After the 2016 US Presidential election we are all a little reticent to make guarantees about the outcome of the November third vote. That said, consistent polling strongly indicates that Democrat Joe Biden will defeat incumbent Donald Trump and that it will not be very close. Biden leads in every swing state and even traditionally Republican states like Texas are far from a guarantee. Whether Trump accepts the vote, or tries to suggest that mail in ballots are illegitimate in an attempt to desperately hold onto power, is an open question that could lead to further uncertainty. That said, the most likely scenario is that Joe Biden wins and gets set to take office in late January 2021.
Although there will be a lot of relief and jubilation with Trump being defeated, there will also be a strong sense of regret about what could have been. The election cycle began with Senator Bernie Sanders launching his second bid for the presidency, campaigning on a radical program centered on wealth redistribution and the Green New Deal. Just like in 2016, millions of young people were drawn to Sanders and embraced his call to “fight for someone you don’t know.” When Sanders won the first three primary and caucuses for the Democratic nomination, it felt like victory was within reach.
The enormous pressure to defeat Trump has meant that Biden has been able to largely distance himself from the more radical politics Sanders inspired. Although a unity commission of sorts sought to include certain progressive nuggets into the election platform, Biden has never wasted an opportunity to disown the Green New Deal, embrace fracking, and let everyone know that he is the one who defeated the socialist. With Republican voices advising Biden through the Lincoln Project and revelations that he may appoint GOP figures to his cabinet, the Biden campaign has made clear that his administration will try to steer things back to bipartisan normalcy. The fear of Trump being re-elected has assured that concerns about this trajectory have been subdued, no one wanting to upset the prospect of Trump leaving the White House.
With Biden about to win owing nothing to the left, a frank look at what will come out of a Democratic administration should be had.
There were several moments during the campaign where the only thing going for Biden was that he was Barack Obama’s Vice-President. As Biden struggled to raise money, had difficulty staying coherent during speeches and debates, and then did poorly in the early states, his connection to Obama propped him up. After finally winning South Carolina, Obama is said to have made several phone calls encouraging the likes of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to drop out ahead of the Super Tuesday primaries, resulting in a huge swing in support toward Biden just as it appeared Bernie would pull ahead for good.
After the tumultuous Trump years, nostalgia for the Obama presidency is strong but any honest assessment of his eight years in office show that it was a continuation of neoliberal policies that furthered wage inequality in the United States and laid the groundwork for the shocking Trump win in 2016.
Obama came to office in 2009 with a wave of euphoria, with young people leading the way in electing the first African American president of the United States. He had huge majority in the House of Representatives and a filibuster-proof control of the Senate. With enormous political capital to expend, supporters hoped for a presidency that would reverse the disastrous foreign policy of the Bush years, punish the Banks for creating the economic collapse, transform the health care system that left tens of millions uninsured, and finally break with the centrist policies that had dominated the Democrats since the early 1980s.
Instead Obama governed like Bill Clinton had in the 1990s, a centrist not wanting to undermine the trust of big donors in the finance and insurance industry, not even willing to unwind the quagmire in the Middle East. While Obama’s administration bailed out banks and corporations deemed to big to fail, it failed miserably forestalling mortgage foreclosures, which was especially punishing to African American homeowners. On a foreign policy front, the Obama administration failed to close Guantanamo, further destabilized the Middle East when overthrowing Libyan leader Omar Qaddafi, and continued the practice of facilitating right wing coups in Latin America. The administration accelerated the number of deportations of undocumented immigrants and increased the use of drone attacks in conflict areas Obama had promised to pull out of. Even Obama’s most significant legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, was a health care reform plan once touted by Republicans. While finally guaranteed coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions it also saw significant increases to premiums, with no public option to undercut price gouging by insurance companies.
The disillusionment with the Obama presidency played itself out in the 2016 election, with significant drop in voter turnout among key constituencies in swing states. African American voters saw a significant drop in participation, which played a crucial role in Clinton losing states like Wisconsin and Michigan. The hope for Democrats is that Biden, closely associated with Obama, could turn that trend around.
Biden’s record and run to the right
The irony of course is that Obama chose Biden to calm the right of the Democratic Party and his record as a legislator and a candidate for president confirms that he is likely to offer even less to be excited about than Obama.
During the primary campaign, competitors did not shy away from bringing up his past opposition to school integration nor his role crafting the infamous 1994 crime bill that contributed to the mass incarceration of African Americans. Until 2019, Biden also supported the Hyde Amendment, legislation that assures no federal funding for abortion. And among Democrats, Biden has been one of the most willing to negotiate cuts to Social Security. While the Democrats have been moving to the right for the last 40 years, Biden has been at the vanguard of that trajectory, taking positions that even centrists in the party avoid publicly advocating.
Looking at his four decade history as a public official it is quite easy to call out the absurd claim that Biden will be the “most progressive president since FDR“–something neither supported by track record, nor his presidential platform or those likely to shape his policies once in office.
Since getting into the race, Biden has attempted to position himself as a shield against the left inside and outside the Democrats, as well as a candidate who can win over so-called moderate Republicans. Unlike other potential nominees, Biden did not flirt with the idea of Medicare for All, stridently opposing Bernie Sanders’ central campaign flank. Additionally, he refused to embrace the Green New Deal plan that the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were advocating for as the only way to restrain the worst elements of climate change. Since winning the nomination, and despite Sanders tirelessly campaigning for him, Biden has not wasted an opportunity to distance himself from these plans and stress that “I beat the socialist.” Although a unity commission sought to move the official platform to the left, it is apparent that Biden and his advisors have chosen to take the progressive wing of his party and the left for granted, using the fear of Trump being re-elected as the bludgeon.
What to expect
Biden kicked off his campaign telling wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” with his presidency. To suggest that his administration would be anything beyond an attempted return to normalcy is delusional. Although Biden is likely to curtail some of the most grotesque policies of the Trump administration, such as separating migrant parents and children at the border or the environmental rules Trump reversed through executive order, it would be safe to assume that Biden will not offer aggressive legislative solutions to the most significant problems facing the country (and world).
Although Biden has touted his public option as the solution to the failings of the Affordable Care Act, getting it passed is already in doubt. Obama failed to have the option included in 2009 despite having a massive majority in both chambers of Congress and Biden will likely be working with a much smaller majority, especially in the Senate. Indications already exist that introducing a public option is not the top concern for Democratic congresspersons, meaning that even if Biden pushed it he may not have the votes.
In terms of targeting the climate crisis, Biden was always seen as the least responsive to the demands facing governments across the globe, receiving a failing grade from the Sunrise Movement in the midst of the primaries. Under enormous pressure, the Biden campaign seemed to embrace some more substantial promises regarding moving away from fossil fuels and achieving net neutral emissions by 2050. These targets are still considerably short of the minimums most climate scientists believe are necessary to keep within the two-degree threshold, but the platform was initially seen as more aggressive than Hillary Clinton’s 2016 pledges. However, the campaign has continued to provide mixed messages regarding subsidies of fossil fuels and seems keens on reminding everyone that Biden in fact doesn’t oppose fracking. These are all promises, however, and it is doubtful that a Biden administration would pursue the radical policies necessary to stop catastrophic climate change. Even if the United States were to rejoin the Paris Agreement, reports suggest the commitments set there were too low to keep global temperatures from rising above two degrees Celsius and to achieve these the United States and other states would have to cut emissions significantly more than they agreed to in 2016. Biden has repeatedly distanced himself from the Green New Deal, but if we are to truly slow down climate change those are the policies that need to be embraced and enacted.
Considering his past positions, Biden’s approach to the Black Lives Matter uprising over the summer are not surprising but nonetheless are disappointing. While calls for massive reform of the criminal justice system and defunding the police gained currency, Biden was again quick to distance himself from those positions, instead offering the absurd suggestion that reform could be achieved by throwing money at police forces and that police needed to be trained to shoot for the legs. He didn’t assuage concerns when choosing California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, a former prosecutor and Attorney General who ran against Biden for the nomination and came under fire for prosecutorial practices that promoted incarceration among racialized communities. Although acknowledging systemic racism in the justice system and even supporting the decriminalization of marijuana possession, it is fair to be skeptical that Biden and Harris will aggressively pursue much beyond the most modest of reforms.
Aside from these key issues, there are a variety of concerns that Biden will bring with him the worst traits of past Democratic administrations. He has already indicated an aggressive position regarding Venezuela, supporting regime change to remove current president Maduro. It is also unclear how he will approach the current COVID-induced economic crisis, whether he’ll follow the previous Democratic path of stimulus and bailouts followed by a dosage of austerity and concern about growing deficits. Any hopes for big and bold programs, including climate ones, could be seriously shattered if Biden chooses to cut spending once the economy picks up again.
Although some liberals will be happy to go back to their brunches and not have to worry about the monster named Trump, a Biden administration is not going to offer much to the vast majority of people in the United States. Some may hope for a return to “normal”, but the crises of inequality and climate are not going to allow that.
What next for the left
In many ways the Democrats will win this election despite themselves. They obsessed over dubious claims of Russian interference in the 2016 election for most of Trump’s term, convinced that this was the only reason they lost that election. They offered and continue to offer little in terms of a programmatic alternative to Trump, largely focused on returning “dignity” to the presidency, rescuing it from someone so uncouth as Trump.
The real resistance to Trump and what has slowly weakened his electoral prospects has been the large scale movements that have responded not only to his policies but to the far right and proto-fascist forces he has inspired. From the Women’s March on Trump’s inauguration day, to the protests in Charlottesville, to the huge protests this summer against police anti-Black violence, these grassroots movements have served to highlight the danger that Trump represents and the threat him and his supporters are. The grossly incompetent response to COVID-19 affirmed to many voters why Trump needs to be voted out, much more so than anything the Democrats have said or done.
If Biden wins on November 3, any hopes to push his administration left depends on these kinds of active and broad movements continuing and expanding. When Obama was elected in 2008, carried by a wave of young supporters, the campaign did its best to demobilize them, refusing to use the political potential of organizing the millions of names they had collected in the fight for the presidency. With no pressure from the left, the Obama administrations trajectory quickly went rightward, with the only voices in its ear being those of powerful lobbyists and wealthy donors. It took a few years before large campaigns such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and NoDAPL began to push back the administration.
While many joke that removing Trump will mean we can finally sleep in on Saturdays and go for brunch, there is in fact no time for complacency and counting on a Biden presidency to do the right thing, because left to its own devices it won’t. The climate crisis, the racial injustice system, the health care crisis have created enormous pressures on American capitalism and failure to push for progressive and radical solutions to these will likely result in half-measures or complete abandonment of commitments. Just as disappointment over Obama’s presidency set the stage for Trump, Biden’s failures will further embolden the far right to prop itself up as an alternative and we can’t count on the next Trump-like figure to be such a buffoon.
The American left is stronger, bigger and more organized than it was in 2016. The Democratic Socialists of America are over 70,000 members and aiming to have over 100,000 within the year. The BLM movement has built large and rooted organizations around the country. The climate justice movement and umbrella organizations like the Sunrise Movement have similarly built networks on campuses and beyond. There is the ability to continue the resistance to Biden and to the system that he supports. We have no choice but to do so.
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