Joe Biden has spent the last year trying to be everything to everyone. In the Democratic presidential primary, he ran as the moderate who could beat Trump. At the same time, he tried to convince the large section of the Democratic electorate who wanted more than a return to normal that he had real progressive roots. In the general election, he vowed a decisive repudiation of Trump’s legacy, while simultaneously assuring country-club Republicans that the changes he promised wouldn’t be too radical.
Biden is hardly the first politician to shape-shift as it suits him. Yet as a summary of what to expect from his administration, you could do worse than “change, but not too much.” Biden is likely to pursue a more progressive macroeconomic policy than the Obama administration — largely because the parameters of elite opinion have shifted. In this, as in everything else, Biden campaigning as a consensus candidate has left him ill-prepared for any confrontation with elites.
New Day in Babylon
Though Biden ran as a moderate in the Democratic primaries, the fact that he did so while promising more progressive economic policies than anything seen under Obama only underscores how the party’s center of gravity has shifted. Biden ran on making community college free, lowering the Medicare eligibility to sixty, and massively expanding public housing assistance. Recently, he’s given his approval to a new round of substantial stimulus checks.
But what has distinguished Biden more than anything is his total disregard for the deficit fearmongering that ruled both the Clinton and Obama administrations. While the Biden of the 1990s backed a “balanced-budget” amendment to the Constitution, the Biden of 2020 is saying, quite rightly, that now is not the time to worry about deficits. Compare that with Barack Obama, who was pledging to slash deficits even as unemployment soared in the early months of his presidency.
For years, Democratic politicians were wracked with fear of inflation and bond market vigilantes, which together would punish any serious attempt to use the public purse for the public good. Since the Carter administration’s tribulation at the hands of inflation, deficit hawkery has been the party common sense. Biden is the first Democratic nominee in forty years to reject it.
Still Calling the Shots
Anyone familiar with Joe Biden’s political career may suspect that his personal political courage is not what explains his newfound dovishness on the deficit. Biden himself justified his about-face by noting that “every major economist thinks we should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth.” And he’s basically right. There has been a huge shift in economic policy circles about the desirability of massive, deficit-financed stimulus.
This shift itself reflects changing opinion in elite quarters. The Business Roundtable, an organization of the largest US corporations’ CEOs, said in 2009: “We have always believed long-term high deficits are a barrier to sustained economic growth.” In a statement shortly after the 2020 election discussing the need for more COVID stimulus, the organization didn’t even mention the deficit, despite its massive growth over the last year. The US Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, has endorsed Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID rescue bill. Capitalists have learned to stop worrying and love government spending.
Part of the reason is that government spending only tends to spark inflation when the working class is strong enough to prevent capitalists from capturing all of the money being distributed. Far from simply a question of technocratic management, inflation is a question of class politics. With the US working class still supine — union density is just 10 percent — capitalists are confident that more spending won’t hurt them.
Biden’s support for economic policies that will undoubtedly benefit workers stems more from increased elite tolerance for those policies than any mobilization of workers themselves. In areas where his proposals conflict more directly with capitalist preferences, we shouldn’t expect substantive change.
Biden, for example, has been a vocal backer of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a sort of omnibus wish list of legal changes that unions have been seeking for decades. Among other things, it would overturn “right to work,” enact steep penalties against employers for retaliating against pro-union employees, and legalize secondary strikes and boycotts.
Unlike many aspects of Biden’s fiscal policy, however, there is little openness toward the PRO Act among US corporations. To some low-wage sectors, like retail and food service, the law imperils their entire business model. The Chamber of Commerce, while happy to see more deficit spending, describes the PRO Act as “dangerous.” And while big tech companies may not see the legislation as an existential threat, they have no desire to see unions expand their presence.
Jimmy Carter promised labor law reform. Bill Clinton promised federal anti-scab legislation. Barack Obama promised card check. They all all failed. There is little reason to expect Joe Biden will do better absent a sharp uptick in worker militancy and mass disruption.
Conflict Aversion as Politics
Joe Biden ran as a consensus candidate, promising not so much to take on any powerful interests as to restore the status quo peace that supposedly reigned before Trump’s election. It was a good electoral gambit. And at a moment when American elites perceive some compatibility between their interests and those of workers, it is even likely that we will see some substantial progressive economic policies.
However, Biden has done nothing whatsoever to indicate he will have any appetite for a struggle against the American power elite. Where his proposals threaten concentrated interests, he will likely back down in the face of determined opposition. He will be unprepared, just as Obama was, for a fight.
This yields a strange situation for the Left. On the one hand, leftists who predict that Biden will completely fail to deliver are likely to be caught flat-footed by any expansions of the welfare state. On the other, it is imperative to recognize that Biden’s ambitions, such as they are, will remain firmly circumscribed by elite consensus politics.
The challenge for the Left is to recognize that we are not yet strong enough to play a decisive role in national politics. Though socialists in Congress have recently seen their numbers augmented (and can now boast Bernie Sanders as chair of the powerful Senate Budget Committee), they are still in a weak position to lead a parliamentary battle against the representatives of capital. The American left will need to grow by orders of magnitude for that to be feasible. A new burst of class struggle, however, could make possible a much more aggressive push for pro-worker policies.
The Biden administration presents complicated terrain for the Left. It is only by accurately reading that terrain and our position within it that we will be able to expand our ranks — and to win the radical reforms that workers so desperately need.