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 regime 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.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.