Unless consciously resisted, one of Donald Trump's lasting triumphs will be the establishment of such a low bar that mediocre standards will prevail for his successor. Of course providing a clear contrast to the atrocious Trump presidency is irrefutably necessary — but it's hardly sufficient.
To give high marks merely for excelling in comparison to right-wing Republicans is to cheer high jumps over very low standards. And the opening months of President Biden's term are an especially bad time to grade him on a curve, as top appointees take charge and policy directions are set.
With corporate forces fully mobilized and armies of their lobbyists deployed to constantly push the new administration, the need for activating grassroots counter-pressure from the left should be obvious. Yet an all-too-common progressive refrain now is along the lines of "Step back and give Biden a chance!"
That refrain is understandable. And mistaken. It's essential to vigorously advance progressive agendas that are morally compelling and tactically effective — to deliver notable improvements in people's lives and prevent the Republicans from recapturing Congress, as happened in 1994 and 2010 with big GOP victories, in each case just two years after corporate-friendly Democratic presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively) took office.
One of Trump's overarching "achievements" was to move the frame of feasible political options rightward. Now the achievable options must be moved in a decidedly progressive direction — not simply back to the future with a "third Obama term" aiming to reinstate the gist of a pre-Trump status quo.
Encouraging as some of Biden's first executive orders may be, they're not transformative. Last week, under the headline "Biden's Executive Actions Just Scratch the Surface," the editor of The American Prospect offered a sober assessment. "What Biden is doing, even if it extends only to reversing Trump-era rules and actions, will help a lot of people," David Dayen wrote. But, "in a lot of ways on these executive actions, the style is doing a fair bit more than the substance."
On Jan. 28, when Biden signed an executive order on Obamacare, he emphasized his self-imposed restraint. "There's nothing new that we're doing here other than restoring the Affordable Care Act and restoring Medicaid to the way it was before Trump became president," Biden said. "I'm not initiating any new law, any new aspect of the law. This is going back to what the situation was prior to Trump's executive order."
Prior to Trump, tens of millions of people in the United States were already uninsured or underinsured — and that was before COVID struck.
Some reporting indicates Biden might now realize that chasing after Republican partners in Congress would be a fool's errand. Yet Biden has a bad history of reaching across the aisle to make harmful deals. "Mr. Biden finds himself managing the outsize aspirations of the progressive wing of his party while exploring the possibilities of working with a restive opposition that has resisted him from the start," the New York Times reported in a front-page story on Sunday.
Whatever the phrase "outsize aspirations" means, a key reality is that progressives must keep building pressure during this time of extreme crises — with several thousand Americans dying from the coronavirus every day, economic catastrophes deepening for many, racial injustice continuing to fester, and the climate emergency still worsening.
Much of what Biden can do would require no congressional action. Dayen points out that, under the Constitution, presidents "are implementers" — and argues that "they should implement to the maximum potential allowed by law."
When gauging the Biden presidency, we should throw away yardsticks that are designed to measure its distance from the Trump presidency.
So many people are dying from lack of health care, and Biden has yet to take, or even call for, the magnitude of steps that are urgently needed to save lives. One proposal, initiated by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and gaining support in the House, would provide recurring stimulus payments. A comprehensive plan, put forward by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would establish free health care as a human right for everyone in the United States — in effect establishing Medicare for All, at least for the duration of the pandemic.
How to pay for such momentous programs? One bill, introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., provides for a transaction tax on Wall Street that would raise vast amounts of revenue from people most able to afford it. One bill after another has sought to substantially cut the military budget and make the funds available to meet crying human needs.
Only continuous and intense pressure from grassroots activism can induce Biden to support such vital measures.
"We should have learned a lesson from the Obama-Biden years, where many progressive forces gave a honeymoon to the administration, believing that they needed space and believing that they were gonna be under a lot of pressure so we should back off. It was the worst possible thing that we could have ever done," said Bill Fletcher Jr., a former senior AFL-CIO staffer who is now executive editor of GlobalAfricanWorker.com. "We need to stand behind Biden-Harris at nose length so that they cannot retreat without running smack into us."
Progressive journalist Sonali Kolhatkar said: "Biden has already faced relentless calls for so-called unity from pro-Wall-Street and pro-war corporate Democrats and media pundits, which is of course code for capitulating to centrism and even conservatism. He needs to hear even stronger calls from his constituency, calls that are loud enough to drown out the Wall Streeters and warmongers."
In the words of progressive populist Jim Hightower, "The question is not whether Biden will produce the transformative change that America urgently needs. He won't. Rather the question is how hard, far and persistently we progressives will push him."
If President Biden is pushed hard and far and persistently enough, some truly great changes are possible.