If Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump in the 2020 election — as current data suggests is likely to happen if existing political trends hold for the next five months — will he lead America through the pandemic and severe economic downturn by emulating the most influential progressive Democratic president in American history, Franklin D. Roosevelt?
When the Great Recession hit in 2008, many believed Democratic candidate Barack Obama would not only win the 2008 election, but become a latter-day FDR. Roosevelt spent the 1930s passing a series of economic reforms known as the New Deal that alleviated the misery of the Great Depression and laid the foundations for the modern welfare state. He focused on reforming the financial system to prevent another depression (and succeeded until conservative deregulation stripped away those protections), providing relief for the unemployed and poor and stimulating an economic recovery. His signature policies included implementing programs that created millions of government jobs, installing protections for labor union rights, establishing Social Security, passing the first federal minimum wage and creating the United States Housing Authority.
Given that the Great Recession was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it seemed logical for Democrats to hope that Obama would be guided by Roosevelt's spirit. While Obama was a popular president with two major policy achievements in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Affordable Care Act, he fell short of Roosevelt's standard in terms of sheer scope.
Recent reports indicate that Biden wants to be more like Roosevelt. Indeed, during a meeting with his advisers in late April, Biden reportedly mentioned Roosevelt by name and explicitly stated that he wanted his policy agenda to be as bold as that of the New Dealer. The former vice president has already come out in favor of passing stimulus legislation "a hell of a lot bigger" than the $2 trillion Congress has already spent, strengthening regulations on banks and other powerful industries, investing in a Pandemic Testing Board on the scale of Roosevelt's famous War Production Board, creating a 100,000-plus worker Public Health Jobs Corps, providing free public college to lower-income and middle-class individuals, forgiving federal student-loan debt at a minimum of $10,000 per person, requiring businesses to provide paid emergency sick leave, increasing Social Security checks by up to $200 a month and likewise increasing the size of the relief checks sent to families.
These policy proposals, Biden's campaign staffers have explained, are only the beginning. Over the summer the former vice president plans on introducing more progressive plans. (Salon reached out to the Biden campaign for comment and did not hear back.)
Certainly, Biden's vision is an attempt to create contrast between him and a second Trump term. Yet even if Biden enacts the agenda that progressives dream of, there is ample economic evidence that it may not be enough. After all, the underlying problem with America during the Great Depression, the Great Recession and the pandemic crisis remains the same — free market capitalism.
In our current economic system, constant consumption must continue unabated in order for prosperity to be maintained. If that consumption is disrupted, however briefly, the economy itself grinds to a halt, with unemployment and poverty consequently skyrocketing. Even during periods of supposed prosperity, however, free market capitalism naturally creates massive wealth inequality, which forces hardships onto the masses while only allowing a small minority to lead financially healthy lives. Because free market capitalism rewards those who already have power and puts those who lack it at a further disadvantage, terrible social evils like racism, sexism and other forms of oppression are reinforced and exacerbated. Finally — and most urgently — free market capitalism incentivizes the consumption of natural resources beyond ecologically sustainable levels, causing existential crises for humanity like global warming, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, epidemics and lowered sperm counts.
Given the magnitude of the problems we face today — some of which existed during Roosevelt's era and went unaddressed (the New Deal, for example, perpetuated racist inequalities) and others which are new to our own time (Roosevelt, to be fair, had no inkling that global warming even existed) — the Roosevelt/Biden approach is woefully inadequate. The underlying principle behind the New Dealer approach, after all, is to co-opt left-wing rhetoric and use it to pass policies that leave capitalist class structures in place while making its injustices just bearable enough for ordinary people that they don't violently rebel against it.
As economists attest, that approach won't cut it in the 2020s.
"It really has to be an 'all hands on deck' that allows our economies to be completely transformed in order to literally allow human survival," Professor Julia K. Steinberger, a Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Leeds, told Salon. "That's what's at stake in terms of the gravity of the situation and the rapidity with which the climate crisis is unfolding." Steinberger says Biden doesn't "fully understand" the magnitude of the crisis. "But to his credit, he's at least surrounding himself with some people who understand that. So the fact that he has Varshini Prakash [co-founder of the Sunrise Movement] on his climate advisory group is really important," she added.
She added that Biden, instead of merely trying to revive the Roosevelt-esque New Deal, "could be calling for a full Green New Deal that focuses entirely on renewable and low carbon energy— which does not include natural gas, which does not include any fossil fuels going forward — and makes a clear signal that all fossil fuels will be ramped down to nothing within the scope of the next 10 years." Steinberger pointed out that he could push for America to implement targets to get the United States to net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.
This, Steinberger argued, could be closely tied into job creation efforts.
"The amount of money that needs to be invested could easily be doubled in terms of what needs to happen. That doesn't have to be a bad thing," Steinberger noted. "It can be part of the recovery with a lot of job creation and a lot of better living and working conditions for a lot of people who suffer from air pollution, from fossil fuel industries and from fossil fuel use, for instance, and which talks about the risk of coronavirus in the US as well."
Steinberger also emphasized that any meaningful economic reform requires a major wealth tax, so that the world is no longer burdened by the presence of a class of super-rich individuals. (Steinberger contributed to a recent paper which demonstrated that wealthy individuals are quite literally destroying the planet through over-consumption.)
"Wealthy people have an overall detrimental role that exists at many levels," Steinberger explained. "Because of over-consumption, because of what they consume — which tends to be high carbon transportation and other activities like that — and also because they have an influence in politics and in industry, and also because they position the way they live is aspirational, which means that then other people want to have drive big cars and fly private planes and so on. I think that a wealth tax is absolutely necessary because one of the things we have to stop is the ability of wealth to be so destructive."
Salon also spoke with Dr. Richard D. Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Wolff expressed skepticism that Biden would actually prove to be a Roosevelt-style progressive — at least, not unless left-wing movements in the United States organize in ways that can counteract the presence of highly organized right-wing organizations (of which there are more in 2020 than there were in the 1930s), and simultaneously exert pressure on Biden to deliver the goods.
"I would have to see more real pressure on him. And this has to do with how I understand what happened to Roosevelt," Wolff told Salon. "Roosevelt was a centrist also when he ran for president [the first time in 1932]. He was a great believer in the balanced budget, which is the old version of worrying about deficits, which is as you know is a Republican staple and a sure sign that the Democrat is afraid of making any move other than might be consistent with that sort of crap."
Wolff, who pointed out that his father worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (whom Wolff describes as an actual leftist with "real credentials"), explained that during the 1930s, there were a number of financially viable left-wing organizations with real political clout. These included the Congress of Industrial Organizations, two socialist organizations and the Communist Party. After FDR was elected in 1932, they interacted with Roosevelt and made it clear that, if he didn't provide substantial relief for the working class and poor, America could go the same way as Russia did during the Communist Revolution, which had occurred less than two decades earlier. As a result, Roosevelt would not be president for very long.
Roosevelt responded, Wolff recalled, by saying that he would help the vulnerable if the left pressured him into doing it, so that he could make it clear that he was acting out of political necessity and simultaneously bring the left-wing groups into a larger political coalition backing him. He could not do so, however, if they spoke of revolution, which would be a deal-breaker. The end result was the formation of a progressive political coalition that controlled the White House for 28 of the next 36 years and, under future presidents, would push through everything from the civil rights legislation of the 1960s to Medicare and Medicaid. In the process, they also protected capitalism from collapsing — although right-wingers, particularly in the business community, refused to see things that way.
"A good part of the business community hated him for it forever," Wolff told Salon. "Those were the forerunners of the Koch brothers today. The John Birch Society of the right wing of the Republican party. They were horrified. They wanted the response to the left to be repression, police action, military action, all of that. [Roosevelt] would have no part of that."
Wolff cited Social Security, the first federal minimum wage and federal employment programs as examples of the kinds of reforms that were characteristic of Roosevelt — not challenging capitalism or class structures, but establishing a very basic safety net for the neediest Americans.
"Nothing comparable exists at this point to force Biden to do anything like those things," Wolff observed. "And he's not going to, in my judgment, because the potential leftist shift of politics in the United States has two problems. A: It's not organized, at least not yet. And B: It has an organized far right wing opposition."
He added, "I think it's a matter of how quickly the left can get its act together and can above all organize itself. I think if it does that — and it obviously isn't going to do that between now and November — but if it can do that, and let's say hypothetically Biden listens, you could re-run Roosevelt's story. I think that's possible if there was enough pressure, I think Biden would adjust."
Even some of those in the camp of Biden's primary rival Bernie Sanders believe that Biden could be whittled into a progressive incrementalist. Norman Solomon, co-founder and national coordinator of RootsAction.org and a Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, argues that Biden is undoubtedly a superior candidate to Trump, even if Biden doesn't seem too progressive on paper.
"What I use is, when you look into the eyes of an undocumented immigrant, would [a Biden administration] make a difference? Yes," Solomon told Salon. "If you look at somebody whose family will be shattered if DACA isn't continued and put into reality, yes, it makes a difference." He also said that a Biden presidency would also undoubtedly be better for people who rely on SNAP (colloquially known as food stamps) to survive, or people whose lives will change based on the decisions made by the judges who will be appointed by the next administration.
At the same time, Solomon pointed out that "Biden is predominantly a corporate creature. He's predominantly stocking the transition team in his campaign with corporate people. At the same time, that's a given and we can fight against it. We can make some progress."
He made a similar point about Biden's climate change proposal, arguing that "it doesn't have near the sense of magnitude of what's needed, but he's not a wall. It's almost an existential, almost a religious question for some people is, how much does this all matter? So we get another New Deal. How much does that matter with an arms race and climate change? You know, the two biggest existential threats to the planet and humanity, nuclear weapons and climate? So we could say, 'Oh, well, the New Deal won't matter.' I think the New Deal that would matter a lot is the Green New Deal."
Perhaps that, really, is the point to be made about this election. If the question is whether Trump or Biden would be better for prosperity and civil rights, Biden, who seems to envision himself as another Roosevelt, would be far better than Trump.
At the same time, a mere return to a lesser evil is how we got to where we are in the first place. Earth will not survive if capitalism allows us to continue ravaging its resources. A generation that, thanks to the internet, has learned how to expose and understand oppression is not going to tolerate the perpetuation of economic injustices that force billions to live in poverty, and which deny nearly everyone except the affluent of meaningful opportunities to maximize their potential to do good in this world and achieve happiness for themselves.
That same generation is seeing how capitalism is inextricably linked with white supremacy and patriarchy, with intersecting layers of power that cause violence and repression against marginalized groups at home and abroad. They may not accept the policies of the Biden who helped beef up the police state, who has a history of being "handsy" with women and who earned the 2020 Democratic nomination by convincing establishment Democrats to unite behind him in order to stop a democratic socialist who was about to sweep the primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders.