How have Joe Biden’s first six months been? Our panelists weigh in | Robert Reich, Geoffrey Kabaservice, Bhaskar Sunkara and Theodore R Johnson
Robert Reich: ‘The biggest potential disaster? Voting rights’
Six months in, it looks like Joe Biden has a good chance of getting America back to where it was before the pandemic. Covid-19 is in retreat. So far, almost half of the adult population has been fully vaccinated. The economy is roaring back – still 7m jobs short of where it was in January 2020 but on track to return to the starting gate by the end of the year. Biden’s “American Rescue Plan” is a major success.
But it’s not clear Biden will get America back to where it was before Trump. His initial slew of executive orders erased most of Trump’s executive orders, but he hasn’t yet demolished all of Trump’s cruel immigration policies. Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric is gone but Biden hasn’t repaired relations with China. Many of Trump’s tariffs are still in place. And even with a bare Democratic majority in the US Senate, there’s little chance Congress will repeal all of Trump’s tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.
What about Biden’s big plans to remake America? Depending on your point of view, they’re either on hold or stalled. He’ll likely get bipartisan support for over half a trillion dollars of new spending for “hard” infrastructure. That’s not nothing. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess what Senate Democrats will agree to on legislation covering childcare, the environment, and healthcare and education that can circumvent a Republican filibuster.
The biggest potential disaster concerns voting rights. As Republican-dominated states continue to restrict voting on the basis of Trump’s big lie about 2020 election fraud, and the US supreme court signals its reluctance to get in the way, the only hope lies in what was supposed to be the Democrats’ highest priority – the For the People Act, setting minimum national standards for voting, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, restoring the potency of the old Voting Rights Act after the supreme court gutted it in 2013. But Senate Republicans won’t go along, and the refusal of a few Senate Democrats to alter the filibuster rule to allow them to be passed by a bare majority has condemned them to limbo.
Biden’s failure to make voting rights his highest priority – to visibly fight for them, make them his own personal cause, and go on the road to take that cause to the American people – is not only bad policy. It’s also bad politics. It may cost Democrats dearly in next year’s midterm elections, and beyond.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: ‘Can he protect Democratic majorities in 2022?’
At the half-year mark, President Biden’s administration has largely succeeded in its principal aim of restoring society and economy to post-pandemic normality. More than two-thirds of US adults have received at least one Covid-19 vaccination. The American Rescue Plan delivered an enormous $1.9tn stimulus to the economy and also strengthened the social welfare safety net, making it what the New York Times called “the largest antipoverty effort in a generation”. The $973bn bipartisan, Biden-supported infrastructure deal would, if passed, provide a huge infusion of funds to both rehabilitate the nation’s crumbling physical fabric and reduce carbon emissions.
Of course, this deal fails to fully achieve climate activists’ demands and many of Biden’s own aspirations, and the same is true of the vaccination program (undercut by the Republican party’s anti-vaccine pandering) and stimulus measures. Other Biden initiatives, such as his recent executive order on antitrust, inevitably will fall short of his aim of restoring “open and fair competition” to American capitalism. But overall, the Biden program’s advances toward material security for most citizens merit comparison with those of Democratic administrations from the 1930s through the 1960s.
Still, Biden’s legacy ultimately will depend on whether he can retain Democratic majorities in Congress in 2022 and prevent Republicans from overturning democracy in 2024. Biden has belatedly recognized the danger from Republicans’ vote-restriction and election-nullification efforts, as well as moderate backlash against unpopular progressive priorities around crime, police defunding and social-justice ideological overreach. Still TBD is the potential impact from brewing problems including immigration, inflation, Trumpian demagoguery, Russian cybercrime, Chinese aggression and Taliban advances in US-vacated Afghanistan.
Geoffrey Kabaservice is the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC as well as the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party
Bhaskar Sunkara: ‘Biden is thinking big – but hasn’t delivered yet’
The good news is that six months into the Joe Biden administration, he’s delivered on one of his main campaign pitches and restored a sense of “normalcy” to the country. After four years of mercurial rule by Donald Trump, the White House has become a more predictable place.
That’s the bad news too. Since the old “normal” wasn’t delivering for millions of working-class Americans.
Biden hasn’t completely ignored these people. His administration has pumped trillions into the economy and broken from some of the same austerity logic he helped marry the Democratic party to in decades past.
The president, clearly, wants to spend more and spend better. He clearly has been won over to the idea that the government can improve people’s lives and brought figures like Bernie Sanders along to help direct some of that largesse.
The word from inside the Beltway is that Biden wants to be a great president, bolder and more ambitious than Obama was during the financial crisis, leaving behind a legacy closer to Franklin D Roosevelt than his other Democratic contemporaries. But temporary injections of cash won’t deliver the lasting change necessary to not only improve lives, but to create the kind of durable working-class support that sustained the New Deal coalition.
Biden has shown a willingness to think big, but he hasn’t delivered on structural reforms like a $15 minimum wage and a Pro Act meant to help restore trade union density. He’s institutionally constrained by hostile forces within his own party and has been forced to make do with a slim congressional majority, but unless he finds a way to use his political power to overcome some of those barriers, he’ll find himself in an even more difficult position after the 2022 midterm elections.
Ted Johnson: ‘Biden needs to battle his own party’
Joe Biden ascended to the presidency by declaring that after four years under President Donald Trump, the nation was in a battle for the soul of America. But what he intended to be a rhetorical call for unity has become a question that will define his time in office: whom will he battle for the soul of America?
Members of his party are pushing for fundamental democracy and justice reforms that will likely require drastic political measures like getting rid of the filibuster. Republicans have renewed their legislative intransigence and look to stonewall almost every move the Biden administration makes. The first six months have shown that Biden isn’t keen on fighting either of those battles, choosing instead to prioritize bipartisan deal-making for incremental progressive policy gains over exercising majoritarian muscle. When the soul of the nation hangs in the balance, pragmatism is a curious weapon of choice.
While a pandemic relief package was signed into law, the resistance among significant swaths of America to getting vaccinated and the emergence of a highly contagious variant suggests the need for bold action. The bitter partisan fights over voting rights, national security policy, a massive infrastructure program, law enforcement and gun policy reforms, and even the state of race relations all signal that the soul of America very much hangs in the balance.
But the opening months have made it quite clear that Biden has entered into the hyperpartisan fray that came to define the presidencies of his two immediate predecessors. And he will need to decide if he’s willing to battle his own party in search of bipartisanship or take on a Republican party that’s increasingly mesmerized by Trumpism. The days of Clintonesque triangulation are out of reach – the battle is on and the president will need to name the threat and fight to the finish.
Valerie Rawlston Wilson: Biden is committed to racial equity. But more needs to be done
Presidential leadership sets the tone for how – or if – the nation confronts the contradiction between American ideals of freedom, justice, and democracy and the reality that race is a predictor of social and economic status far too often. In that respect, the significance of the Biden administration’s stated commitment to advancing racial equity as one of the first official actions in office should not be understated. Through Executive Order 13985, the administration has sought to promote fairness and impartial treatment, specifically with respect to access to federal programs and participation in federal contracting and procurement.
This marks just one step on what must be a longer path toward a full conception of racial equity that also includes racial justice – steps to redress past exclusion and injustice –as a major component. A more expansive vision of racial equity would seek to address the root causes of racial disparities that lead to underserved communities’ greater need for federal programs, including government actions that curtailed Black Americans’ prospects for building and maintaining intergenerational wealth. Ultimately, real progress toward racial equity will be measured by the extent to which we can reduce, if not eliminate, racial disparities in economic outcomes.
The Biden administration alone is not expected to fully resolve issues that have been centuries in the making, but the president should continue to build on this executive order and implement policies that measurably advance racial equity.
Valerie Rawlston Wilson is director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy
Kate Aronoff: ‘Biden needs to act on climate now’
Joe Biden is not in an enviable position. Besides a Republican party hell bent on stopping any good things from happening, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema – both of them right-leaning Democrats – can decide on whatever makes it through a 50-50 senate. Biden’s American Jobs Plan is drastically out of step with what the climate crisis demands, but even that faces major headwinds within our antebellum political system all but built to keep public opinion – that supports a Green New Deal and stricter regulations – from being translated into law.
Whatever happens in Congress, though, Biden has a range of as-of-yet unexplored tools at his disposal to start reducing emissions tomorrow. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and Federal Reserve – which jointly regulate the banking sector – could raise capital requirements for institutions that invest in fossil fuels, helping stem the flow of Wall Street cash into coal, oil and gas. By declaring a climate emergency, Biden could reinstate the ban on crude oil exports, which have ballooned by 750% since rules restricting them were quietly peeled back in 2015. Ending drilling on federal lands – well within the purview of the Interior Department – could eliminate a quarter of US emission.
If the administration really does believe the climate crisis is an existential threat, it shouldn’t let any of its considerable executive branch powers go to waste.