idea of $2,000 stim­u­lus checks and most re­cently declar­ing that "we should be in­vest­ing in deficit spend­ing in or­der to gen­er­ate eco­nomic growth."

And yet at other mo­ments he has done the op­po­site. He ini­tially urged Demo­cratic law­mak­ers to ac­cept a stim­u­lus plan with no stim­u­lus checks. And, eight days af­ter a vi­o­lent right-wing up­ris­ing at the Capi­tol evis­cer­ated the GOP, he re­sus­ci­tated and re­warded the party by sig­nal­ing that—even though he needs no Re­pub­li­can votes—he would rather cut a deal with them on his first stim­u­lus leg­is­la­tion than use ruth­less tac­tics to pass a more ro­bust bill with only Demo­cratic sup­port.

This ver­sion of Bi­den has as­serted that once Trump is gone Re­pub­li­can lead­ers would have an “epiphany” and sud­denly learn to work with Democrats. He has also re­port­edly sug­gested he is not in­ter­ested in in­ves­ti­gat­ing the out­rages of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion; he has con­tin­ued to say “we need a Re­pub­li­can Party” and he promised that “I'll never pub­licly em­bar­rass” GOP law­mak­ers.

But that is the para­dox: In a nar­rowly di­vided Congress, Bi­den al­most cer­tainly will not be able to make ma­jor pub­lic in­vest­ments if he is con­flict averse. Pass­ing a bold agenda will likely re­quire an epic con­fronta­tion with the Repub­li­cans, who are al­ready gird­ing for ob­struc­tion. Af­ter years of prof­li­gate tax cuts and spend­ing, GOP lead­ers are sud­denly pre­tend­ing to care about the deficit, and if his­tory is any guide, they will re­new their ef­forts to block the changes to en­vi­ron­men­tal and la­bor laws that Bi­den has promised are forth­com­ing.

The left is cor­rect to fear Bi­den get­ting too cozy with Repub­li­cans: His record work­ing with the GOP was marked by col­lab­o­rat­ing with seg­re­ga­tion­ists against school bus­ing, sup­port­ing the Iraq War and push­ing to cut So­cial Se­cu­rity—and it is not hard to imag­ine Bi­den now find­ing com­mon ground with Mitch Mccon­nell on the lat­ter.

This is where pro­gres­sives must learn their own les­son from the Obama years: Rather than once again of­fer­ing def­er­ence to a first-term Demo­crat-

BI­DEN can break to­ward the path of Franklin ROO­SEVELT, who did bat­tle with oli­garchy, stood down fas­cism and wel­comed the ha­tred of the rich.

ic pres­i­dent, they must press Bi­den to re­ject an at­ti­tude of ap­pease­ment, move him into a more con­fronta­tional pos­ture and urge him to see the first few months of the Obama era as a cau­tion­ary tale rather than a guide­book. And they have al­ready had some ini­tial suc­cess: They suc­cess­fully pres­sured him to sup­port the $2,000 sur­vival checks.

“We've got to pass the in­fra­struc­ture pack­age, we've got do the $2,000 checks, we've got to do a whole bunch of things with a 50-50 Se­nate and a pretty slight mar­gin in the House,” said Wis­con­sin Demo­cratic Rep. Mark Po­can. “I hope we don't do what we did when Barack Obama first got elected [and] try to have kum­baya a lit­tle too much with ev­ery­body. We have to act and use the tight mar­gins we have swiftly to get things done.”

This will re­quire the kind of shrewd­ness, dis­ci­pline and in­testi­nal for­ti­tude we have not typ­i­cally seen from the left in decades. Grassroots groups will have to get com­fort­able pres­sur­ing the new ad­min­is­tra­tion. Demo­cratic law­mak­ers will have to be pre­pared to clash with Bi­den, even when he is try­ing to talk them down with “come on, man,” “here's the deal” and other sweet noth­ings.

“Bold­ness That We Have Not Seen In This Coun­try Since FDR”

the good news is that pro­gres­sives are Bet­ter po­si­tioned for this fight than they have been in years. The cor­po­rate wing of the Demo­cratic Party re­mains pow­er­ful by virtue of its ties to big money, but polls show it has lost the ar­gu­ment in the con­test of ideas. Many Amer­i­cans want big change, and want it now—and pro­gres­sive law­mak­ers are for­ti­fied by a grassroots fundrais­ing base, bet­ter po­lit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture and name-brand lead­ers

In the House, the Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus has dozens of mem­bers, and it is re­vamp­ing its rules to be a more co­he­sive vot­ing bloc so that it can lever­age power in the nar­rowly di­vided cham­ber.

Al­ready, the group—led by Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-cortez and other Squad mem­bers—per­suaded Demo­cratic lead­ers to re­form bud­get rules to make it eas­ier to pass ini­tia­tives like a Green New Deal and Medi­care for All. They can also press to in­voke the Con­gres­sional Re­view Act to re­scind last-minute Trump reg­u­la­tions that weaken pro­tec­tions work­ers and un­der­mine the fight against cli­mate change.

In the Se­nate, pro­gres­sive Sen. Sher­rod Brown will lead the Bank­ing Com­mit­tee. Af­ter the fi­nan­cial cri­sis a dozen years ago, he cham­pi­oned an ini­tia­tive to break up the largest banks; it was stymied by the panel's then-chair­man Chris Dodd, with an as­sist by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Now Brown is in a po­si­tion to res­ur­rect the idea, know­ing it could gen­er­ate bi­par­ti­san sup­port, re­cently say­ing, "Wall Street doesn't get to run this en­tire econ­omy."

Demo­cratic LAW­MAK­ERS will have to be pre­pared to clash with Bi­den, even when he is try­ing to talk them down with “come on, man,” “here's the DEAL” and other sweet noth­ings.

Mean­while, Ver­mont Sen. Bernie San­ders will chair the pow­er­ful Se­nate Bud­get Com­mit­tee. He will be able to set fed­eral spend­ing pri­or­i­ties and use the ar­cane process known as rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to try to cir­cum­vent the Se­nate fil­i­buster for big-ticket items such as the one he re­cently floated: an emer­gency pro­gram to ex­tend med­i­cal cov­er­age to any­one dur­ing the pan­demic, whether or not they have ex­ist­ing in­sur­ance cov­er­age.

Dur­ing the Obama era, Democrats of­ten de­clined to wield their power—they did not use bud­get rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to try to en­act a pub­lic health in­sur­ance op­tion, for ex­am­ple. By con­trast, Repub­li­cans dur­ing the Trump years used rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to pass his gi­ant tax cut for the wealthy, and weaponized the CRA to scrap 14 Obama reg­u­la­tions.

More than most in Washington, San­ders un­der­stands the moral and po­lit­i­cal im­per­a­tive of us­ing ev­ery tool pos­si­ble to make change. "We have to act with a bold­ness that we have not seen in this coun­try since FDR," he told NBC News. "If we do not, I sus­pect that in two years we will not be in the majority."

Bi­den cam­paigned for the pres­i­dency promis­ing to re­store a pre-cri­sis nor­mal. But that is not enough to pull Amer­ica back from the abyss and stave off the surge of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism to­day—just as it was not enough dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion.

Back then, Roo­sevelt seemed to ap­pre­ci­ate that busi­ness as usual would not stave off fas­cism and res­cue the coun­try—much more was re­quired.

“There must be an end to a con­duct in bank­ing and in busi­ness which too of­ten has given to a sa­cred trust the like­ness of cal­lous and self­ish wrong­do­ing,” he said in his first in­au­gu­ral ad­dress. “Restora­tion calls, how­ever, not for changes in ethics alone. This na­tion asks for ac­tion, and ac­tion now.”

Those words ring true in this mo­ment of peril— the best hope for Amer­ica is not a va­pid Bi­den paean to the “soul of this na­tion,” but a Bi­den ad­min­is­tra­tion that is pressed by pro­gres­sives to take ac­tion and de­liver real ma­te­rial gains to the work­ing class.

If that does not hap­pen, then a new right-wing au­thor­i­tar­ian will likely ride an­other wave of anger at the con­tin­ued in­equal­ity, des­ti­tu­tion and dys­func­tion—and that next menace is likely to be even more dan­ger­ous than Trump.

 ??  ?? DAUNT­ING
Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Bi­den speak­ing in Delaware this past Thanks­giv­ing. The enor­mous task be­fore him now is to some­how find a way to govern a bit­terly di­vided coun­try.
DAUNT­ING Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Bi­den speak­ing in Delaware this past Thanks­giv­ing. The enor­mous task be­fore him now is to some­how find a way to govern a bit­terly di­vided coun­try.
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? HARD­BALL Joe Bi­den (above with wife Jill at his 2013 swear­ing in as VP) will have to get tough with the likes of Mitch Mccon­nell (far right) to im­ple­ment his plans. For­mer Pres­i­dents Bush (right) and Obama (below) strug­gled at times to ex­e­cute their agen­das.
HARD­BALL Joe Bi­den (above with wife Jill at his 2013 swear­ing in as VP) will have to get tough with the likes of Mitch Mccon­nell (far right) to im­ple­ment his plans. For­mer Pres­i­dents Bush (right) and Obama (below) strug­gled at times to ex­e­cute their agen­das.
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? OLD WAYS In his first in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, Franklin Roo­sevelt said: "This na­tion asks for ac­tion, and ac­tion now." Does Bi­den un­der­stand the need for sim­i­lar ur­gency now?
OLD WAYS In his first in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, Franklin Roo­sevelt said: "This na­tion asks for ac­tion, and ac­tion now." Does Bi­den un­der­stand the need for sim­i­lar ur­gency now?
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? NEW DEAL?
Pro­gres­sives like Rep. Alexan­dra Oca­sio-cortez (above left) may get help in the Se­nate from new com­mit­tee lead­ers like Bernie San­ders (above right) and Sher­rod Brown. Top: Medi­care for All fans in Mon­tana.
NEW DEAL? Pro­gres­sives like Rep. Alexan­dra Oca­sio-cortez (above left) may get help in the Se­nate from new com­mit­tee lead­ers like Bernie San­ders (above right) and Sher­rod Brown. Top: Medi­care for All fans in Mon­tana.
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA