Dems Promised Universal Pre-K, Paid Leave, and Free Community College. Now It’s All Gone.

As progressives debate whether or not to celebrate the Inflation Reduction Act, let’s take a moment to remember Build Back Better: universal pre-K, paid family and medical leave, free community college. It’s all been taken away — and you should be furious.

Preschoolers on the Head Start program at North Shore Park. (Jeffrey Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Remember universal pre-K? Remember universal paid family and medical leave? Remember tuition-free community college?

These weren’t planks of the Bernie Sanders 2020 platform scorned by mainstream Democrats like Joe Biden. They were presented as important elements of the president’s agenda and included in the “Build Back Better” package rolled out with great fanfare in 2021.

Fast-forward to last week, when it was announced that, after many months of stops and starts, negotiations between Democratic leadership and recalcitrant Democratic senator Joe Manchin have finally resulted in a bill that incorporates some elements of what Build Back Better was supposed to do.

But there’s no universal pre-K. No family and medical leave. Not a single semester of free college.

Most of these things went by the wayside so many rounds of negotiation ago that it may be hard to remember you were promised it all in the first place. But you were. And you should be furious that it’s all been taken away.

What Happened

In the spring of 2021, breathless commentators were comparing Joe Biden to FDR and LBJ. In addition to the temporary relief he’d already signed into law, the lofty comparisons were based on the ambitious spending Biden was proposing — most obviously a $2 trillion infrastructure package.

Then something strange happened. The package was surgically divided into a bipartisan version with all the Chamber-of-Commerce-friendly infrastructure projects and a separate “Build Back Better” bill that included all the stuff like free community college, a resuscitation of the already-stalled PRO Act to make it easier to organize unions, universal pre-K, expanded health benefits, and universal government-funded family and medical leave. You know, all the parts that would make life better for working-class people at the expense of upper-income taxpayers.

But, we were told, this was nothing to worry about! It was a “two-track strategy.” And everyone important promised that they wouldn’t vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill until Build Back Better had passed. As anyone who wouldn’t fall for the “wallet inspector” from The Simpsons would have predicted, that’s not what happened. The part that was good for rich people got passed, and Build Back Better went nowhere.

One of the crucial figures blamed for it going nowhere was West Virginia’s senator Joe Manchin. Over the course of many dismal months, Manchin would demand that money be cut from the package, negotiate, pull out of negotiations, signal a willingness to compromise after all, and — as my favorite Slovenian would put it — “so on and so on and so on.”

Then a week ago, something happened that stunned observers who’d been watching this sad little dance play out since last year. Manchin and Chuck Schumer announced that they’d made a deal. Not a vague set of priorities or a framework for further negotiations, but an actual, fully fleshed out bill that would do (a version of) some of the things Build Back better was supposed to do — crucially, on climate change.

The new “Inflation Reduction Act” includes $369 billion of spending on “climate change and energy security.” There’s been furious debate among progressives about whether this is a victory worth celebrating, with some arguing that this is the “biggest climate investment made by any country ever” and others highlighting the embedded gifts to the fossil fuel industry and raising questions about what the bill will look like by the time it’s ready for a vote. Journalist and democratic socialist commentator Ana Kasparian told me that she sees the climate action the bill currently promises as a “cover story” for deregulation and expanded drilling.

Whatever you think about this debate, it’s worth taking a long step back to remember what no one thinks the bill addresses. Because right now, none of these things are even part of the mainstream discussion.

Remember What You Were Promised

If someone you love has a medical emergency and you need to take a few weeks off from work, you were told the government would help you out. If you and your partner are both working and your kids aren’t old enough to start kindergarten, you were promised universal preschool. If those kids have grown up and you’re ready to send them to college, you were told that the first few semesters, at least, could be tuition-free.

Would you have gotten these things if the Democrats’ Senate majority didn’t include Joe Manchin (and Kyrsten Sinema), or if they had a majority of fifty-two instead of fifty? Maybe, maybe not. It’s hard to be confident about the counterfactual one way or the other, but it’s worth remembering a few salient points.

First, very little about Joe Biden’s pre-presidential career leads us to think that he cares very much about accomplishing these reforms. Second, Barack Obama made some of the same promises when he was elected in 2008. Obama came in with a much healthier majority — in fact, he enjoyed a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate at one point — and he and his vice president, Joe Biden, didn’t exactly burn up an enormous amount of political capital trying to turn promises like a “public option” for health care and “card check” to make it easier to organize unions a reality. Finally, in areas where Biden and the Democratic leadership could have carried out important promises on their own, they’ve dropped a pretty remarkable number of balls.

Whoever you blame, though, you should be livid about this outcome. These are services so basic that provisioning them would be totally uncontroversial in an even slightly less brutal version of American capitalism. Liberals spent months congratulating themselves about how they were going to finally deliver these things to you. And they’ve all been taken away.