On Wednesday morning, I described the way that an alternate version of Joe Biden could have spent the first day of his presidency. He could have used part of his inaugural address to urge every worker to join a labor union and called out every business owner who stood in the way. He could have taken the opportunity to reverse his long-standing opposition to Medicare for All. And then he could have signed an executive order later that day to extend Medicare eligibility to every person in the United States, using the argument that COVID-19 counts as an “environmental exposure” as discussed in Section 1881A of the Social Security Act.
Would this order survive the inevitable legal challenges? Maybe not. But even if it didn’t, “the president tried to give every single person health care” would have been both an amazing start to a progressive presidency and one hell of an opening argument for the 2022 midterms. Similarly, a Day One call for universal unionization issued from the presidential bully pulpit would have been a badly needed boost for organizing campaigns around the country. It would have called the bluff of pseudo-populist Republicans like Josh Hawley who claim they want the GOP to be “a working-class party” yet systematically undermine unions. And it would have confirmed the hopes of those liberals who think Biden has the potential to govern like a second FDR, overseeing transformative new programs to tackle economic inequality.
The speech he actually gave on Wednesday, and the executive orders he has actually signed, largely show that his ambition is to be a second Barack Obama. And we already know how that story ends.
Biden on Day One
Biden’s inaugural address was mostly pablum. It was an attempt at soaring rhetoric written by mediocre speechwriters and put in the mouth of a president for whom “soaring rhetoric” doesn’t exactly come naturally. It was full of strings of sentence fragments like, “Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal,” and “Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation.”
All of this was reminiscent of a classic moment in The Simpsons when a space alien named Kang assumes the form of Bill Clinton. Kang-as-Clinton gives a speech full of the vaguely reassuring nonsense that he thinks earthlings want to hear from politicians. “We must move forward, not backward. Upward, not forward. And always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!”
But Biden’s address wasn’t all like that. There were at least two unmistakable political themes.
The first was the importance of bipartisan “unity.” In one of the most striking moments of the speech, Biden seemed to suggest that the pursuit of “unity” would be as important to his presidency as the emancipation of the slaves was to Abraham Lincoln’s.
In another January in Washington, on New Year’s Day 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
When he put pen to paper, the President said, “If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.”
My whole soul is in it.
Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this:
Bringing America together.
The second theme was an abhorrence of the Trump years as a deviation from the American norm. Biden never said Donald Trump’s name, but the speech included several unmistakable references to Trump’s egging on of the rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6. He referred to a “rise in political extremism, white supremacy, [and] domestic terrorism.” He talked about “the peaceful transfer of power” that has prevailed “for more than two centuries” and bemoaned its breakdown: “Extremism, lawlessness, violence.”
After the speech, New York magazine’s Eric Levitz noted a tension between these two themes. How serious can Biden be about bipartisanship, Levitz asks, if what we’re supposed to be uniting against is the other party? He sees in this “self-contradictory” and “incoherent” message a reason to hope that the unity part doesn’t really mean comity between Democrats and Republicans. Biden is just calling for a “popular front” of “enough of us” to defeat the GOP.
I wish I could believe that. The problem is that there’s an easy way to understand both halves of Biden’s message that shows they don’t contradict each other at all. He thinks that the events of January 6, and the Trump presidency as a whole, were an aberration from the US norm, but he’s still serious about rebuilding bridges with the Republican Party.
Barack Obama spent his first term pursuing a “grand bargain” with the GOP to “save entitlements” by slashing them. Republicans obstructed him at every turn, but Obama never quite gave up. In 2012, he infamously predicted that when he beat Mitt Romney in that year’s election, “the fever” would “break,” and Republicans would come to their senses. As late as 2016, he believed that he could shame Republicans into working with him by doing things like appointing Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court — his calculation being that since so many prominent Republicans had praised Garland in the past, they would look unreasonable if they didn’t vote to confirm him now.
Bipartisanship was an article of faith in the Obama years. And almost everything Biden said and did on his first day in office was about restoring the Obama-era status quo.
In the inaugural address, he made a few vague references to “systemic racism,” but after the last year we know that phrase can mean virtually anything. Talk of “structural” or “systemic” racism should call our attention to the way that slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and everything else associated with America’s brutal history of racial hierarchy has produced a wildly unequal distribution of resources and (partially as a result of this) a wildly unequal distribution of incarceration and police violence. On the other hand, these phrases are often now twisted to mean symbolic gestures by powerful corporations and mass sales of White Fragility.
In Biden’s case, the talk of “systemic racism” was accompanied by executive orders to . . . take an offensive report off a government website, commission a working group to study how data is collected on diversity, and reverse a Trump order that made it harder for federal agencies to conduct inclusivity trainings. Needless to say, none of this will release a single person from prison, pull a single family out of poverty, or do anything to ameliorate the actually systemic parts of systemic racism.
To be fair, many of Biden’s executive orders were more substantive. Some restored the Obama-era status quo in important ways like ending the vile travel ban and reversing Trump’s rollbacks of vehicle emissions standards. Others dealt with new problems like the pandemic and its economic fallout in ways that signal a remarkable decline in the influence of deficit hawks. And it’s great that Biden nixed the Keystone Pipeline and fired Trump’s National Labor Relations Board general counsel, Peter Robb, who’d been on a one-man crusade to stop the enforcement of labor law. (The latter was one instance of Biden breaking bipartisan norms, terminating Robb after he refused to resign.) But as positive as these moves are, we should also acknowledge that Biden has done little to nothing to suggest he intends to move the ball forward from where it was on January 20, 2017.
On climate change, for example, progressives have celebrated Biden’s order for the United States to rejoin the Paris accords. But they’ve largely memory-holed the reaction that even many mainstream analysts had to those accords at the time. For example, Richard Chatterton, the head of climate policy at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said in 2015 that the accords contained “no concrete increase in the level of ambition to address climate change, and simply urge[d] countries to do more over time.” That’s the deal we’re supposed to be encouraged by Biden rejoining in 2021.
Remember: “Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal.” That’s a remarkably honest statement of the goals of the new administration. Biden isn’t really pretending to want to do anything but restore what existed before Trump.
Biden After Day One
It’s good that Biden is going to reverse many of Trump’s policies, and it would be better if he were going to reverse all of them. (So far, there’s been disturbingly little indication he’s in any hurry to deescalate tensions with Iran or China.) But we should be clear on the difference between his “repair/restore/heal” agenda and a bold left agenda.
Biden is coming to office at a time when new crises have considerably loosened the establishment’s inhibitions about spending levels. But don’t expect him to go to war with the business class anytime soon. And make no mistake — that’s exactly what he would have to do to achieve even half-measures like his promised public health insurance option.
He’s not even interested in using the many catastrophes of the Trump years as a partisan weapon against the GOP. Instead, there’s every reason to think that his infamous comments on the campaign trail in May 2019 still reflect his thinking: “[T]he thing that will fundamentally change things,” he said then, “is with Donald Trump out of the White House. Not a joke. You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”
He said much the same thing on a call with supporters just last month, telling the “eye rollers” who don’t think Republicans will be willing to work with him that “you’re going to be surprised.” He explicitly predicted, after weeks of mainstream Republicans refusing to acknowledge his election victory, that as “Donald Trump’s shadow fades away,” Republicans would come around.
Judging by his inaugural address, nothing that’s happened in the last month has changed Biden’s basic view. He portrayed the effort to overturn the election as a shocking deviation from the bipartisan norms that have held for the last “two hundred years” — never mind that Republicans successfully overturned the results of an election just twenty years ago. Bringing that up would embarrass the Republicans whose fever he still hopes will break.
The omission was one of many signs that, whatever he thinks has to be done to get us through the current crisis and reverse the damage done by Trump, Biden’s overall vision for the country begins and ends with a restoration of the Obama-era status quo — complete with the one-sided obsession with “unity.”
Marx said that when history repeats itself, the first time is tragedy and the second is farce. In this case, the second time is both.