Joe Biden has been better than we could have hoped — but is that enough?

In these early weeks, Biden has proven he can be the champion America needs. What lies ahead will be even harder

By Chauncey DeVega
March 18, 2021 9:02AM (UTC)
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U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks in the State Dining Room of the White House on March 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. The administration announced on Monday that Gene Sperling, a former top economic official in the last two Democratic presidential administrations, will oversee the rollout of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package that Biden signed into law last week. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Joe Biden inherited a disaster of epic proportions from Donald Trump.These multiple overlapping crises include the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 530,000 Americans. The economy is in ruins. The United States has lost its position as the world's indispensable nation. The country's democratic institutions have been undermined and badly damaged by Trump and his movement. Trump attempted to stage a coup and his followers launched an attack on the U.S. Capitol. Law enforcement and other experts are warning that right-wing terrorism will become a feature of American life and poses the danger of insurgency. Trust in government is highly partisanPublic opinion polls and other research shows that the neofascist Age of Trump has accelerated a crisis of legitimacy for American democracy.  

To overcome these challenges, Biden will have to be much more than a caretaker or transitional president. He must resist his natural tendencies to be a compromiser who seeks out bipartisan solutions, comity and goodwill with Republican Party. In short, Biden needs to become a political champion.

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Biden has not even been president for two months, but in that short time he has shown that perhaps he may in fact be equal to the challenge.

Last week, Biden signed into law the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP), which has been described as one of the most progressive acts of legislation since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs of the 1960s. With the ARP, Joe Biden is now being described by friends and foes alike as being a "transformative" president.

Thomas Schwartz, a professor of political science and history at Vanderbilt University, shared his thoughts on this with Salon by email:

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The "transformative" label may stick, simply because of the sheer size and scale of this $2 trillion measure.  I think the Republicans are largely right in that it goes far beyond the immediate issue of COVID relief, and does address many issues that are central to the Democratic agenda, including child poverty, education funding, and other equity issues. There is a danger that if the Democrats are unable to get any other legislation through the Senate, that there will be a media narrative of failure. 

But one could make the case that the tax cuts that Ronald Reagan got through early in his presidency were his only major legislative success, and that after the recession of 1981-1982, the steep economic growth vindicated him.  The same could happen to Biden, with sharp increases in economic growth as the country reopens and the pandemic fades, and this will be rewarded at the polls.

Even at the left-wing publication Jacobin, which offers "a socialist perspective on politics, economics, and culture," Hadas Thier acknowledges the scale of this accomplishment: 

The passage of Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill was met by euphoria from the liberal media, along with requisite nay-saying from some on the Left. Undoubtedly, there are, as usual, good reasons to be frustrated with the Democratic Party leadership's refusal to fight harder for the inclusion of a desperately needed minimum wage increase, and their unnecessary concessions on the size and scope of direct payments and unemployment benefits. Yet the bill will substantially alleviate the suffering of many, while also signaling a political and economic shift toward the provision of public welfare.

Thier argues that leftists "should grapple with how we take advantage of this moment, highlighting the ways government programs help working people, and working to build the confidence and organizing capacity to demand more from the Democrats."

Unlike previous approaches to the pandemic (and the economy more generally) under the last administration, the ARP actually helps the poor, working class and middle class, instead of (almost exclusively) transferring the public's money to the richest Americans and corporations.

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Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the ARP is the fact that it will substantially lower childhood poverty by increasing the child tax credit to $3,600 a year for eligible families. This additional assistance will have a spillover effect on entire communities by improving life opportunities and social capital. Moreover, improving children's quality of life is a form of national investment likely to produce adults who are more educated, healthier and better able to contribute to the country's overall prosperity.

The president of the United States has many roles. There are the formal ones: He or she is the chief executive, chief diplomat, legislative negotiator and military commander in chief. There are the informal ones: A president is the country's moral leader and conscience, a type of parental figure, national cheerleader and protector of the nation's prosperity. 

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The president is also a type of counselor or civic secular high priest for the nation.

It is this latter trait, as president in a time of plague, uncertainty, anger, loss and trauma, when the nation grapples with the destruction and death caused by Donald Trump's regime, in which Biden's temperament and life experiences are especially valuable.

In an email to Salon, Jeff Bennett, a professor of communication studies, also at Vanderbilt, explains the power and importance of Biden's role as a non-sectarian clerical leader:

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Biden has been performing what is often referred to as the "priestly function" of the presidency and has been fulfilling this role since the day of his inauguration. During times of crisis presidents often call for unity by appealing to shared values and asking people to sacrifice for the greater good. Biden opened his primetime speech by acknowledging the collective losses that Americans have suffered and his deliberate dwelling on that point serves an important function. Recognizing the extent and severity of our losses — the loved ones who have died, the time that has been lost, the milestones that were never celebrated — is necessary for processing the national trauma that we've experienced and formulating ways to move forward.

Trump was not especially good at performing this priestly role. Any acknowledgement of loss seemed to implicate him in the massive numbers of deaths that occurred on his watch. So, rather than discussions of sacrifice or national values, he tended to shy away from this important role. And at the end of the day, it's one of the many reasons he lost the presidency.

Biden's ability to fulfill this priestly function helped to make the ARP possible. Public opinion polls show that to this point the American people (including many Republicans) overwhelmingly support Biden's approach to resolving the pandemic crisis.  

Biden's use of language is another obvious contrast with his predecessor. This too helps to explain Biden's early successes with the ARP and other policies. Bennett elaborates:

Biden's explicit attempts to unify the nation are reflected in both this speech [on the passage of ARP] and in his inaugural. In both speeches, containing the pandemic is essential to our shared struggle. But, so too is overcoming the obstacles presented by political polarization, which has negatively impacted our ability to reign in COVID-19. Biden used the words "you," "we," "democracy," and "America" more than any other president in American history in his inaugural. We have a return to those themes of unity and common cause in his primetime address. Likewise, Biden relied heavily on religious imagery in his inaugural, invoking words like "faith," "prayer," "God," and "church," so it's not surprising to see those figures reappear in this most recent speech.

Of course, the ARP is just a beginning in terms of a liberal or progressive revival in America. Like any legislation, it is imperfect and awkwardly attempts to balance competing interests and priorities. As the beginning and not the end of America's recovery from the pandemic and Donald Trump's destructive regime, a project of American economic renewal should include vastly expanded and recurring COVID survival checks, an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and then the creation of a guaranteed living wage and a national health insurance program such as Medicare for All.

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A wealth tax increase on millionaires and billionaires — especially those who profited from the death and destruction caused by the coronavirus — should be enacted. The country's extreme levels of wealth and income inequality must be reduced because they are obvious threats to the long-term stability of American democracy. In all, as Biden explained in his recent Rose Garden address, the American economy should be built from the middle outward, not from the top down.

These policies enjoy broad support among the American people.

There will be many obstacles ahead in Joe Biden's struggle to be the champion the American people need and deserve. Most notably, the Republicans and their allies are escalating their war on democracy and their efforts to make America into a fascist state under what is de facto one-party rule. America's mainstream news media is still wrestling with the failures that made Trump's regime possible, including the compulsion toward "both-sides-ism," the manufacture of phony controversies (such as the obsession with Biden not holding a press conference) and a reluctance to speak the truth about the neo-fascist Republican Party and its followers.

As Joe Biden approaches the end of his second month as president, he has shown us he is capable of rising to the challenge of this historical moment and becoming America's champion. But the challenges that lie ahead will be steeper still. 


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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American Rescue Plan Commentary Coronavirus Relief Donald Trump Joe Biden Pandemic