If Biden Is to Succeed Where Obama Failed, He’ll Have to Fight the GOP

President Joe Biden now has a choice: make friends with congressional Republicans or actually make progress on the multiple overlapping crises facing the United States. He can't do both.

Joe Biden on January 19, 2021 in New Castle, Delaware. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Twelve years after Joe Biden was sworn in as the vice president of hope and change, hope is in short supply and the need for change is even more acute. Progressives have a rare opportunity to enact their agenda — but they will need to play the kind of hardball they have backed away from in the past, because Biden continues to send conflicting messages. For every promise of transformational change, he signals a desire to appease a Republican Party intent on destroying his presidency.

The stakes could hardly be higher: one out of every thousand Americans has died from a lethal pandemic, with no end yet in sight. The economy is officially still humming along, but millions face eviction, bankruptcy, and hunger. Even US democracy is under unprecedented siege by an insurrectionist movement encouraged by the outgoing president and his loyalists in Congress.

The path forward is difficult to envision amid the fog of culture war, political war, and the threat of actual, real-life civil war. But it is clear that Biden is at a crossroad and still unsure which way to go. He can follow his boss, Barack Obama, who pursued bipartisanship, comity, and compromise — accommodating corporate power. Or he can break toward the path of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who did battle with oligarchy, stood down fascism, and welcomed the hatred of the rich.

One thing he cannot do is try to go in both directions. The lesson of the Obama administration is that you can have appeasement or transformative progress, but you almost certainly cannot have both.

Obama won the 2008 campaign despite being falsely branded a foreign-born socialist bent on radical redistribution, and he assumed office in a similar cauldron of division and destitution. America’s psyche was battered by the Iraq War, and our economy was shredded by a financial crisis that ruined millions of lives. It was his FDR moment — which he used not to forge a new deal that rebalanced the relationship between capital and labor, but to prop up the status quo instead.

  • He backed his predecessor’s bank bailout program, but then terminated it in the name of deficit reduction rather than redirect it to aid struggling homeowners.
  • He pushed a stimulus bill, but one that was far too small, which ended up delivering one of American history’s slowest economic recoveries.
  • He promised a change from a Bush administration that had tried to privatize Social Security, but then formed his own commission to try to slash the program.
  • He championed a slightly more liberal version of Republican health care reform, but steered clear of a more contentious fight for a public health insurance option or Medicare for All.
  • He touted getting tough on Wall Street, but his administration refused to prosecute bank executives, refused to force financial institutions to accept mortgage losses, and refused to break up the biggest banks.
  • And he effectively shielded the George W. Bush administration from any systematic investigation into its Iraq War lies and its lawless torture regime, out of “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

Through it all, Obama enjoyed the adoration of liberal voters and the acquiescence of congressional progressives, who often refrained from a confrontation with the Democratic White House even when Obama’s administration was steamrolling their agenda.

In constantly seeking common ground with the GOP, Obama may have expected some friendship in return. Instead, they gave him few congressional votes and offered even fewer words of praise. Then, they delivered a midterm shellacking that effectively ended the possibility of transformational change.

Barack Obama at the White House on November 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Obama would later write that he avoided a crackdown on Wall Street because that might have “required a violence to the social order.”

That reverence for the status quo — and deference to Wall Street after the financial crisis and housing meltdown — ultimately helped create the backlash conditions for the rise of Trump. One data point suggested a direct linkage: in one-third of the counties that flipped from Obama to Donald Trump, there had been an increase in the number of residents whose home mortgages were underwater in 2016, according to a study by the Center for American Progress.

“We would not have Trump as president if the Democrats had remained the party of the working class,” University of California–Irvine professor Bernard Grofman recently told the New York Times. “[Obama] responded to the housing crisis with bailouts of the lenders and interlinked financial institutions, not of the folks losing their homes. And the stagnation of wages and income for the middle and bottom of the income distribution continued under Obama.”

“We Should Be Investing in Deficit Spending”

A decade later, it’s unclear what Biden gleaned from his experience with Obama.

At some moments, he appears to finally be leaning away from his decades-long record as a budget-cutting fiscal hawk, instead campaigning to expand Social Security, then embracing the idea of $2,000 stimulus checks, and most recently declaring that “we should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth.”

And yet at other moments, he has done the opposite. He initially urged Democratic lawmakers to accept a stimulus plan with no stimulus checks. And tellingly, eight days after a violent right-wing uprising at the US Capitol had eviscerated the GOP, he resuscitated and rewarded the party by signaling that — even though he needs no Republican votes — he would rather cut a deal with them on his first stimulus legislation than use ruthless legislative tactics to pass a more robust bill with only Democratic support.

This version of Biden mutes the calls for bold action and reflexively praises the GOP. He has asserted that once Trump is gone Republican leaders would have an “epiphany” and suddenly learn to work together with Democrats. He has also reportedly suggested he is not interested in investigating the outrages of the Trump administration; he has continued to say, “we need a Republican Party,” and he recently promised that “I’ll never publicly embarrass” GOP lawmakers.

But that is the paradox: in a narrowly divided Congress, Biden almost certainly will not be able to make major public investments if he is conflict-averse. Passing a bold agenda will likely require an epic confrontation with the Republicans, who are already girding for obstruction. After years of profligate tax cuts and spending, GOP leaders are suddenly pretending to care about the deficit, and if history is any guide, they will renew their efforts to block the changes to environmental and labor laws that Biden has promised are forthcoming.

The Left is correct to fear Biden getting too cozy with Republicans: his record working with the GOP was marked by collaborating with segregationists against school busing, supporting the Iraq War, and pushing to cut Social Security — and it is not hard to imagine Biden now finding common ground with Mitch McConnell on the latter.

But this is where progressives must learn their own lesson from the Obama years: rather than once again offering deference to a first-term Democratic president, they must press Biden to reject an attitude of appeasement, move him into a more confrontational posture, and urge him to see the first few months of the Obama era as a cautionary tale rather than a guidebook. And they have already had some initial success doing that: they successfully pressured him to start supporting the $2,000 survival checks.

“We’ve got to pass the infrastructure package, we’ve got [to] do the $2,000 checks, we’ve got to do a whole bunch of things with a 50-50 Senate and a pretty slight margin in the House,” said Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, a former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I hope we don’t do what we did when Barack Obama first got elected [and] try to have kumbaya a little too much with everybody and not get things done in that little period of time we had. We really have to act and use the very tight margins we have very swiftly in order to get these things done.”

This will require the kind of shrewdness, discipline, and intestinal fortitude not typically seen from the Left in decades. Grassroots groups will have to get comfortable pressuring the new administration, even if the White House doesn’t like it. Democratic lawmakers will have to be prepared to clash with Biden, even when he is trying to talk them down with “come on, man,” “here’s the deal,” and other sweet nothings.

“Boldness Not Seen in This Country Since FDR”

The good news is that progressives are better positioned for this fight than they have been in years. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party remains powerful by virtue of its ties to big money, but polls show it has lost the argument in the contest of ideas. Many Americans want big change, and want it now — and progressive Democratic lawmakers are fortified by a grassroots fundraising base, better political infrastructure, and name-brand leaders.

In the House, the Progressive Caucus has dozens of members, and it is revamping its rules to be a more cohesive voting bloc so that it can leverage power in the narrowly divided chamber.

Already, the group — led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the Squad — persuaded Democratic leaders to reform budget rules to make it easier to pass landmark initiatives like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. They can also reject the “look forward, not backward” attitude and instead press to invoke the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to rescind a slew of last-minute Trump regulations designed to weaken protections for the environment and workers while undermining the fight against climate change.

In the Senate, progressive Sen. Sherrod Brown will lead the Banking Committee. In the aftermath of the financial crisis a dozen years ago, he championed an initiative to break up the largest banks; it was stymied by the panel’s then chairman Chris Dodd, with an assist by the Obama administration. Now, Brown is in a position to resurrect the idea, knowing it could generate bipartisan support — and in recent days, he signaled an eagerness for aggressive action when he said, “Wall Street doesn’t get to run this entire economy” and reiterated his call for “breaking up the big banks.”

Meanwhile, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will chair the powerful Senate Budget Committee. He will be able to set federal spending priorities and also be in a position to use the arcane process known as reconciliation to try to circumvent the Senate filibuster for big-ticket items such as the one he recently floated: an emergency program to extend medical coverage to anyone during the pandemic, whether or not they have existing insurance coverage.

During the Obama era, Democrats often declined to wield their power — they did not use budget reconciliation to try to enact a public health insurance option, for example, and they did not employ the CRA to repeal Bush-era regulations. By contrast, Republicans during the Trump presidency used reconciliation to pass his giant tax cut for the wealthy and weaponized the CRA to scrap fourteen Obama regulations.

Sanders understands the imperative of using every tool possible to make change. “We have to act with a boldness that we have not seen in this country since FDR,” he told NBC News. “If we do not, I suspect that in two years we will not be in the majority.”

Biden campaigned for the presidency promising to restore a precrisis normal. But that is not enough to pull America back from the abyss and stave off the surge of authoritarianism today — just as it was not enough during the Great Depression.

Back then, Roosevelt seemed to appreciate that business as usual would not stave off fascism and rescue the country — much, much more was required.

“There must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing,” he said in his first inaugural address. “Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.”

Those words ring true in this moment of peril — the best hope for America is not a vapid Biden paean to the “soul of this nation,” but a Biden administration that is pressed by progressives to take action and deliver real material gains to the working class.

If that does not happen, then a new right-wing authoritarian will likely ride another wave of anger at the continued inequality, destitution, and dysfunction — and that next menace is likely to be even more dangerous than Trump.