Shortly before the election, Joe Biden encouraged his supporters to imagine all the “institutional changes we can make.” He appointed rivals Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to key task forces and the Republican National Committee branded him a “banner-man for the socialist agenda.”
After running a campaign last year where he promised very little, he took office promising an extensive agenda: sweeping COVID relief, a $15 an hour minimum wage, cancellation of some student debt, a public option for healthcare, a jobs program paid for by taxing the rich, a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, the passage of historic pro-union legislation, and an aggressive plan to combat the worsening climate crisis.
During his first days in the Oval Office, a euphoria swept over millions of Americans who saw him pass a flurry of executive orders undoing some of Trump’s worst attacks. This was quickly followed by his passage of desperately needed COVID aid, including a round of stimulus checks, a renewed unemployment top-up, money to ramp up vaccination infrastructure, and new child tax credits to soften the COVID blow on working families.
Biden was officially enjoying a substantial honeymoon and this understandably disoriented a large section of the left. Bernie Sanders called Biden courageous, and AOC proclaimed that Biden had “exceeded expectations.” Members of “the Squad,” who rose to prominence in the context of a Trump presidency and tight Republican control in Congress, found themselves suddenly with actual power. With such narrow Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, progressives could hold up any component of Biden’s agenda until it meets their expectations.
Debates broke out on the left about how to force Biden to go further. Most notably was the debate on whether progressives in Congress should force a vote on Medicare for All. A number of important figures, including AOC herself, balked at the suggestion that they should take such an adversarial posture to Nancy Pelosi and other establishment gatekeepers. Instead, they insisted there would be more opportune times to assert themselves. Months later, and no such time has come. To the detriment of the entire working class, they remain politically committed to the futile project of “taking over” the Democratic Party.
Months have passed since Biden’s delivered substantial relief to working people, the memory of $1,400 checks is beginning to fade and his promises for further investment in “human infrastructure” remain stalled. His entire legislative agenda is suspended in limbo and his executive orders have ground to a halt. As Biden prioritizes bipartisan playtime over delivering meaningful change to working people, the fragility of his honeymoon is being exposed. In this context, as working people’s illusions in Biden begin to crack, the left cannot afford to be facing the wrong direction.
‘We Have a Deal’
In late June, Biden declared victory as he and his Republican colleagues came to an agreement on a $1 trillion traditional infrastructure package.
This package is a truly pathetic climbdown from his already inadequate American Jobs Plan introduced in March. Two-thirds of proposed spending on transportation has been cut, including 96% of the money allocated for a transition to electric vehicles. Around 83% of Biden’s proposed climate related spending has been cut alongside all funding for affordable housing. This is not to mention that the most progressive part of his initial proposal, to pay for it through increased taxes on the rich and corporations, has been thrown out as well.
Biden at one stage said that he will not advance this infrastructure deal unless it’s accompanied by a “robust” spending package that the Democrats will pass using budget reconciliation, meaning they do not need Republican support. However, he has since walked this back. Even if he were to pursue that strategy, getting the entire Democratic caucus on board with a big spending bill will be an enormous challenge.
As he’s done his entire political career, Biden has shown a desperation to achieve bipartisan agreement. This is particularly important from his standpoint now as the stability of the two-party system, which has served the American ruling class for centuries, is in peril. For the sake of capitalist democracy, Biden is seeking to save the Republican Party from itself and restore a bipartisan balancing act.
Biden’s biggest legislative success in the past several months has nothing to do with gains for the working class. Where he and the Republicans have had no problem coming to agreement is in their attempt to undermine the ascendency of Chinese state capitalism on a global scale. Seemingly under the cover of night, the Democrats and Republicans in the Senate teamed up to carry out massive government investment in private industry in order to ramp up American manufacturing and technology. Republicans who have historically been wary of state intervention into the economy required no convincing when it came to Chuck Schumer’s multi-billion dollar industrial policy. This highlights Biden’s willingness to go the distance when it comes to defending the interests and competitive edge of U.S. capitalism internationally. Unfortunately for the global working class, the same cannot be said of his determination to defend our interests or the interests of the planet. Biden has not acted with nearly this level of urgency to deliver desperately needed vaccines to poor countries still being ravaged by COVID.
Despite his big promises, Joe Biden’s “transformative” agenda for the working and middle class at this stage appears not so transformative afterall. In several months, pandemic era aid will be wound down and evictions and debt collection will resume.
Biden is refusing to use executive action to wipe out student debt which he could do with a stroke of his pen. He is accepting the death of large parts of his legislative agenda because he will not do away with the undemocratic filibuster rule. The For The People Act, which would dramatically expand voter access, was killed in the Senate in June, and a similar fate awaits the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, and the Equality Act.
This legislative approach also means that other sweeping gains for working people are cut off at the knees. Most notably, his campaign promises to create a public healthcare option for millions of Americans and to provide a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants are doomed.
The obstacle to all these gains is actually not strictly the Republicans, though they are without question staunchly opposed to all of these reforms. But with Democratic control of the White House and both branches of Congress, the main roadblock comes from the centrist wing of the Democratic Party itself. Time and again we’ve seen a stage-managed tug of war between Joe Biden and Joe Manchin, the centrist wing’s most prominent figure, where Biden makes a big promise, Manchin throws cold water on it, threatening to withhold his decisive vote, and Biden shrugs his shoulders. This is a remarkably convenient excuse for Joe Biden who has called the Democratic center home throughout his political career.
There are dramatic inbuilt dangers to such an approach. With an ascendant right in the U.S. and a Republican Party that has been thoroughly captured by the forces of Donald Trump, the Democrats’ atrophied approach risks further accelerating the growth of the right. If Biden’s agenda remains stalled by the time the midterms come around, the Republicans will be positioned to make big electoral gains. This is especially true in the context of their assault on voting rights which has not been meaningfully challenged by the Democrats.
On top of opening the door to the growth of the right, this approach from the Democrats leaves the planet hanging in the balance. Biden and a section of the ruling class – including even some Republicans who now acknowledge climate change as a threat – are prepared to take some action to slow the march toward environmental catastrophe. However, even the boldest proposals from Biden, which we can be certain even he won’t fight for, are insufficient to tackle the scale of dangers we face.
An FDR Sized Presidency?
Before Biden took office, a huge section of the corporate and even left-wing media were declaring him the next Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was entering the White House in the context of a crisis comparable to the Great Depression and was signaling a willingness to boldly intervene into the situation. Like FDR, he comes from a moderate political tradition and seeks to – above all else – preserve American capitalism. Any prediction of whether or not Biden can bring New Deal scale reforms requires first and foremost an accurate understanding of how the New Deal was won. It was won not by the benevolence of the President, who at every stage sought to moderate the New Deal promises, but was won by a titanic revolt of the working class. Whether or not Biden is “a new FDR” depends entirely on whether such a movement is built today.
When Roosevelt took office, he was a fiscal conservative fixated on balancing the budget and lowering taxes. On the campaign trail he coined a happy phrase that was intended to provide psychological relief to working people in the context of the Great Depression. That phrase was: “a new deal for the American people.” However, the phrase was, at this stage, meaningless and FDR did not have a plan to rein in the crisis.
Upon taking office he was confronted with the magnitude of the crisis facing American capitalism. Beyond the failing banking system and mass unemployment, he was sitting between two distinct international poles: fascism in Italy and a post-revolutionary workers’ state in Russia. The latter was seen as a beacon of hope for working class people around the world, and “obviat[ing] revolution” became FDR’s primary political motive (The Coming of the New Deal, Schlesinger).
This is where the “New Deal” went from a happy phrase to the defining feature of FDR’s administration. The first phase of New Deal policies, which lasted from 1933-1934, was marked by stop-gap programs intended to stop the bleeding triggered by the 1929 stock market crash. No doubt the programs created in this period put many unemployed people to work and gave relief to the poor. However, these programs were themselves temporary and moderate. Most of these first New Deal programs did not make it longer than two years. In 1935, FDR was prepared to wind down the New Deal. In his State of the Union address that year he declared: “The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief.”
However, as FDR was preparing to pack up even these moderate reforms, something dramatic was developing that forced FDR to change tack: the working class moved into action. Mass unionization was unleashed after three militant strikes claimed dramatic victories in 1934. These included the Minneapolis Teamsters strike, which was led by Trotskyists, the San Francisco dock workers strike, and the Toledo auto workers strike.
The following year, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was formed and became home to a militant and audacious wing of the labor movement. Working people joined unions en masse, wildcat strikes shook the country, and socialists, communists, and other radicals were playing a key role in building new unions.
It was in this context that the second phase of the New Deal began and FDR’s bolder, long term programs were won. In order to prevent a class struggle spiral from overtaking the country, FDR introduced the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, established Social Security in 1935, formed the United States Housing Authority in 1937, and created the Works Progress Administration in 1939 which employed more than 8.5 millions workers. The federal minimum wage was also established under Roosevelt. While he faced staunch opposition from a section of the ruling class to these proposals, he was able to drag Congress along by pointing to the Soviet Union as an example of what working class people can accomplish when they take hold of events. From his standpoint, these bold measures were the minimum required to prevent such events from happening in the U.S.
The question asked by the liberal commentators before Biden even took office was: “will Biden have an FDR sized presidency?” The question for us, however, is not “how do we get a modern day FDR” but “how do we win fundamental change?”
What Force Can Win Change?
A renewed, combative labor movement, robust social movements, and a fight for political independence from the Demcratic Party. These are the ingredients that can deliver fundamental change that goes beyond even “FDR sized” reforms.
While we’re currently witnessing the Democrats fold their hands on big sections of their agenda, this does not mean more cannot be won in the next year in the run up to the midterms. In many ways, the situation has never been so ripe for the working class to wrest reforms from the hands of the ruling class. The Democrats control the White House and both branches of Congress. Fearing general instability in the system they have signalled a theoretical willingness to spend money on programs for working people, and progressives hold the balance of power in both the House and Senate.
As Frederick Douglass brilliantly said in 1857: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Despite what is, in many ways, a wide open situation for working class struggle, such a struggle has not yet cohered. However, history teaches us that this could change in the blink of an eye and hurdles that once seemed insurmountable can crumble.
A mass struggle could burst onto the scene in any number of scenarios. A successful unionization drive could spur organizing efforts at workplaces across the country, rapidly changing the terrain of the labor movement. The youth climate movement could kick off with students back in school in the fall after a summer of extreme heat waves and fires in the West, spurring the formation of new or renewed youth organizations.
In this context, major obstacles will need to be overcome including: the conservative approach of the labor leadership who refuse to lead workers into open conflict with the political establishment, and the timid approach of high profile progressives like Bernie Sanders and AOC who have, up to this point, prioritized ingratiating themselves into the Democratic Party apparatus over building a new political home for their supporters. Their political approach of remaining trapped in the thoroughly pro-corporate Democratic Party is what has so desperately hamstrung the movement.
We do not need to wait for mass struggle to emerge to tackle these obstacles. We need to fight to overcome them now so that when explosive opportunities are presented to the working class, we are prepared to take it forward on a winning basis. Socialists have a key role to play in this process, relentlessly fighting to transform the labor movement and fighting tooth and nail for political independence from the Democratic Party.
While the stakes for the working class are enormously high, so too are the opportunities to win. We need a mass, working class revolt that matches the scale of both these stakes and opportunities.