How ‘middle-class Joe’ can succeed

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Unlike Barack Obama, who came to the presidency with substantial majorities in both the Senate and the House, Joe Biden will in all likelihood enter the White House facing a hostile Senate — led by Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) —dedicated to thwarting his legislative agenda. 

Yet at the same time that he is constrained on the right by the Senate (which in the best of circumstances will seat 48 Republicans), he will be facing serious pressure from the left by the forces associated with the Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party. How successfully Biden negotiates these cross-pressures will do much to determine the fate of his presidency. 

Biden’s first task as president will be to address the pandemic that may be killing more than 2,000 Americans per day by the time he is inaugurated on Jan. 20. A devout believer in bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems, Biden could give bipartisanship an early test by immediately proposing comprehensive legislation designed to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control. By offering it as a stand-alone proposal, separate from a broader stimulus package, he will place McConnell and the Republicans in a difficult position: either stand in the way of urgent action to save American lives or cooperate with the Democrats at the outset of a Biden administration. 

A second opportunity to test the possibility of bipartisanship could come a few months later, with Biden proposing bold action to address the nation’s other lethal epidemic: the more than 150,000 “deaths of despair” that take place each year. These deaths — from opioids and other drugs, alcohol and suicide — are disproportionately concentrated among white working class and poor people in the economically distressed areas that disproportionally voted for Donald Trump. Conservative journalists have, perhaps with some justification, accused Democrats of paying little attention to the silent epidemic rampaging through areas such as the Ohio River Valley and Appalachia. But Biden has already proposed an ambitious plan costing $125 billion over 10 years to combat the opioid epidemic by stressing treatment and prevention. Highlighting this plan would send a powerful message to Trump supporters in rural and deindustrialized regions that Biden was serious when he repeatedly insisted during the campaign that he would be the president of all Americans, including those who voted against him. And opposing such legislation would put McConnell in an awkward position, for his own state of Kentucky is among those most devastated by the opioid epidemic. 

Yet attempts at bipartisanship should be only part of Biden’s overall strategy. In addition, he must also put forward bold and distinctly Democratic initiatives that address the priorities of the many millions of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) supporters in the Democratic Party. Historically the party of working people, the Democratic Party has witnessed a long-term erosion of support among the working class, especially among white workers; this pattern continued in 2020, with white voters without college degrees preferring Trump by a margin of 67 to 32 percent. Remarkably, the nation’s poorest Congressional districts are now more likely to vote Republican than Democratic, while 44 of the 50 richest districts — and all 10 of the richest — are now represented by Democrats. Arresting and, if possible, reversing this decline must be a priority of the Biden administration. 

The economic consequences of the pandemic provide a perfect opportunity for a Biden administration to show that it is on the side of ordinary Americans. Between March 18, when lockdowns began across the United States, and Oct. 20, the nation’s 643 billionaires increased their wealth by $931 billion — nearly one third of their total wealth. Democrats should respond by advocating an excess profits tax of the sort passed during World War II on those who have enriched themselves during the pandemic — a dramatic and no doubt politically popular way of beginning to redress the economic balance during a pandemic that has hit Americans with low incomes especially hard. 

At the same time, during negotiations for the long-overdue stimulus relief package that may begin even before Biden takes office, Democrats, although in a weakened position because of their failure to win the Senate, must make every effort to tilt aid to those most hurt — notably the unemployed, low-wage workers and small businesses — by the pandemic downturn. Protecting renters and homeowners from eviction in the middle of a pandemic should also be a top Democratic priority. 

But a Biden administration should lay out a vision that goes beyond what may be immediately possible. It is particularly important that Democrats advocate concrete proposals that, though unlikely to pass in the current Congress, speak to the economic distress experienced by many Americans. Legislation to increase minimum wage to $15 would communicate to low-wage working people that the Democratic Party is on their side; in the 2020 election, Florida, which voted to give Trump another four years in office also voted 60 to 40 in favor of a ballot measure to increase the minimum wage to $15. Such a measure would enjoy broad popular support and would serve to clearly distinguish a Biden administration from McConnell and his Republican colleagues. So, too, would legislation facilitating union organizing — a key to reversing a 40-year trend toward increasing income inequality and a logical position for “middle-class Joe” who opened his campaign for president by declaring “I am a union man, period.”

To be sure, a $15 minimum wage and strong pro-union legislation are unlikely to make it through the current Senate. But the current composition of the Senate is transitory; in 2022, of the 34 Senate seats up for election, 21 or 22 of them will be held by Republicans, many of them in states vulnerable to a Democratic challenger. Whether or not the Democratic Party gains control of the Senate in 2022 — and retains the White House in 2024 — will depend in no small part on convincing working Americans that it has their back. In a strange twist of history, moderate Biden — who is by background, personal style and value system an old-fashioned Democrat — may turn out to be just the man to do that. 

Jerome Karabel is professor of Sociology at the University of California Berkeley and is the author of “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton” and other books.

Tags 2020 elections Barack Obama Bernie Sanders biden administration COVID-19 divided Congress Donald Trump economic crisis Elizabeth Warren far left Joe Biden middle class Minimum wage Mitch McConnell presidential election Republican Senate Trump supporters

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