Biden the Reformer

Joe Biden sells himself as a moderate, and his entire political career has been premised on his image as a centrist who can work across the political aisle. But, the former vice president is poised, if elected, to push the most progressive agenda in decades.

Biden has stressed his moderation and fundamental decency during the campaign. He and advisers know that President Donald Trump’s irresponsibility, ignorance, divisiveness, and failed administration are driving many conservatives to back a Democrat. Pushing a radical agenda now might force some of those discontented formerly Republican voters — not to mention former Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016 — to stay away and either not vote or hold their noses and vote for Trump. 

Yet, at the same time, Biden recognizes that rising economic inequality requires a more just society, one that redresses the obscene concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Biden also realizes that any attempt to promote even a modicum of economic equality must address the systemic racism that plagues American society, which has come to the forefront under the racist incumbent in the Oval Office.

President Theodore Roosevelt, pictured as a trust-busting Progressive

American history has alternated between eras of reform followed by periods of consolidation. The reformist impulse was particularly evident in the last century during three significant eras of rapid change. The first was the Progressive era of the first two decades of the 20th century. Progressivism was an impulse that coursed through both major parties while absorbing ideas from the Populists of the 1890s — a labor-farmer coalition dissimilar from the right-wing nationalist populism of today — and Socialists like Eugene Debs. Progressivism was a middle-class movement of Americans convinced that the concentration of corporate power and the presence of widespread corruption had undermined the nation’s democratic origins. Progressives pushed an agenda focusing on trust-busting, regulating corporate power, and enacting laws to encourage cleaner government. 

The Great Depression — America’s greatest economic crisis — ushered in the New Deal, which turned many Progressive ideas into law, such as unemployment insurance, minimum wages, and protection of collective bargaining. The administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the foundation of the modern social safety net with enactment of Social Security. His administration attempted to correct — through the tax code and regulation of corporate power — the economic inequality that marked the 1920s and contributed to the economic crash.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act

The New Deal — dependent on the votes of southern segregationists in Congress, then a core constituency of the Democratic Party — ignored the aspirations of African Americans. Pressure for racial equality built up after World War II, leading to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the last great reform era of the last century. Major Civil Rights legislation was enacted during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, an improbable steward of racial justice who, as a Texan in the Senate, had never manifested an interest in racial equality. But, Johnson succeeded the assassinated President John Kennedy, whose stalled agenda on civil rights and poverty Johnson proceeded to push. The new president had two advantages over Kennedy: A mastery of Congress learned as Senate Majority Leader and an active movement for racial redress goading the nation to act. Aiding Johnson was a mandate derived from his huge electoral victory in 1964. If Biden wins big on November 3, the similarities between 1964 and 2020 will be evident.

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress

Several months ago, Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal Center for American Progress, laid out an agenda for change that drew on the three great reform movements of the 20th century. Tanden sent a copy of “A New Social Contract for the 21st Century” to the Biden campaign, which gave it a favorable review. Tanden’s essay called for extending the social safety net — paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, and expanded Medicare. She also demanded greater corporate responsibility to include consideration of the interests of workers and local communities. 

Much of what Tanden suggested has found its way into Biden’s agenda. The former vice president favors a huge jobs program, investment of up to $2 trillion in infrastructure and clean energy, raising of the the minimum wage to $15 an hour, stimulating the growth of manufacturing, and assistance with the cost of college education. Biden has also pushed a social agenda, calling for police reform while shunning the more radical proposals of the Democratic left on defunding. 

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders debating during the Democratic primaries

Biden has successfully waded through the differences between centrist Democrats and the more radical elements of the party. Proof of this can be found in the remarkable 110-page policy platform his supporters hammered out with backers of Senator Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist who twice ran for president. Sanders said, “I think the compromise… if implemented, will make Biden the most progressive president since FDR. Biden agreed: “I do think we’ve reached point, a real inflection in American history…. I think we have an opportunity to make some really systemic change.”

At heart, I suspect Biden remains the politician he has always been, a moderate who craves bipartisan compromise to advance the public good. But, the nation has changed and what worked decades ago is passé now. Americans are more divided than ever, and the center is shifting to the left. In adopting a program for a new era of reform, Biden is moving with the nation. But, implementation of a new agenda depends not only on a Biden victory, but a landslide victory. If the long lines in early voting are any indication, that landslide may happen.

Posted October 16, 2020

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