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President Joe Biden---Social Democrat by Steve Davis
President Joe Biden---Social Democrat
While the wording above is crafted to catch the reader’s eye, is it so preposterous? Based upon the president’s speech to Congress on April 28 at the end of his first hundred days, American social democrats have reasons to celebrate the emergence of the most substantively progressive agenda since Lyndon Johnson announced the Great Society in 1964. Fifty years ago, Michael Harrington labeled as social democratic the effort in this country to democratize the system and advance the interest of the working masses without denouncing capitalism itself. And that’s exactly what we got from Joe Biden last week in a speech that was stunning in some aspects of its policy content.
Joe Biden’s ambitious program, like Caesar’s Gaul, has three parts—the American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan, and the American Family Plan. Let’s look at components that especially stand out.
1) The American Rescue Plan, already passed by Congress without a single Republican vote, is a $1.9 trillion package designed to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. We’re already familiar with the $1400 personal relief checks and the federal funding that made it possible to more than double Biden’s original goal of 100 million vaccine shots in the first hundred days. What stands out here is the lesson learned from 2009 when President Obama settled for a $800 billion stimulus plan designed to fight the Great Recession. Hoping to achieve bipartisan support and listening too closely to the likes of Rahm Emanuel, Obama was too cautious by far. As a result, the money allocated wasn’t nearly adequate to fully right the economy and the recovery that followed was frustratingly slow. Biden didn’t repeat the mistake. His plan upped the ante considerably and the president didn’t hesitate to use budget reconciliation to get around the filibuster in the Senate. Biden is utterly right in saying doing nothing during this crisis is not an option and that Republican obstruction will not be rewarded. His willingness to play hardball with the party of Trump and McConnell is a good augury for the prospects of enacting the rest of his program.
2) The American Jobs Plan proposes massive construction projects of traditional infrastructure and then some as it goes beyond roads, bridges, and ports to cover essential items like home care for the elderly and disabled. Republicans are absolutely opposed to government assistance for the latter, but given the mobility limitations of my 85 year-old mother who lives alone in Dickinson (and fiercely defends her independence), I’m an enthusiastic backer. I know countless other families strapped by home care expenses can relate. Biden is making a sincere effort in the infrastructure proposals to win back some of the blue-collar workers who have been seduced by Trump’s poisonous America-First rhetoric, as 90% of the workers hired won’t need a college degree. What really stood out in this section of the speech was Biden’s endorsement of the PRO (Protect the Right to Organize) Act, the most serious effort for labor law reform since President Carter. It’s worth quoting him here: “Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built the country, and unions built the middle class. “ Nothing could be further from the union-busting mentality that has dominated this country since the Reagan years, eviscerated our labor movement, and helped to impoverish much of the working class. Here Biden could not have been more true to his modest origins in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
3) The American Families Plan contains the proposal to extend public education from twelve to sixteen years by bracketing currently-funded schooling with two years of free pre-school and two years of free community college. My students at Lone Star College are almost universally enthusiastic about the latter for obvious reasons, and they rightly most associate the idea with one politician---Bernie Sanders. This is one clear area where the social democratic platforms from Bernie’s presidential runs have won over the current president. The $15 minimum wage that Biden also endorsed in the speech is another. Small wonder that Senator Sanders was seen applauding with enthusiasm multiple times and that he was among the first to greet the president once the speech was completed. Biden also backs twelve weeks of paid parental or sick leave. Many low-income workers receive no sick pay whatsoever from their employers. The pandemic underscored the issue more than ever as workers like my cousin George (who labors full-time for $13 an hour) have to choose between staying home without compensation or going to work and putting themselves and others at risk. Compare the stingy American approach with that of social democratic Sweden which provides sixteen months of paid leave to new parents. That is an approach that truly supports “family values.” Biden’s ideas in this and other areas help this country begin to catch up modestly with its counterparts in the industrialized West.
The morning after the speech, I heard the odious Senator Rick Scott from Florida denounce what he termed Biden’s ruinous spending (over $6 trillion total for the all of the above) and refusal to say how he would pay for it. Did we listen to the same speech, Senator? Biden was very clear about raising taxes on those who earn more than $400 K annually (Occupy Wall Street’s top 1%). The richest of the rich made out like bandits during the pandemic and it’s time to aggressively reclaim their ill-gotten booty by jacking up rates on personal income, capital gains (which used to be called “unearned income” as it was money made not from work but from money), and corporate earnings. And it’s time to rake in some funds by busting tax cheats and throwing the more egregious of them into the slammer. The thought of such should provoke some anxiety in Mar-a-Lago.
So from a social democratic perspective, what’s not to laud about Joe Biden’s speech? And the saving grace is that the budget reconciliation approach can again be used to make all this happen, as long as every Congressional Democrat gives their backing. Those of us on the democratic left need to maintain the pressure to ensure that that happens.
Let me close with perhaps the most important take away from what President Biden told us. His presidency so far is doing the vital work of restoring the government idea, the notion that government is not the problem but indeed is the only tool that can create a more just and egalitarian society. Mark these simple yet elegant words from Biden’s peroration: “It’s time we remembered that ‘We the people’ are the government. You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force that we have no control over. It’s us. It’s ‘We the people.’” Richard Hofstadter once described FDR’s New Deal programs as having a “social democratic tinge.” With President Biden’s excellent speech to Congress, we can declare that that tinge is now a band of color bold and deep.
May 4, 2021