Why Biden Might Be – and Will Have to Be – One of the Most Progressive Presidents in Modern US History

Why Biden Might Be – and Will Have to Be – One of the Most Progressive Presidents in Modern US History

For all the talk about political inconsistency and having a foot in both camps, Biden is advancing an unprecedented progressive agenda that indicates the Democratic party’s inevitable shift towards the Left.

Though his reputation as a pragmatic centrist precedes him, Joe Biden’s policy proposals actually point towards a historically progressive agenda.

However, the unabashedly liberal tone of his policy platform was eclipsed by his past as a bipartisan dealmaker, and was overlooked in the run-up to Election Day because of discussions about his qualities versus Trump’s.

Although Biden decisively won the presidency, his party performed poorly in the House of Representatives and failed to win an outright Senate majority. There were dismal losses for Democratic centrists (nine valuable seats in the House of Representatives) which contrasted with historic victories for progressives. This led to finger-pointing and blame-casting that weakens the party against an increasingly unified GOP.

Willingly or unwillingly, the Biden-Harris administration may have no option but to side with the progressive faction of the party and pursue left-leaning measures if it wishes to retain the support of what is becoming an increasingly diverse and progressive Democratic electoral base. 

Is Biden a Closeted Progressive?

Biden may have campaigned as a centrist Democrat, presumably to gain votes from more moderate communities, but his policy proposals reveal decidedly progressive views.  If signed into law, these would result in a sizable increase in the capacity and scope of the federal government.

In fact, economists are pointing to signs suggesting that Biden will be one of the most left-wing Presidents in US history. A closer look at his campaign policy agenda reveals some important indicators of the progressive policies he will pursue, starting from his education plan, which will cost an estimated $2 trillion over the next decade. It aims to create a universal and free pre-K system while boosting federal funding for K-12 schools (especially for lower-income families) and providing two years of debt-free community college to everyone, or tuition-free public college to low- and middle-income students.
His infrastructure proposal, which will amount to an estimated $1.6 trillion over the next ten years includes subsidies for high-speed rail, public transit, sustainable energy, and water projects.

On top of lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60, Biden also wants to increase long-term care benefits, amounting to an additional $352 billion between next year and 2030.

Biden’s housing plan, predicted to cost $650 billion, will increase rental housing assistance vouchers to low-income Americans while creating a new Affordable Housing Fund.

Overall, Biden’s proposal amounts to an unprecedented $5.4 trillion in federal spending over the next decade, making his policy platform the largest proposed spending increase by a presidential nominee since George McGovern”, the Democrat who in 1972 proposed a universal basic income for all Americans.

Naturally, Biden’s proposal is not as left-leaning as the plans proposed by some of his rivals during the Democratic primary, such as Sanders or Warren (who famously backed $30 trillion in tax increases) or by some progressives in Congress. But the size and reach of his budget surpass those of recent Democratic nominees (Hilary Clinton’s 2016 budget was notably half of Biden’s); making him a historically left-leaning president-elect.

It’s Not Democrats versus Republicans, it’s Democrats versus Democrats 

Moderate Democrats have long argued that the party’s shift to the Left as a reaction to Republicans moving towards the Right has alienated and estranged centrist and independent voters, whose support in rural and exurban areas is crucial for the party.

This in-fighting shows the fundamental philosophical differences and existential crises that were expected after their “big tent” party expanded with the 2018 mid-term elections, which saw the ranks and influence of Democratic progressives increase significantly.

For the past five years, however, Democrats were more concerned with defeating a common enemy, Donald Trump, than to fix intraparty friction. Now that the party has a Democratic president-elect and one of the slimmest Democratic House majorities in decades, it appears the time is ripe for civil war within the party.

Over the last two weeks, accusations from dueling factions of moderates and progressives about costing the party valuable seats in the House of Representatives have been flying both in Congress and with the press, presaging the complex ideological war the Biden-Harris administration will have to navigate.

Moderates are blaming their underwhelming electoral performance on the “radical Left” which, with its “defund the police” rhetoric and “socialist” proposals (such as demanding a ban on fracking), is guilty for handing conservatives a set of slogans and policies that alienated undecided voters.

Meanwhile, progressives are showcasing their victories and growing ranks as a rationale for further shifting the party to the Left and as proof that centrists are out of tune with young people, immigrants, people of color and the working class, who comprised a significant portion of blue votes this year.

In fact, the ranks of young progressives of color in Congress have increased, while candidates that co-sponsored Medicare for All and the Green New Deal in a swing district also kept their seats.

The argument for organising and mobilizing young people and people of color seems to ring true in Georgia, which flipped blue for the first time in nearly 30 years thanks to demographic changes and progressive activism led by Stacey Abrams.

Efforts led by young Latino activists and former Sanders campaign staffers also ensured that Arizona, which had voted for Trump in 2016, switched to blue. 

Even across notoriously conservative counties, progressive policies have also gained some success. Though Floridians voted for Trump, they also approved a $15 minimum wage, while demographic changes in Texas, once a stronghold of the GOP, are turning it into a purple state.

Red states like Wisconsin and Indiana voted for tax hikes to fund their public schools whereas conservative voters in South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, New Jersey, and Mississippi decriminalized recreational cannabis.

Overall, progressive policies including Medicare for All, wealth redistribution, women’s reproductive rights, raising the minimum wage, taxing the wealthy and corporations, and adopting the Green New Deal gained significant votes even in historically Republican areas.

As such, it appears that the progressive political momentum is too strong and the base manifestly engaged for Biden not to pursue progressive measures.

What’s Left 

Because of his well-known willingness to reach across the aisle, and because the GOP has progressively become immovable in its stances, Biden is facing serious pressure to veer rightward. Conservative and centrist media pundits are urging the president-elect to bend to Republican power in forming his Cabinet, citing his frequent calls for unity as a reason to shift towards the center

However, to give into these pressures may mean to play into Republicans’ “divide-and-conquer” tactics, and into centrists’ fears of becoming less relevant on the Left, a process which seems to have started with the 2018 mid-term elections.

Whether they like it or not, both Biden and Harris realize that shifting further to the center, or to the right, could cost them an expensive price in the 2022 mid-term elections and in their 2024 reelection bid.

This reckoning could have an historic mark on where the Democratic party is headed if Biden appoints progressives to his Cabinet.

In his acceptance speech, he conveyed a clear message in favor of liberal reforms and a greater scope for the federal government, signalng a historic inclination for progressivism for an American president: “What is becoming clearer each hour is that record numbers of Americans – from all races, faiths, religions – chose change over more of the same. They have given us a mandate for action on Covid and the economy and climate change and systemic racism.

However, getting to that point requires the Democrats to address their branding problem: they will have to learn how to consistently sell left-leaning policies as good for American society in a way that avoids the socialism label.

Categories: North America, Politics

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