Many of us on the left have long been skeptical of Joe Biden, to say the least. This is because during Biden’s political career, he has consistently opposed the progressive wing of the Democratic party, from proudly boasting of being “one of the most conservative Democrats” in the Senate to using his presidential campaign to criticize left policy priorities like Medicare For All and the Green New Deal. But in his 2020 campaign for president, Biden sent mixed messages—he called climate change the number one issue facing humanity and his climate plan borrowed from the Green New Deal. It was never entirely clear how Biden was going to actually govern.
There is a media consensus that Biden’s presidency has been more progressive than some of his campaign trail rhetoric (“nothing will fundamentally change”) implied it would be. Mike Allen of Axios says that Biden’s “presidency has already been transformative, and he has many more giant plans teed up that could make Biden’s New Deal the biggest change to governance in our lifetimes.” The New York Times reported that Biden is consciously attempting to imitate FDR and has already “gotten off to the fastest start of any president since Roosevelt.” Even Noam Chomsky says that Biden has been “better than I would have expected” and a “rather pleasant surprise.”
It’s important to evaluate Biden’s presidency carefully, to give credit where credit is due but not overlook serious deficiencies. There are a few cynics on the left who believe zero good policies could ever come out of the Biden White House; I disagree, in part because leftist activists have been extremely effective at moving the political consensus on a number of issues (including climate change, healthcare, and policing). But I also don’t buy the idea that Biden’s presidency has already been “transformative.” It’s easy to see how the illusion of a transformative presidency could take hold: Donald Trump was so destructive in so many respects that a return to even marginally sane politics is something of a transformation. But we can’t let our standards slip and start evaluating Joe Biden on whether he manages to clear a very low bar. There are urgent problems in the world—climate change, a creeping arms race, the erosion of democracy—and only a presidency that is truly transformative will do.
For progressives, Biden’s governance has already been composed of a depressing series of letdowns. Just a few days into Biden’s presidency, Vox was reporting that in terms of foreign policy “there will likely be more continuity [with the Trump administration] than change.” Derek Davison of Jacobin argues that Biden’s foreign policy has been largely horrendous so far. Biden bombed Syria in direct violation of both international and domestic law, an act that signals to other countries that the U.S. will act lawlessly—and that diminishes any credibility we have in asking other countries to obey international law. In addition, he has shown no impulse to rein in excessive military spending, or to soften the U.S.’s brutal approach to Venezuela. In fact, Biden has maintained cruel sanctions on Venezuela that deprive the population of critical resources, an act which Democratic senator Chris Murphy says “threatens to severely worsen the already dire humanitarian situation in the country.” His overall approach to Venezuela has maintained his predecessor’s “hard-line approach,” and he refuses to engage at all with the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro.
Certain of Biden’s tendencies are worrisome for the future of international relations. He has “position[ed] China as America’s chief global adversary, casting the 21st century as a battle between U.S.-led democracies and autocratic governments led by China.” This has been one of his only successful bipartisan efforts, as “Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle agree that the threat justifies a new package of new bipartisan bills that would spend hundreds of billions of dollars to confront China…” Biden has been somewhat ambiguous about his actual position on China, saying that he wants “steep competition” rather than “confrontation” but that he wants to stall China’s “goal to become the leading country in the world.”
On Iran, the Wall Street Journal insists that Biden is engaging in a “hell-bent U.S. attempt to revive the 2015 nuclear deal” that Trump pulled out of, and conservatives say he is “rushing toward accommodation” with the Iranian regime. The reality is that the administration has dragged its feet on negotiations with Iran and has been “unwilling to commit to removing all Trump-era sanctions,” and “would not provide a list of sanctions that the Biden administration would remove.”
But Biden’s most shameful foreign policy decision so far may be his approach to Israel’s recent assault on occupied Palestine. Biden started off badly, declining to reverse the Trump administration’s highly controversial decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem. During the recent attacks, Biden declined to condemn Israel even as its bombing of Gaza took a horrifying number of civilian lives and destroyed important parts of the area’s infrastructure. Biden not only dithered on calling for a ceasefire, but blocked the UN from calling for one, and approved a giant new sale of weapons to Israel right before the latest round of violence began. It is clear that he is not committed to holding Israel accountable for abuses of human rights and international law, which is in keeping with his record—in one infamous incident, Biden disturbed even ex–terrorist Israeli prime minister Menachim Begin by saying he “would go even further than Israel, adding that he’d forcefully fend off anyone who sought to invade his country, even if that meant killing women or children.” (And of course there was Biden’s bizarre statement that if Israel did not exist, the U.S. would have to “invent an Israel.”)
This much of Biden’s foreign policy was relatively predictable, if depressing. But other elements of his foreign policy record have not been all bad, and certainly can be seen as something of an improvement. Biden has imposed new (temporary) limits on when drone strikes can be used away from battlefields. He’s claimed he intends to finally pull the United States out of Afghanistan (we’ll see), and he has extended the crucial START arms control treaty with Russia, which limits the number of nuclear weapons each nation can possess. But sometimes Biden looks better than he actually is. For instance, he made a big announcement in February that he was ending U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, but has since been cagey about what support has actually stopped, and it turns out the U.S. might still in fact be assisting in the servicing of Saudi warplanes. (Biden has also decreased the amount of U.S. humanitarian aid that had been directed toward alleviating the famine in Yemen, contributing to an aid shortfall.) His failure to confront Saudi crimes extends to his treatment of Mohammed bin Salman over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi—Biden broke a campaign promise and declined to punish the crown prince for his role in the journalist’s murder. This sends a message to U.S.-allied authoritarians that even if they murder a Washington Post columnist in cold blood, the U.S. won’t risk sabotaging a diplomatic relationship over something as trivial as basic human rights.
On domestic policy, Biden has been somewhat better. The good news is that Biden does appear to be breaking with the previous neoliberal consensus in some ways. His COVID-19 relief bill was called “the most significant piece of legislation to benefit working families in the modern history of this country” by Bernie Sanders. On labor, Biden has made unexpectedly pro-union public statements, and backed the critically important PRO Act, but these stances haven’t actually meant much in material terms for the labor movement thus far. He has raised the minimum wage for federal contractors to $15 an hour, which is good and helps advance the Fight For 15 another step. On climate, the administration has introduced a number of important environmental measures, yet within days of his inauguration he also issued dozens of new oil drilling permits, and the Wall Street Journal op-ed page is pleased that “the Biden administration has been conspicuously defending in court many of the Trump administration’s pro-drilling actions, to the annoyance of environmentalists.” Ryan Cooper of The Week has an excellent explanation of how Biden’s climate plans are less ambitious than they look, and still fail to take the problem as seriously as it needs to be.
On immigration, Biden has continued many of Trump’s policies but has been criticized less by Democrats. For instance, though migrant children continue to be detained (a euphemism for imprisoned) for excessive lengths of time, Congressional Democrats have preferred a “quiet approach” (i.e. silence) rather than public criticism. There have been some improvements to this country’s violent immigration apparatus—and there are apparently plans for more—but their scope is limited and many Trump changes remain in place, including the outrageous use of a general “public health” exception to justify keeping immigrants out who would otherwise legally be admitted. (Vox reports that the “Biden administration has offered little in the way of justification for keeping the policy in place.”) Biden’s DHS has sought to make court proceedings more “efficient,” a euphemism that in practice means deporting people faster.
Where Biden has been good, he has often been good under pressure. When the Biden administration announced that it would not raise the cap on the number of refugees allowed to enter the country, which had been set at a historically low number under Donald Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives harshly criticized the move. The administration soon reversed course and raised the cap, but it was clear that Biden’s instinct was to avoid spending any political capital on refugees, even if that meant leaving an indefensible Trump policy in place.
What’s really concerning to me is that Biden doesn’t seem to see the urgency of the situation he is in. It’s vital to remember that Biden barely squeaked into the presidency–if 45,000 votes had gone the other way, Donald Trump would be serving a second term. Democrats hold Congress by an absolutely razor-thin margin, and the incumbent party is generally expected to get slaughtered in midterm elections. Barack Obama infamously squandered the period during which he had the most political power, then ended up struggling to get much done for six years before being succeeded by Donald Trump. It is quite possible that the right will come back with a vengeance and whatever fragile progress Democrats manage to make will quickly be destroyed.
This means that Democrats should see the current moment as a fight for their political lives. The clock is ticking, and they need to keep American public opinion on their side. They have to win an unfair fight—the Senate and the Electoral College are undemocratic institutions and it’s harder for a Democratic majority to prevail than it would be in a fair and egalitarian system. If Republicans get back into power, the results could be catastrophic for humanity: we cannot have a party that absolutely refuses to acknowledge the reality of climate change right at the moment we most need to transition to renewable energy. It is vital that Democrats not lose. Even if their own commitment to green energy is often lackluster and profit-driven, it still beats outright refusal to acknowledge the coming catastrophe.
For the Democrats to stay in power, they will have to deliver real, positive outcomes for the people of this country. That’s why it’s very concerning to see Biden backing off from his earlier plan to cancel a portion of the country’s student debt. The $10,000 he proposed was always a weak half-measure (even the $50,000 proposed by Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren is a half-measure—Biden should just cancel it all as part of a general overhaul of higher ed financing). But by moving away from his campaign promise to get rid of $10,000 in debt, Biden signals that he doesn’t care even a little bit about the permanent indenture of students whose families couldn’t pay their college tuition. Student debt is a crisis, but Biden chooses only to repeat the right-wing myth that debtors are wealthy elites undeserving of help. Not only is this morally (and factually) wrong, but it misses a major political opportunity. A young person who saw $10,000 in student debt disappear overnight thanks to the Biden administration would be much more inclined to vote for—and even campaign for—Biden’s reelection than a young person who was lied to by the campaign and is just as much in debt in 2024 as they were in 2020 (or more so). The arguments against canceling debt simply do not hold up—it makes both political and economic sense—and I tend to feel that the late anthropologist David Graeber was onto something when he pointed out the power of the still-popular belief that debts are an absolute moral obligation which cannot be forgiven.
Regrettably, Biden continues to repudiate progressives (“The progressives don’t like me because I’m not prepared to take on what I would say and they would say is a socialist agenda”), whose advice would actually serve his presidency’s best interests. We are trying to avoid the catastrophic mistakes of the Obama presidency, which was not bold enough and was disengaged from the public, preferring small, barely noticeable tweaks to policies that people notice in their lives. That’s why we went after Biden so harshly when he walked back the promise of $2,000 checks. Leftists understand that if you compromise and water down your plans, people get disappointed and disillusioned, and it makes it less likely that they will turn out to vote for you. Symbolic or weak actions will not do.
For all the razzle-dazzle of Biden’s early days, with its dozens of executive orders, it looks like a lot of the “transformational” stuff is going to turn out to be mere hype. Edward Luce, in the Financial Times, examines how Biden’s infrastructure negotiations with Republicans seem to be falling into the same old Democratic pattern of giving away everything that matters in order to achieve “bipartisanship.” Luce says that this “test case of the type of US president Biden will be” may “render hollow much of this talk about a transformational presidency.”
It is not enough for Biden’s presidency to be “better than expected.” I didn’t expect much, and you probably didn’t either. Personally I was mostly just relieved to be rid of Donald Trump. But Biden and the Democrats need to understand: without a truly transformative presidency that delivers noticeable improvements in people’s lives, Republican demagogues will be back in power before you know it, with disastrous results. With increasing violence in the U.S., it is quite conceivable that Republicans will use a “tough on crime” platform to scare the country into accepting right-wing authoritarianism. At the state level, Republicans are already aggressively pushing extreme measures: banning abortion, eliminating any restrictions whatsoever on gun ownership, going after trans youths, clamping down on protesters, and putting in place new barriers to voting. With a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, those of us who oppose the right-wing agenda need to fight harder than ever to roll it back, or else we may someday look back on these years as the last flickering ember before democracy was extinguished outright. (You may think I sound extreme, but many on the right are quite open about not believing in democracy.)
Biden is not the only Democrat who seems to fail to take the problem seriously. As Ryan Cooper notes, a great deal is blamed on Joe Manchin, but there are other Democrats in Congress who do not want desirable progressive policies like, say, a $15 minimum wage and are happy for Manchin to take the blame. If Biden wanted to get dissident senators in line through a mixture of carrots and sticks, he could almost certainly do it, but as an insightful Onion headline put it: “Biden Concerned Ambitious Agenda Could Be Stalled By Him Not Really Caring If It Happens Or Not.” The lack of movement in Congress is deeply troubling, because as Cooper notes, unless Democrats find a way to federally protect voting rights, Republicans are going to come back with landslide victories in just a few years and unleash horrors. This is an absolutely critical moment.
We need to stay focused on what matters. This means: making sure the ability to vote is protected so that the majority of the country does not have minority Republican rule imposed on it, and taking meaningful steps toward having a fair, prosperous, safe country where people are not struggling to pay for basic healthcare and housing, terrified of both criminal gun violence and police violence, and being overworked and underpaid. It also means tackling head-on the existential issues facing humanity: climate change, and dangerous tension between nuclear-armed powers.
Biden has, thank God, not fulfilled the most pessimistic prophecies about his presidency. He has not (yet) failed in a way that guarantees a Republican resurgence. But he is still falling far short of what is needed in order to be confident in the future, and the next months and years are critical for both the country and the world. Leftists need to take a nuanced view of Biden, praising the administration when it does good work and pressuring it heavily where it is betraying our values. We do not have the presidency we would have hoped for, but we might have a presidency that can do enough good to preserve the political conditions under which a left movement can succeed.