Biden’s Presidency: An Unlikely FDR or Obama Years Redux?

By George Binette

While most socialists on both sides of the Atlantic sighed with relief in the wake of Donald Trump’s electoral defeat last November, very few would have entertained great expectations of a new US administration, led by a gaffe-prone 78-year-old former senator, the ultimate Washington Beltway insider, who was the preferred candidate not only of the Democratic National Committee, but of much of Wall Street. Leaving aside the issue of how to characterise the Democratic Party in relation to Labour in Britain and European social democratic parties, Biden’s own record and that of successive Democratic administrations provided substantial grounds for scepticism.

So what to make of the first six weeks in office of the 46th President of the United States? There was the promised flurry of executive orders, directives and memoranda, nearly three dozen in all, reversing a series of Trump’s reactionary measures. The US is once more part of the Paris climate accord and has re-joined the World Health Organisation. There will be no more federal funding for the construction of Trump’s notorious wall along the Mexican border. The so-called Muslim ban is no more and Trump’s attempt to whitewash US history, the “1776 Commission”, is also cancelled.

Deportations: the moratorium that wasn’t

Of course, many of Biden’s initial moves, however welcome, were largely symbolic and in some instances the courts are already thwarting his apparently progressive intentions. For example, a Trump administration appointee on the federal bench in Texas effectively blocked a 100-day de facto moratorium on the deportation of asylum applicants at the start of February in a case brought by that state’s Republican attorney general.

Within hours of the judge’s ruling, a Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) flight had left San Antonio bound for Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with dozens of asylum seekers on board. By the third week of February estimates suggest that over 900 Haitians had been shipped out of the US, while many Black African refugees, principally from Cameroon, endured similar fates last month.

Advocates for migrant rights are questioning the strength of Biden’s commitment to radical immigration reform and whether the administration has the will to curb ICE, which has become more and more of a vicious law unto itself. It’s also worth recalling that the Obama-Biden years witnessed some 3 million immigration removals, significantly more than under George W Bush’s eight-year presidency or Trump’s execrable term of office, even if a large proportion of those deported had faced felony convictions.

Rescue plan survives – just

Beyond the various executive orders, the cornerstone of the Biden-Harris administration is the American Rescue Plan Act, in essence a $1.9tn stimulus package for an economy ravaged by the Covid pandemic and its fallout. Biden has claimed that enhanced child tax credits contained in the legislation will alleviate the scandal of child poverty in the US, reducing the number of children growing up in poverty by more than 50%, albeit over the space of a decade.

The enabling legislation gained the assent of the House of Representatives under Democratic control by a mere six votes and on 6th March after a marathon 25-hour session passed through the evenly split Senate by a single vote due a lone Republican absence.

Meanwhile, two hard right Democrats – West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona – posed a shameless challenge to the new Administration’s authority. Both Manchin and Sinema have voiced opposition to key elements of the package, in particular the inclusion of a phased hike in the federally mandated minimum wage to $15 an hour. The real value of the current $7.25 rate has been eroding for more than a decade. In the event, another six Democrats joined Manchin and Sinema in backing Republican objections, defeating a Bernie Sanders’ proposal to retain the minimum wage proposal.

The fate of this widely popular measure had probably been sealed after the Senate’s $172,000 a year, unelected parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, ruled that the minimum wage provision could not feature in a reconciliation bill, which would have enabled its backers to sidestep a Republican filibuster. The White House gave no indication that Vice-President Kamala Harris would use her established authority to overrule the parliamentarian and prospects for anything more than an extremely modest and utterly inadequate rise between now and January 2023 are bleak.

Manchin had also hinted at support for Republican proposals to squeeze supplementary payments to the unemployed, a point on which the Democratic leadership eventually caved with the weekly rate cut from the original proposal of $400 to $300. The programme’s life will now be extended until early September under the revised legislation, which returns to the House for final ratification.

Much of the media both in the US and internationally will characterise the passage of the Covid stimulus package as a significant victory for Biden. But the knife edge votes in both the House and Senate, and the dilution of the original proposals, do not augur well for any “radical” initiatives around climate change or substantial improvements to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), much less moves towards universal public health insurance, a move still not supported by Biden himself.

The past six weeks also indicate that the president, seen as the consummate bi-partisan dealmaker, is extremely reluctant to strong-arm senators from his own party, in contrast to Lyndon B Johnson’s approach to pushing civil rights and Great Society measures.

Meanwhile, the figure of Donald Trump still looms large over the Republican party nationally, at the same as Republican legislators at state level have begun regrouping, fuelling fears that a combination of state-level voter suppression measures and the gerrymandering of Congressional districts could lead to the Republicans regaining control of the House in the November 2022 mid-term elections.

 There is even lingering anxiety more than two months on from the tragicomic invasion of Capitol Hill on 6th January by fanatical Trump supporters, including overt fascists. Concerns over a supposed QAnon plot to stage a Trump inauguration on 4th March led to the barely reported closure of the House for the day.

The most “pro-union president”

More than once Joe Biden declared during the general election campaign and following his victory that he would be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen”. The 46th president has made much of his “blue-collar roots” in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and early in his campaign for the Democratic nomination he appeared on a picket line rally for striking supermarket workers in Boston. Union money and volunteers almost certainly made a real difference in Biden’s favour in swing states.

Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2007-08 featured lofty pro-union rhetoric and pledges to walk on picket lines, which failed to translate into reality after he entered the White House. When public sector unions in Wisconsin faced a massive assault in 2011 on collective bargaining rights from Republican governor Scott Walker, Obama chose to ignore pleas to intervene. Despite massive mobilisations of teachers and civil servants, Walker got his way before going on to win a special recall election the following year, having attracted over $30 million for his war chest, largely from corporate donors including the Koch brothers. The Wisconsin events don’t get a single mention in Obama’s recent memoir of his first term in office, which runs to over 700 pages.

Thus far the signals from Biden are somewhat more promising. On the first day of his presidency he sacked a Trump appointee at the National Labor Relations Board, a peculiar legacy of the New Deal era. After initial hesitation, he came remarkably close to endorsing the drive to unionise the 5,800-strong workforce at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse complex.

Biden’s widely reported video message on Twitter stopped short of explicitly calling on workers to vote in favour of recognition in a postal ballot that runs until 29th March, but he did offer both praise for the role of unions, not least in improving pay and conditions especially for “Black and Brown workers”. He also advanced thinly veiled criticism of Amazon’s union-busting tactics. Ironically, Jay Carney, an Obama administration press secretary is now a senior vice-president at Amazon!

While the administration has pushed for the full reopening of schools by early April, Biden has effectively backed education union demands to prioritise the vaccination of school staff by issuing a federal directive. Already several governors have reversed policies, which had refused to target education workers for anti-Covid jabs.

Congressional Democrats have re-introduced the Protect the Right to Organise (PRO) Act in the House of Representatives with a vote expected during the week commencing 8th March. The bar is not set high, but the bill is the most radical piece of pro-union legislation in decades and would start to redress the gross imbalance of power in law between capital and labor in US workplaces. Biden’s campaign emphasised support for the legislation, but a Republican filibuster in the Senate is likely to kill the bill and to date there has been no appetite to back the demand of a growing coalition of Democratic senators for the abolition of filibuster.

Beyond centrist triangulation?

At the end of the day, the US does, of course, remain the foremost imperial power, not least because of its overwhelming military might. The late February air strike on Iranian-backed forces in Syria was a small, if stark, reminder of that might and Biden’s willingness to wield it. Future articles will assess the significance of the switch from the Trumpian rhetoric of “America First” to Biden’s “America is back”.

In the meantime, the new Administration’s tinkering with the USA’s political economy may be a far cry from FDR’s New Deal or even LBJ’s Great Society, but it does mark a partial break with the neo-liberal triangulation of the Clinton and Obama years. Currently riding high in opinion polls, will Biden break with his reputation for shameless compromise and expend political capital? And, more importantly, will he come under meaningful pressure to do so from beyond the Washington Beltway from renewed Black Lives Matter mobilisations, with the start of the trial of the killer cop responsible for George Floyd’s death, and a more confident union movement?

George Binette is a native of Massachusetts and Trade Union Liaison Officer for Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP.

Image: Joe Biden. Source: Joe Biden. Author: Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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