In the almost two years since Joe Biden began his presidential campaign, he’s consistently called himself a moderate, particularly on economic issues. Early in the primary season he infamously told wealthy donors “nothing would fundamentally change” (Bloomberg) under his administration. Even during the general election, when he moved left on some issues to pick up support from pro-Sanders progressives, Biden insisted that if Congress passed Medicare for all, he would veto it over deficit concerns.
Now that he is in the White House, and Democrats control the Senate with only the narrowest of margins, it would be characteristic for Biden to return to his conservatism: shrink the planned future stimulus, focus on marginal improvements to Obamacare, and fully abandon structural reforms to our government like H.R. 1’s anti-corruption and voting rights provisions. Instead, if he wants to win re-election, and bolster Democrats in Congress, he must focus on strong populist economic measures and election reform to make working-class voters confident he’s on their side.
Beyond specific popular policies, it was an extensive voter registration campaign, led by Stacey Abrams, that shifted Georgia from being just out of reach for Democrats in 2016 and 2018, to electing a Democratic president and two senators. Especially after Republicans voted to reject Biden’s victory, and encouraged their constituents to mobilize against democracy, it is clear that when the playing field is level, when everyone is able to cast a ballot, Democrats tend to win, even in deep red states. When the Senate’s equal representation of every state already tilts against Democrats, who are most popular in dense urban areas, expanding voting rights to felons, granting statehood to disenfranchised areas like Washington D.C. and Guam, and prohibiting gerrymandered Congressional districts are not just moral imperatives, they are crucial for Democrats’ national election prospects in the future.
H.R. 1, a bill introduced by the Democratic House in 2019 to reduce the influence of big money in politics, prohibit gerrymandering, and give felons the right to vote, is well known as a measure that’s good for both the country and the Democratic party. The same is true, on closer examination, of all kinds of progressive economic policies. In November, he lost Florida, a state considered center-right overall, as a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 passed easily with over 60% of the vote. Universal healthcare famously polls very well across gender, race, and party. Democratic losses aren’t caused by progressive policies, they occur when politicians don’t endorse populist reforms enough.
More recently, Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossof’s senate seats were won with the promise of universal $2,000 stimulus checks. With the election behind him, however, Biden has only proposed $1,400 payments which, with the $600 checks authorized in December adds to $2,000 total. When Democrats vocally endorsed additional $2,000 checks weeks after the December stimulus passed, this felt like a major bait and switch at the expense of working class people who put their faith in President Biden. From the perspective of political expediency, he has elected to save $170 billion, less than 10% of the proposed third stimulus bill, and leave voters with a bad taste in their mouths, rather than fulfil a key campaign pledge early in his first year in office.
Even if his heart were in it, charting a radical course would be difficult for Biden. If the Senate filibuster stays intact, legislation that isn’t budget related, like H.R. 1, can be blocked indefinitely by 41 Republican senators, even though the Democrats have the votes needed to pass it. So far, key senators like majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and conservative Democrat Joe Manchin(WV) haven’t ruled out weakening or eliminating the filibuster in the event of Republican obstruction. They need to prepare to make good on that threat, since the Georgia runoff elections proved that the Republican hold on the deep South depends on forms of voter suppression and gerrymandering that H.B. 1 outlaws. Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) will go to great lengths to preserve the undemocratic practices that give Republicans a shot at control of Congress, but if they all hold together, the Democrats can still overrule him.
Since the presidential election in November, there’s been frequent infighting between moderates and progressives in the Democratic party over which ideological tendency nearly cost Biden the presidency. After constantly touting endorsements from Republicans, promoting fracking, and prioritizing concerns about the size of the deficit, it’s clear which side he was on in the minds of voters. Biden’s relatively close victory, combined with the success of progressive ballot measures like Florida’s minimum wage hike, shows the voters he lost leaned to the left, not the right. To win back working class support as president, he must prioritize bold action against poverty and disenfranchisement.