Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 12, 2024

How Biden’s message of unity would work as a governing strategy

By KERIM BALI | September 4, 2020

GAGE SKIDMORE/CC BY-SA 2.0 While Biden would likely be a centrist president if elected, there is hope for progressive action.

Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden has adopted a promise to unite America as his central message. This could not have been more evident at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) where not only was “uniting America” the theme of all four nights, but the speaker line-up featured an array of different ideologies, from Senator Bernie Sanders to former Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich. 

Following four years under U.S. President Donald J. Trump, a leader who has built his political career on divisive rhetoric, it was certainly a breath of fresh air to hear the once-cliché speeches detailing how all Americans should come together. Furthermore, following the police killing of George Floyd, and with many Americans now reckoning with the reality of systemic racial injustice, the message of healing and uniting is likely to be a winning one. So, with the election two months away, it is important to discuss how this goal of uniting America would play out as a possible governing strategy.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) had said that in any other country, she and Joe Biden would not be in the same party. This is clear from the DNC’s current platform, which does not include proposals such as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free college or the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The platform does not even support legalizing marijuana. The nominee himself is the author of the “tough on crime” 1994 Crime Bill and a proponent of the 2005 bankruptcy bill which went against Americans with medical debt and student loans. It is no secret that Biden, along with a lot of the Democratic establishment, is strictly in the moderate lane of the ideological spectrum. To be fair, in a primary with 29 major candidates, including two progressive powerhouses — Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — it was Joe Biden who secured the nomination. 

The argument could be made that Biden has earned the right to lead the party in the direction with which he became its standard-bearer. In that case, even the most minimal compromises Biden has made towards the left, such as lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60, should make the progressive wing happy that he made any sacrifice at all. There are likely no progressives who believe that a President Biden would govern similarly to a President Sanders or Warren. 

However, the promise that Kasich made in his DNC speech that Biden won’t “turn sharp left” is still worrisome. While most left-wing liberals are likely to make a sacrifice themselves in voting for Biden with the goal of defeating Trump, this momentary unity behind the former Vice President does not mean that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party will cease to exist if a moderate Democrat wins the presidency. This raises questions about how the current big-tent approach of Biden and the Democrats would translate to their policymaking come January 2021. 

The U.S. has had the worst response to the coronavirus pandemic of any country in the world, leading to a 10.3 percent rise in unemployment from March to April. This dismal performance of Trump makes it possible to appeal to both far-left progressives and Trump-hating Republicans at the same time. However, in the Oval Office, Biden would have to choose which section of his political coalition to show loyalty to and which side of the ideological spectrum to lean towards.

There are unfortunately many signs that suggest he is more likely to govern as a center-right, almost-Republican president rather than a progressive or even a center-left leader. Biden’s self-proclaimed gift of reaching across the aisle and finding bipartisan solutions certainly has its merits, but across his political career, most of this bipartisanship has relied on him giving in to Republican demands, not the other way around. In 2009, for example, when Democrats held a supermajority in Congress and Biden was in charge of the Recovery Act, he ended up compromising with Republicans to cut funding for education and health programs. While still holding that supermajority, President Barack Obama and Biden passed the Affordable Care Act which, after insistent compromise with Republicans, did not even include a public option and would leave 31 million people uninsured by 2023.

In 2012, Biden went into negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy; Obama eventually signed legislation that made 82 percent of these tax cuts permanent. Even at the DNC this year, while Republican speakers clearly underscored the party’s aim for unity, it was disheartening to see Colin Powell, a public figure who blatantly lied to the United Nations to begin the war in Iraq, given more time to speak than Ocasio-Cortez. Other progressive rising stars, such as Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Jamaal Bowman, were not invited to speak at all. 

Biden has made clear that he intends to pursue an incremental and compromise-based approach, notoriously promising a room of wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” and remarking that “Americans aren’t looking for a revolution.” His record further reflects a natural inclination toward appeasing Republicans and ignoring progressives. 

However, there is in fact hope that Biden could be pushed to the left in certain areas of policy. In 2016, Hillary Clinton essentially ignored progressive Democrats, adopting a somewhat entitled attitude that it was their responsibility to ensure that she would win, not her campaign’s. Since then, a progressive wave has taken hold within the Democratic Party. Accordingly, Biden has actually made an effort to reach out to Sanders and Warren supporters, with programs such as the Biden-Sanders task force, an idea which, despite its many shortcomings, did move the party platform way further left than it had been under Obama

While it is unrealistic to expect Biden to perform as a revolutionist president, there is a possibility that within his incrementalism and bipartisanship, some real progress can be achieved. For this possibility to be enacted, it would not only require electing Biden along with a Democratic Senate and House but would mandate progressives to abandon their cynicism, take on an approach of political citizenry and actively participate in primary elections to ensure more “AOC vs. Joe Crowley” type victories in the Democratic Party.

Kerim Bali is a sophomore from Istanbul, Turkey studying Political Science. He is a member of Hopkins Democrats. 

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