Instead of Repeating the Obama Administration, Biden Must Do Better. Here's How.

A successful Biden presidency will require immediately making working people’s lives better—and this is where to start.

Branko Marcetic

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Twelve years ago, in the midst of an epochal eco­nom­ic cri­sis, Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty were over­whelm­ing­ly swept into pow­er on a wave of hope, opti­mism and good­will, win­ning a fil­i­buster-proof major­i­ty in the Sen­ate and a 79-seat major­i­ty in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Two years lat­er, the Democ­rats faced a shel­lack­ing” in the midterms, depriv­ing them of their House major­i­ty, and effec­tive­ly clos­ing the door on Obama’s ambi­tious agen­da for the remain­der of his time in office. 

Today, Demo­c­rat Joe Biden is set to ascend to the pres­i­den­cy in the midst of an even larg­er eco­nom­ic cri­sis, one that, as in 2008, has been presided over and accel­er­at­ed by the Repub­li­can Par­ty — though under very dif­fer­ent circumstances. 

When he takes office in Jan­u­ary, Biden won’t have the ben­e­fit of a super­ma­jor­i­ty in the Sen­ate, and may not even have a major­i­ty at all. Far from the blue waves of 2008 and 2018, the Democ­rats were dec­i­mat­ed down-bal­lot, los­ing seats in the House and in state races across the coun­try. With Repub­li­cans gain­ing on the back of mas­sive pro-Trump turnout — and even poach­ing a not-insignif­i­cant share of the tra­di­tion­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­er base — there is pal­pa­ble momen­tum for anoth­er pos­si­ble GOP-led shel­lack­ing” in 2022

It hard­ly needs to be said what an out­come like this could mean for the country’s most vul­ner­a­ble, includ­ing immi­grants and the poor, let alone for urgent mat­ters like pre­vent­ing cat­a­stroph­ic cli­mate change. So avoid­ing a repeat of the Oba­ma years should be the num­ber-one imper­a­tive of the Biden admin­is­tra­tion, includ­ing pre­vent­ing anoth­er midterm shel­lack­ing” that cre­ates two more years of divid­ed, grid­locked government. 

That requires mov­ing aggres­sive­ly to not just con­tain the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, but, per­haps even more impor­tant­ly, mea­sur­ably improv­ing the lives of work­ing Amer­i­cans and revers­ing the long stag­na­tion of their liv­ing stan­dards that helped lead to Don­ald Trump’s rise in the first place.

Lessons from Obama

The first item on Pres­i­dent Biden’s agen­da will be pass­ing a mas­sive coro­n­avirus relief and stim­u­lus bill. The sit­u­a­tion par­al­lels that of Oba­ma, who spent the ear­ly part of his first term pre­oc­cu­pied with (and ulti­mate­ly belea­guered by) the sim­i­lar task of car­ry­ing out a vast stim­u­lus program. 

Accord­ing to Reed Hundt, a for­mer Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion offi­cial and mem­ber of Obama’s 2008-09 tran­si­tion team, Oba­ma leaned more on the neolib­er­al econ­o­mists he had sur­round­ed him­self with than with his polit­i­cal advi­sors. It was, iron­i­cal­ly, the same mis­take a young Bill Clin­ton had made as he pre­pared to take the pres­i­den­cy in 1993, ignor­ing his polit­i­cal team’s pleas to make good on his cam­paign promis­es and instead turn­ing his atten­tion to the deficit. For Oba­ma, this meant shap­ing his stim­u­lus accord­ing to con­ser­v­a­tive eco­nom­ic for­mu­las rather than polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions, while shy­ing away from using the full pow­er of the pres­i­den­cy to make Amer­i­cans as whole as possible.

Large­ly absent from the eco­nom­ic recov­ery plan … were pro­pos­als for uni­lat­er­al exec­u­tive action,” Hundt wrote in his 2019 book, A Cri­sis Wast­ed: Barack Obama’s Defin­ing Deci­sions.

The rest was his­to­ry: the 2009 stim­u­lus was too small, and the administration’s efforts to pro­tect Amer­i­cans from eco­nom­ic calami­ty too tepid, for vot­ers to reward Oba­ma and the Democ­rats by the midterms. But a Biden admin­is­tra­tion isn’t doomed to fol­low this tra­jec­to­ry, even if the size of any stim­u­lus bill is con­strained by a GOP-led cam­paign to con­tin­ue tank­ing the economy. 

For one, Trump, a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent, has already expand­ed the polit­i­cal bound­aries of exec­u­tive pow­er in a time of eco­nom­ic cri­sis. Through exec­u­tive orders this year, Trump leap-frogged a chron­ic do-noth­ing Con­gress and extend­ed a mora­to­ri­um on fed­er­al stu­dent loan repay­ment, paid hos­pi­tals for the treat­ment of unin­sured patients with Covid-19, put in place an evic­tion ban until the end of the year, briefly extend­ed enhanced unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits to the tune of $300 a week, and, more dubi­ous­ly, let 1.3 mil­lion fed­er­al work­ers off the hook for pay­roll tax­es.

These mea­sures were often inad­e­quate, or even lat­er under­mined by Trump. Many patients and providers didn’t know about his fund­ing for cov­er­ing the unin­sured, his extend­ed unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits last­ed bare­ly longer than a month, his stu­dent loan mora­to­ri­um left out a whole cross-sec­tion of bor­row­ers, his evic­tion ban had loop­holes you could dri­ve a truck through, and the pay­roll tax defer­ral was just typ­i­cal Repub­li­can non­sense to slash tax­es and defund Social Security. 

Still, in the scope of recent U.S. his­to­ry, these were bold and often cre­ative uses of state pow­er to shield Amer­i­cans from eco­nom­ic mis­ery while Con­gress was grid­locked. In his first two years, Oba­ma had reject­ed both wide­spread calls for a fore­clo­sure mora­to­ri­um and cram­down,” or allow­ing bank­rupt­cy judges to reduce mort­gages, as the admin­is­tra­tion was wor­ried it would weak­en the hous­ing mar­ket and make them appear too radical. 

Did you want to be so mas­sive­ly trans­form­ing your finance sec­tor dur­ing the mid­dle of a finan­cial cri­sis?” Fan­nie Mae CEO Herb Alli­son lat­er said, explain­ing the think­ing of Obama’s team. We’re going to try to get through this peri­od. We don’t want to appear as though we’re socialists.”

No won­der some Repub­li­cans were alarmed at Trump’s orders. If the CDC could force land­lords to give away their prod­uct for free,” won­dered Sen. Pat Toomey (R‑PA), could the gov­ern­ment now force Gen­er­al Motors to give peo­ple cars?

What future admin­is­tra­tion, what future pres­i­dent, cer­tain­ly what future Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dent is going to want to be accused of being less gen­er­ous than Don­ald Trump?” he asked.

And he’s right. Trump’s rel­a­tive bold­ness on exec­u­tive action has opened up space for Pres­i­dent Biden to go even fur­ther, par­tic­u­lar­ly if he faces an obstruc­tion­ist Sen­ate. Biden is report­ed­ly already plan­ning a series of exec­u­tive orders to reverse some of Trump’s own most out­ra­geous ones, but that is the bare minimum. 

Momen­tum is build­ing to can­cel a large chunk of bor­row­ers’ stu­dent loans beyond the $10,000 Biden had ini­tial­ly promised. Biden could also poach sev­er­al ideas from his pri­ma­ry con­test rival Bernie Sanders, such as can­cel­ing fed­er­al con­tracts with firms that pay less than $15 an hour, or who fail to meet a host of stan­dards set by the order: cli­mate bench­marks, for instance, or base­line labor stan­dards like paid time off and hol­i­day pay. U.S. gov­ern­ment con­tracts are enor­mous­ly lucra­tive, and such a threat could force a much-need­ed about-face by some of the country’s biggest and most abu­sive employ­ers, includ­ing Ama­zon and Wal-Mart, which was so des­per­ate to avoid a fed­er­al con­tract black­list over a bribery scan­dal that it paid a $300 mil­lion fine in 2017

Trump has shown there’s a wide lat­i­tude for a pres­i­dent to expan­sive­ly and cre­ative­ly use exec­u­tive pow­er in the mid­dle of a cri­sis. His order on cov­er­ing the unin­sured drew on Covid-19 relief mon­ey autho­rized by Con­gress, his exten­sion of unem­ploy­ment insur­ance redi­rect­ed FEMA funds, and his evic­tion ban was based on author­i­ty grant­ed to the CDC under an obscure 1944 dis­ease pre­ven­tion statute. Pres­i­dent Biden’s team could do what Oba­ma wouldn’t and find the legal author­i­ty to declare a nation­al mora­to­ri­um on fore­clo­sures, on util­i­ty shut-offs, or even, if not cram­down, direct­ing bank­rupt­cy courts to treat ordi­nary debtors with more lenien­cy, as they’re already doing for busi­ness­es. Some­times, get­ting out ahead at the exec­u­tive lev­el can spur oth­er action: in 1933, Min­neso­ta Gov. Floyd Olson issued a not exact­ly legal­ly robust fore­clo­sure mora­to­ri­um, which, thanks to pub­lic pres­sure, the leg­is­la­ture quick­ly moved to authorize. 

These orders may well face legal chal­lenges and even end up being struck down by Trump’s hard-right Supreme Court. But while the admin­is­tra­tion should cer­tain­ly pick its bat­tles, his­to­ry shows there’s a ben­e­fit to forc­ing a con­fronta­tion with the Court, which has finite polit­i­cal cap­i­tal of its own, as illus­trat­ed in 2012 when Chief Jus­tice John Roberts decid­ed at the last minute against strik­ing down Oba­macare, at least par­tial­ly to save the Court’s pub­lic stand­ing. We might also look to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tus­sle with the Supreme Court, whose relent­less inval­i­da­tion of his agen­da cul­mi­nat­ed in the court-pack­ing threat that reversed its intransigence. 

If they sur­vive judi­cial review, these orders can, and like­ly would be, reversed by the next Repub­li­can pres­i­dent. But that’s to be expect­ed. The goal of the Biden administration’s first two years isn’t to craft air­tight, bipar­ti­san orders that will sur­vive any future change in gov­ern­ment. Rather, it’s to stim­u­late the econ­o­my, and improve work­ing people’s lives — or, at least, pub­licly demon­strate they’re try­ing to — in the face of GOP obstinacy. 

To that end, the admin­is­tra­tion needs to not just do these things, but make sure the pub­lic knows about it. Trump’s insis­tence on stamp­ing his sig­na­ture on the $1,200 coro­n­avirus stim­u­lus checks was wide­ly mocked in the press, but it was a can­ny move, and it’s clear that doing so engen­dered good­will and loy­al­ty among at least some vot­ers. Biden can resort to sim­i­lar, if less gaudy, mea­sures to make sure Amer­i­cans are aware of what their gov­ern­ment is doing for them. 

On the leg­isla­tive side, if the cur­rent progress of the pres­i­den­tial tran­si­tion is any­thing to go by, a Mitch McConnell-held Sen­ate will once again turn to the tried-and-true Repub­li­can strat­e­gy of crip­pling both the administration’s agen­da and eco­nom­ic recov­ery efforts in advance of the midterms. But the Biden admin­is­tra­tion can turn this strat­e­gy on its head by forc­ing a high­ly pub­lic stand­off over one issue: expand­ing Social Security. 

Biden had already pledged to make Social Secu­ri­ty ben­e­fits more gen­er­ous before the pan­dem­ic struck, and now there’s even more rea­son to push for it — not just to shield the elder­ly from pover­ty in a time of eco­nom­ic cri­sis, but as a much-need­ed stim­u­lus for the econ­o­my. Seniors are not just a vital part of the Repub­li­can vot­er coali­tion, but the most reli­able vot­ers in midterm elections. 

A high­ly pub­lic bat­tle over this issue is there­fore a win-win. Block­ing Social Secu­ri­ty expan­sion could hurt Repub­li­cans and strength­en the case for vot­ers to give Biden a more coop­er­a­tive Con­gress in 2022. Pass­ing it, mean­while, not only takes aim at the shame­ful epi­dem­ic of elder pover­ty in the Unit­ed States, but would engen­der good­will among a vot­ing bloc Biden made inroads with, and it would help boost the econ­o­my. But to be suc­cess­ful, Biden should jet­ti­son, tem­porar­i­ly, the parts of his plan aimed at shoring up the program’s sol­ven­cy by rais­ing tax­es on high-earn­ers, which would pro­vide an open­ing for McConnell and Repub­li­cans to frame it as an attack on seniors. 

On the world stage

As with all pres­i­dents, Biden will have the most room to maneu­ver with­out Con­gress on for­eign policy. 

Biden has already promised to end U.S. sup­port for the geno­ci­dal war in Yemen, some­thing he could do via exec­u­tive action on day one. In fact, he could poten­tial­ly draw it to a close even ear­li­er, by mak­ing his inten­tions clear to the Saud­is, and push­ing them to nego­ti­ate its end. 

But as on domes­tic pol­i­cy, Biden should go much fur­ther. He could imme­di­ate­ly fol­low up on his cam­paign promise to with­draw from the 19-year con­flict Afghanistan, now the longest war in U.S. his­to­ry, and one that last year’s release of the Afghanistan papers showed is a mud­dled, direc­tion­less fail­ure. He could also bring to a close Trump’s steady draw­down of troops in Iraq, defin­i­tive­ly end­ing an unpop­u­lar war that was already meant to have been end­ed in 2011, and reverse Trump’s dan­ger­ous esca­la­tion in Syr­ia, piv­ot­ing instead to a diplo­mat­ic solu­tion.

Pres­i­dent Biden could do all this on day one. While it’s true Con­gress has increas­ing­ly assert­ed its involve­ment in for­eign pol­i­cy under Trump, to the point of repeat­ed­ly try­ing to pre­vent him from end­ing wars, it’s far from clear that Biden would need to be con­strained by sim­i­lar efforts. Pres­i­dents, includ­ing Oba­ma, have been hap­py to ignore Con­gress to launch fool­ish wars, and they’re on far stronger legal ground to do the same thing to end them. 

There would be sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal ben­e­fits to this. A plu­ral­i­ty of the U.S. pub­lic wants to decrease the num­ber of troops sta­tioned over­seas and agrees that glob­al peace is best sus­tained by keep­ing a focus on domes­tic needs and the health of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy, while avoid­ing unnec­es­sary inter­ven­tion.” And Amer­i­cans, includ­ing vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies, over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port bring­ing troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The admin­is­tra­tion could frame the with­drawals, from wars that have cost more than $2 tril­lion each since the start of the War on Ter­ror, as part of a piv­ot to focus­ing on prob­lems at home, while also neu­tral­iz­ing Repub­li­can charges of fis­cal irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty. Mean­while, Trump’s rhetor­i­cal oppo­si­tion to for­eign inter­ven­tion was part of the key to his 2016 vic­to­ry and con­tin­u­ing appeal.

Alter­nate­ly, if Trump does indeed pull troops out of Afghanistan and pos­si­bly even Syr­ia before Christ­mas in the lame-duck ses­sion, Biden should not undo this. Trump offi­cials want his pos­si­ble last-minute with­draw­al from Afghanistan to estab­lish Democ­rats as the par­ty of for­ev­er war,” and play­ing into this by send­ing troops, advi­sors,” or what­ev­er oth­er euphemism one can think of back into these coun­tries a month, a year, or even two years into Biden’s pres­i­den­cy would be a colos­sal unforced polit­i­cal error. 

The same goes for rejoin­ing the Trans Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship free trade” deal. Its sig­na­to­ries inten­tion­al­ly left the door open for the Unit­ed States to sign up after Trump lost, and Biden has repeat­ed­ly sig­naled he would rene­go­ti­ate and rejoin the deal. But unless the Unit­ed States is able to com­plete­ly over­haul the agree­ment, this would pro­vide an easy polit­i­cal open­ing for Biden’s opposition.

Oth­er steps Biden could take is to end arms sales and oth­er mil­i­tary aid to repres­sive states. Biden has already ruled out doing so for Israel, but he could still do this for coun­tries like Sau­di Ara­bia, Egypt and the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, all among the top 10 pur­chasers of U.S. weapons from 2002 to 2016. It is both the moral thing to do, and the polit­i­cal­ly smart thing to do — draw­ing a con­trast with the pre­de­ces­sor he and oth­ers accused of being unique­ly friend­ly with for­eign despots. 

At the same time, Biden could swift­ly end a host of mur­der­ous sanc­tions against offi­cial Wash­ing­ton ene­mies — such as Cuba, Iran and Venezuela — that have proven inef­fec­tive at their intend­ed goal of régime change, and only bru­tal­ized civil­ian pop­u­la­tions while inflam­ing anti-Amer­i­can sen­ti­ment. And while Biden has made clear he won’t chal­lenge Israel, he could at least re-ori­ent pol­i­cy toward Pales­tini­ans from the out­ward­ly hos­tile approach that exists now, restor­ing the flow of aid to Pales­tini­ans and reim­burs­ing them all the aid they lost dur­ing the Trump years. 

Using the pow­er of the presidency

There are sev­er­al more issues Biden could move on to heal the ail­ing state of Amer­i­can life while plac­ing the Democ­rats in a good posi­tion come the midterms. One of the most obvi­ous is crim­i­nal justice. 

The pas­sage of bal­lot mea­sures around the coun­try legal­iz­ing mar­i­jua­na, even in Trump-vot­ing states, is a stark demon­stra­tion of the Biden campaign’s unnec­es­sary con­ser­vatism on this issue. While instant, full legal­iza­tion at the stroke of a pen is not like­ly to hap­pen and will prob­a­bly run into sev­er­al legal road­blocks, sim­ply mak­ing an effort would send the right sig­nal, while poten­tial­ly spurring renewed action at the state lev­el. Obama’s zeal­ous raid­ing of pot dis­pen­saries, a futile attempt to appeal to con­ser­v­a­tives, was one of the great unforced errors of his ear­ly pres­i­den­cy, and Biden could quick­ly and eas­i­ly sig­nal a more pro­gres­sive break by mov­ing in the oth­er direc­tion (and drop­ping his idea of manda­to­ry rehab). As pres­i­dent, Biden could make the case for mar­i­jua­na legal­iza­tion at the state lev­el the same way Roo­sevelt did for end­ing alco­hol pro­hi­bi­tion dur­ing the Depres­sion: to stim­u­late the econ­o­my and increase revenue. 

On health­care, a major con­cern for vot­ers dur­ing the elec­tion, there are also steps the Biden admin­is­tra­tion can and should take to help work­ing peo­ple. Even with­out a Sen­ate major­i­ty to pass a pub­lic option,” there’s still much Biden could do. Under the Medicare Pre­scrip­tion Drug, Improve­ment, and Mod­ern­iza­tion Act of 2003, the Health and Human Ser­vices sec­re­tary already has the pow­er to allow the impor­ta­tion of cheap­er pre­scrip­tion drugs from Cana­da, but the effort has stalled under Trump. This was already a Biden cam­paign promise, as was allow­ing the gov­ern­ment to nego­ti­ate drug prices, an idea that has some bipar­ti­san appeal — though it remains to be seen if any Repub­li­cans will play ball in Congress. 

Sen­ate obstruc­tion­ism means Biden is like­ly lim­it­ed on meet­ing his promis­es on cli­mate, absent being able to slip cer­tain pro­vi­sions into the coro­n­avirus stim­u­lus and infra­struc­ture bills that the admin­is­tra­tion will almost assured­ly pur­sue. But Biden can and must go fur­ther on the issue with exec­u­tive action than sim­ply rejoin­ing the Paris Cli­mate Accord that Trump pulled out of. 

Biden could, again, build on Trump’s prece­dent by declar­ing the cli­mate cri­sis a nation­al emer­gency. This would acti­vate a host of obscure statutes not usu­al­ly acces­si­ble to the pres­i­dent, and allow him to divert mil­i­tary con­struc­tion funds to renew­able ener­gy projects and oth­er cli­mate-relat­ed con­struc­tion, use the Defense Pro­duc­tion Act to order busi­ness­es to pro­duce renew­able ener­gy tech­nol­o­gy, or even invoke claus­es in oil and gas leas­es on fed­er­al lands to sus­pend them, among oth­er things. This may not be polit­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble on day one, but the apoc­a­lyp­tic cli­mate chaos we’ve seen over the last few years will only get more dead­ly and destruc­tive, pro­vid­ing the occa­sion for declar­ing an emergency. 

Give them some­thing to vote for

There is some indi­ca­tion that the cor­po­rate cen­trists at the top of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty real­ize the urgency of the moment, at least in word, if not deed. Biden has made vague ges­tures at an FDR-style pres­i­den­cy, and even Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader Chuck Schumer, the quin­tes­sen­tial Wall Street Demo­c­rat, is talk­ing about the need for an ambi­tious agen­da sur­pass­ing past Demo­c­ra­t­ic efforts. 

It is now incon­tro­vert­ible that, despite an alliance with plu­to­crat­ic big­ots like John Kasich dur­ing the cam­paign, Biden received a small­er share of the Repub­li­can vote this year than Hillary Clin­ton did in 2016. And, due to the Democ­rats’ fail­ure to make a robust eco­nom­ic pitch coun­ter­ing Trump’s, Biden lost a chunk of vot­ers from key groups of the for­mer Oba­ma coali­tion to the GOP, includ­ing some African-Amer­i­cans, Lati­nos, Asian-Amer­i­cans, LGBTQ vot­ers and even Mus­lims, as well as low­er- and mid­dle-income house­holds. But what put Biden over the top was the tire­less work of grass­roots pro­gres­sive groups in key states and cities, and mas­sive turnout by young peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly young peo­ple of color. 

In oth­er words, polit­i­cal suc­cess for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lies not in con­tin­u­ing to appeal to the Repub­li­can vot­ers they’ve imag­ined in their heads, but by con­struct­ing a pop­u­lar, bread-and-but­ter agen­da that works for a broad swath of Amer­i­cans, and by excit­ing their base. Stop­ping a far-right come­back in the years ahead means get­ting Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers to turn out in sim­i­lar num­bers in the 2022 midterms, with­out the threat of Trump to moti­vate them.

In 2010, after fail­ing to suf­fi­cient­ly respond to the pain felt around the coun­try, Democ­rats spent the run-up to the midterms hec­tor­ing vot­ers for not being more enthu­si­as­tic. You can’t shape your future if you don’t par­tic­i­pate,” Oba­ma told vot­ers, while Biden hit the trail and lec­tured their base con­stituen­cy to stop whin­ing and get out there and look at the alter­na­tives.” They were reward­ed with a drub­bing at the bal­lot box. 

This approach didn’t cut it then, and it cer­tain­ly won’t cut it this time. The par­ty bare­ly scraped through this year’s elec­tion under his­tor­i­cal­ly favor­able con­di­tions. To avoid this fate, Democ­rats will have to give vot­ers some­thing to actu­al­ly turn out for. Even with an obstruc­tion­ist Con­gress, there is more than enough Pres­i­dent-elect Biden can do if he has the courage and the polit­i­cal will. The moment is his, to seize or squander.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue