How progressive will the Biden administration be?

Above all else, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign was based on an appeal to America’s center. In an election which was rife with perceived ideological extremes (for the U.S., at least), the former vice president aimed at presenting a politics of moderacy, and therefore electability, with his wife Jill Biden even declaring early in the campaign, “You may like another candidate better, but you have to look at who is going to win,” Now as circular as electability is in being a reason to vote for someone, Joe Biden did beat Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the United States, and, perhaps even more surprisingly, took immediate action to address some of the country’s most pressing concerns—some of which might charitably be called progressive. Though it’s also worth noting, to be a progressive in the United States is to recognize a real and imminent danger and provide an insufficient response that comes too late.

Within the first few days of his presidency, Joe Biden signed a litany of executive orders which were primarily aimed at cleaning up the mess left in the wake of Trump’s administration: increasing the federal government’s efforts in combating Covid-19, an initiative to work with various government agencies to reunify separated families, and a renewed assault on climate change—not the least part of which being Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline. After four years of near incessant calamity, it almost makes one hopeful for the future.

Biden’s first weeks in office are also extremely reminiscent of another president, who, following a disastrous Republican administration, served as a beacon of hope for a country beleaguered by war and financial implosion. Barack Obama began his presidency as a progressive reformer, and seemed to hold true to his campaign’s promise of change during the first few months in office. On Jan. 22, President Obama took his first step in rectifying the U.S.’s bloody decade in the Middle East by signing an executive order which would close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within the year —though as Amnesty International notes in an article from 2016, this was not accomplished, and Guantanamo Bay is still in operation 13 years later. Of course, executive orders can be checked by the courts if they are found not to not run concurrent with the interest of Congress. Although… Obama did spend the first two years of his presidency under unified government, but let’s give him—and an expanded drone program over which he had direct control and which resulted in the deaths of at least 380 civilians—the benefit of the doubt. 

Because, even if his foreign policy wasn’t perfect, Obama still did a lot to help the U.S. recover from the 2008 recession; in the first month of his presidency he placed a limit on top executive pay for companies receiving federal bailouts to $500,000, and signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that sought to provide economic relief to people devastated by the recession. Of course, many of Obama’s economic advisors were Citigroup executives, the same people who were part of a financial conglomerate that received 306 billion in corporate bailouts in 2008. But at least Obama made sure they weren’t getting paid more than half a million from said bailout.

Now, I’d be doing nothing by taking up a club and joining all the other leftists in beating the Biden-presidency-repeating-history-horse; it’s hardly an astute observation considering how involved Barack Obama was in Biden’s 2020 run. But I think we might nonetheless benefit from a closer examination of Biden’s own political history as well as his predecessors, if we are to get a sense of what will come of its apotheosis.

If we’re to begin with Joe Biden’s own dalliances with the finance industry, it would be prudent to note that while serving as a senator in Delaware, Biden was the beneficiary of a cozy relationship with the financial services company MBNA—which, as a 2008 article from Propublica avers, was Biden’s single largest donor and even kind enough to hire the senator’s son right out of law school. Joe Biden, in turn, was a vociferous supporter of a 2005 bill which would limit the protections consumers enjoyed under bankruptcy, and fought amendments that would strengthen protections for those forced to commit bankruptcy because of large medical debts or who had served in the armed forces. Pointing to a slightly darker smudge on the president’s legislative record, we might refer to Biden’s bill for the Comprehensive Forfeiture Act, which removed virtually all limits on police power to seize private property, and lead to a gross abuse of this power as another arsenal in Reagan’s drug war. 

Now, in a show of fairness, I dare you to find a senator without some small diabolism marring their tenure—we cannot ask our cold-blooded reptile overlords to be saints, after all. And politicians can certainly change their platforms, especially in the name of compromise, a virtue which Biden perceives as one of the larger feathers in his cap. That said, if the Democratic Party was so gung-ho on reform, why not throw your weight behind someone like Sanders, or if the specter of socialism be too great, Warren? Was it Biden’s aforementioned electability, which until the tail end of the campaign smelled of so much BS as he gaffed his way through desultory rallies? Or was it his willingness to take in oodles of Wall Street money, while his competitors on the left were stalwart in their convictions to remain rooted in the grass? If you can recall during that absolute spectacle of a first debate between Biden and Trump, somewhere between the bumbling syntax and sexual innuendo, the former president noted Biden’s waffling on the issue of healthcare, and his general reticence to acknowledge Sen. Sander’s influence on his revised platform. And although Trump’s prediction that Biden had “Lost the Left,” proved false on Nov. 3—and the several days of vote tallying that followed—he did manage to reveal Biden’s willingness to slip in and out of personas as they suit him. Granted, I understand if Donald Trump is not your preferred political analyst, so let’s look to Biden’s image as a representative of working class interests. 

In a Guardian article published early in the 2020 campaign notes, Joe Biden has long postured as a blue-collar politician, and has been more than willing to give a speech or two in a union hall while still serving as a Delaware senator, and during his presidential run as well. But where did Joe Biden hold his first major fundraiser in 2019? At one of the largest antiunion law firms in the country. Even as early as the late 1970s, before Reagan obliterated union power in America, Biden publicly criticised a 1978 proposal for labor reform pushed heavily by unions. It’s by these actions, far more than his attempts at self-branding, that Biden’s standing as a pro-labor politician should be judged. 

Last week, hundreds of Amazon workers in Bessemer Alabama held a rally in support of an upcoming vote to unionize the workers’ “fulfillment center”. Sure, the president tweeted his support for the right of Americans to unionize, but it was Bernie Sanders that sent the rain-soaked attendees 40 pizzas. Read in this, if you want to, a micro-scale model of the gap between progressivism in words and progressivism in action. It’s precisely this gap that Biden, so far, has proven himself reticent to bridge. If he wants to be a progressive, he must also deliver the kind of policy agenda that will enact material change, not just speak of it.  

But there’s no reason to say with absolute certainty that this won’t happen; politics is about appealing to your constituency, while compromising with your opponents. Or at least that’s ideal politics. A consequence of living in the 21st century is the vast ocean the powerful can create between image and reality. Obama invested heavily in climate change, just like Biden is promising to, but we still saw the United States fail miserably to mount an effective assault on climate change. The great danger of Joe Biden’s presidency is not the Supreme Court, or Republican recalcitrance: it’s that Joe Biden isn’t as inflammatory as his predecessor; that his actions will not be heavily scrutinized, his faux pas, both verbal and legislative, will not be as televised. At least, not on the news platforms you probably find yourself on. If we can remain vigilant, however, and keep cameras and pens pointed at this administration, there’s a chance to avoid making the same mistakes this country did in 2016.