Joe Biden is a creature of the bi-partisan state apparatus. A compromiser by temperament, training, and politics, he consistently uses his skills to limit the boundaries of politics to the interests of the capitalist class. His election campaign generated so little enthusiasm he barely won against Donald Trump, whose disastrous approach to Covid-19 helped him earn the highest presidential disapproval rating since then president Richard Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal in 1974. Yet, since becoming president, Biden has not only has cancelled some of Trump’s most egregious executive orders, but many commentators have expressed surprise in the “progressive” new proposals he has put out.
This raises crucial questions. How far do these really go? Where do they come from? And what does this mean for a Biden Presidency? Among the limited nods to the left, the limits of these proposals are apparent, and some aspects are being walked back already. One question for the future is, faced with these gestures, will the millions who opposed Trump fight for more substantial change, or quieten down and wait?
A diverse cabinet of business as usual
Any notion that Biden was secretly planning to turn to the left is belied by the choices for his cabinet. Despite the talk none of the left figures like Bernie Sanders, let alone Elizabeth Warren, were picked. It may be “the most diverse cabinet” in history, but it is still filled with figures from the military industrial complex and previous Democratic administrations.
Biden’s pick for national intelligence director is Avril Haines, the first woman in that post. She worked under Barack Obama as deputy CIA director and was the architect of the drone strikes program, and played a key role in the cover up of US torture.
Lloyd Austin, the first Black secretary of defence, is a former general who supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and helped train the Iraqi Security Forces, notable for their war crimes in Mosul. He is a millionaire who sat on the board of the large weapons manufacturer, Raytheon Technologies.
Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, worked with both Clinton and Obama, and approves of “humanitarian intervention” as long as it lines up with US interests. He supported Bush’s war on Iraq in 2003, Obama’s intervention in Libya in 2011 and Trump’s bombing of Syrian airfields in 2017. He, along with Lloyd Austin, sits on the board of Pine Island Capital, a private equity firm with dealings in the defence sector.
Ron Klain, his chief of staff, has for decades moved in the revolving door between White House back rooms and the private sector. He was a major lobbyist and executive for a venture capital firm ironically called Revolution LLC. He remains committed to serve the interests of big business.
Biden nods to the left
On becoming president, Biden quickly had the US rejoin the World Health Organisation and the Paris Climate Accords. He has been signing executive orders repealing many Trump decisions, including the prohibition of transgender people from serving in the US. military and the travel ban which barred people from many Muslim-majority countries from coming to the United States.
More of a surprise was his cancelling of the climate-killing Keystone XL pipeline. This was due to years of dedicated protest against it drawing world-wide attention, although several similar projects continue to be built.
More complicated are the extensive proposals to be negotiated and passed in the Congress. His clean energy plan foresees a $2 trillion investment over his first term, if it gets through intact.
While not meeting the demands of immigration rights activists, Biden has responded to them with a proposed bill that could open up an eight-year “pathway to citizenship” for 11 million undocumented people in the US.
Especially ambitious is the “American Rescue Plan,” the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package sent to Congress in February. This includes $1,400 stimulus checks, and hundreds of billions for extended unemployment benefits, aid to state and local governments, as well as aid to small businesses and money for schools reopening. It also provides $160 billion for a long-overdue national program on vaccination and testing.
What is behind Biden’s policies?
Trump was an unusually incompetent, unpredictable, and divisive President. For many people, any move towards even an exploitative and unstable status quo seems a relief at first.
For the ruling class Trump’s tax cuts were appreciated, but they would prefer a stable government, and a technocratic approach to Covid-19, as long as they can still force their essential employees to work. Biden is filling that role.
The main reason for Biden’s largess, like the larger Covid-19 stimulus under Trump, is the shifting needs of big business. At the root is the problem of low average rates of profit during the long recovery from the 2008 recession, and the sharp Covid-19-related economic crisis on top. After the government interventions of 2008 and 2020, first financial and now a broader range of corporations have become dependent on state action. They have had to drop some small-government neoliberal instincts. With interest rates near zero, big business is benefiting from government borrowing and massive spending on relief as a classical Keynesian stimulus to the economy as a whole.
Granted this may provide just a temporary boost, and by keeping certain firms afloat, may prolong the problems with profitability. But it is the fix they think they need now.
It is not surprising over 150 senior executives at major companies have written to influential Congress people urging Biden’s plan be passed. After all, they are not paying for it.
They also realize that to get the stimulus they need without disruptive objections from below, they will also have to include some help for those who are hurting most.
Keeping the left in line
As a headline in the Financial Times newspaper put it, “Bidenomics Can Preserve Support for Capitalism.” Parts of the ruling class remember how, after the 2008 recession and Obama’s bailout of the Wall Street banks, the Occupy Wall street movement brought people onto the streets and focused attention on the 1 percent. This paved the way for the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, and the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America. As the Financial Times has argued, big corporations and the rich might not like every part of Biden’s reforms, but they will put up with them as long as they don’t challenge the market. There is a hope they “might also avert a larger reckoning further down the line.”
“Biden is walking a tightrope,” said Robert Mann, a former Senate press secretary. “He cannot afford to fully alienate the progressive wing of the party, but also he cannot afford to be seen as allowing them to set his agenda.”
Politically, too, many see they can’t get away with another bailout of big industry without some of it being used to support the working class. But of course, this is not nearly enough to reverse inequality or pull the poor out of poverty, and many, disproportionately minorities and undocumented immigrants, will be left out completely.
As Biden reassured rich donors during his campaign, “nothing would fundamentally change.” It is the minimum needed to maintain stability, and how much stability is needed, that is being argued over in Congress.
An American rescue?
In the “American Rescue Plan” the $1400 stimulus to eligible citizens is already watered down from the earlier promise of immediate $2000 checks. Biden has already disappointed by dropping the promised increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and rejecting calls to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt by executive order. An expansion in paid sick leave could also be stripped from the bill when it leaves the Senate, without any real objections from Biden.
The bigger problem with this one-off spending package is that the only real changes it makes benefit the rich.
Biden’s plan adopts proposals from health insurance lobbying groups that funnel billions of dollars of public subsidies for private health insurers. This may increase the amount of people with insurance, but does not eliminate charges for patients, and is still significantly more expensive than government healthcare programs.
Profits keep Covid-19 growing
Any federal vaccine distribution plan is better than none, but America’s would be much further along with a national health care system. This Biden refuses to contemplate, just as he has rejected calls for Medicare for All national health insurance.
Neither has Biden sided with overworked union nurses pushing for mandatory nurse-to-patient ratios, which would decrease deaths of Covid-19 patients as well as helping nurses. Staffing levels are universally worse in private for-profit hospitals.
Biden’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has updated guidance on Covid-19 safety in the workplace, but not issued the regulations urgently requested by unions. His administration has also ignored the appeals of unions and public health advocates to reverse Trumps egregious use of the Defence Production Act to keep meat processing plants open, even as they are found to be epicenters of Covid-19 transmission.
And most visibly, Biden is now the figurehead pushing for nationwide school reopening before teachers are vaccinated. The aim is to get parents back to work and creating profits. While teachers in many districts are resisting the return, Biden is now receiving support from the leadership of national teachers’ unions who rightly condemned a similar push from President Trump.
A president who wears a mask and does not think Covid-19 or global warming are hoaxes may be a relief considering who came before, but it means little when profits continue to come before survival.
While the Paris Climate Agreement is inadequate and non-binding, Biden has repeated that he is opposed to even the “Green New Deal” pushed by progressives. He promised to stop new drilling leases on federal lands – but that is less than 10 percent of production. His administration has already quietly issued at least 31 new drilling permits for existing leases.
His welcome cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline was a result of years of dedicated protests which brought world-wide attention. However, he has not cancelled the water crossing permit for the similar Line 3 pipeline still under construction, or objected to the massive Sentinel Mainstream offshore oil export terminal planned for the Texas Gulf.
Biden and General Motors are happy for the later to build a new fleet of electric cars (along with its gas-guzzling SUVs), but not to decrease American car culture and make the necessary mass investment in sustainable public transportation. What Biden will not do is admit that what is good for General Motors – or any of the fossil fuel corporations – is not good for the world. That would challenge capitalism.
New detention camps
Trump’s family separation and caging of children was a horror felt around the world, but the cages were first used in the Obama administration when Biden was vice-president.
While Biden’s proposed 8-year long and reversible path to citizenship may eventually help many it is written with an eye to the economy’s need for steady, but low-paid, immigrant labor. And it is pared with increased enforcement. Biden has now cut funding for Trump’s ineffectual Border Wall, but his plan calls for “cost effective” enforcing of the Southern Border using “smart technology.” It may be a slicker, tech-savvy policy – but is by no means a more humane one.
Today, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers are still full of migrants subject to abuse and Covid-19 infection. Any immigration overhaul should listen to migrants calling to “abolish ICE,” an especially racist and aggressive police force only established in 2003. Instead, Biden has issued new guidance giving ICE officers discretion on operations, which the American Civil Liberties Union called “a disappointing step backward.”
Biden has now re-opened detention facilities in Texas and Florida for unaccompanied migrant teenagers.
In his quest to reestablish US position and reputation in the world, Biden has avoided Trump’s “America First” phrase, with its fascist overtones, but replaced it with “America is back, ready to lead the world.” His commitment to US hegemony has been shown in his support of US wars throughout his career, including the recent “forever wars.” With the US share of world GDP declining over the last 50 years, to be rivaled by China and the EU, American imperialism has had to lean even more heavily on its unsurpassed military might.
Biden has been intimately involved with US Imperialism in Latin America, being an architect of “Plan Columbia” in the Senate, and leading the “Alliance for Prosperity” as Vice President. Behind the facade of development and the “war on drugs” they imposed neoliberal models on the region, increasing poverty, inequality and deadly police repression. One result was waves of migrants trying to reach the US and militarised borders trying to stop them.
Biden’s foreign policy priorities have been described as “China. China. China. Russia.” His team – including treasury secretary Janet Yellen, the commerce and trade secretaries, Lloyd Austin at defence – have been uniformly hawkish on China. Biden also tapped China hawk Ely Ratner to head a special China Task Force. Following Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” Biden’s administration is prepared to use the “full array” of tools to defend their interests in the region and open up China’s state-dominated economy.
Always a “stalwart supporter” of Israel, Biden has confirmed he will not reverse Trump’s shocking decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Israel plays an essential role for US imperialism in the region. In Biden’s own words: “If there were not an Israel, we would have to invent one to make sure our interests were preserved.” To that end, he has consistently undermined any criticism as Israel bombed the Gaza strip and expanded illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories. Naturally Biden will continue to provide Israel the traditional $3.8 billion a year in unconditional military support that funds all this. The continued suffering of Palestinians is part of Biden’s status quo.
On Iran, Biden claimed on the campaign trail that he would re-enter the nuclear deal reached under Obama, which Trump had reneged on while imposing further crippling sanctions. But hopes for a peaceful approach are dimming. His secretary of state has announced the end of sanctions was not coming soon, and exaggerated how close Iran was to creating a nuclear bomb. And now, Saudi Arabia has built new bases for US troops that could be used in war against Iran. US B-52 bombers flew close to Iran over the Persian Gulf, just to show America’s “ability to deploy its air power anywhere in the world.” Just last week, Biden ordered US airstrikes against facilities in eastern Syria used by Iranian-backed militias, killing a reported 22 people.
While Biden may want to bring stability back to the Middle East, it is not one of peace. He wants continued US domination, involving economic imperialism, drone strikes and possible wars.
When President Trump bombed Syria in 2017, Jen Psaki was right to tweet, “What is the legal authority for strikes? Assad is a brutal dictator. But Syria is a sovereign country. Psaki is now Biden’s press secretary, and defending Biden’s use of 500-pound bombs to “send a message.”
This is expected of Washington insiders, but the anti-war movement too, needs to oppose Biden’s imperialism and any new military strikes. The anti-war movement was substantially weakened when Obama came to office, and we can not let that happen again.
Where is our power?
A handful of “the Squad”—recently elected Congress members on the left of the Democratic party—have been sharply critical of Biden’s bombing. But they have not reached out to anti-war groups or called for protests.
This is a common pattern. The statements from the Squad are often spot-on, but they are a minority in the Congress. More importantly, they sit uncomfortably inside a Democratic Party whose structures were built to limit working-class demands that confront a corporate consensus.
Bernie Sanders has said he is going to push to get $15 passed separately in the Senate, but neither he nor Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has called for mass activism outside the corridors of power.
The union-backed “Fight for 15!” campaign – criticised for being top down, bureaucratic and not building in workplaces – has nonetheless brought workers into the streets. This brought attention to the issue and helped pressure several states to pass bills raising their minimum to $15 over time. The current aid package is highly popular, supported by 76 percent of Americans, including 60 percent of Republicans. Both Biden and the Congressional Republicans, who are opposing it, are skilled at congressional manoeuvres. Our power is in the streets and workplaces.
And we have learned that lesson fighting on many issues in the past. Under Republican George Bush, organising including “A Day without an Immigrant,” a mass strike of immigrant labor, helped kill a draconian anti-immigrant bill. It could have gone further. But under Obama the movement dissipated, only to see masses of deportations and no move towards citizenship. We can not let that happen again under Biden.
One source from an advocacy organisation told Politico the administration had “bought themselves time” by frequently talking to grassroots leaders during the transition. “The question is how long does the goodwill last?,” they added.
Where we go from here depends less on what Biden’s plans than whether this movement continues independently, showing it is not just Trumpism that is the problem, but the priorities of Capitalism.
The growing far right
Finally, while a left has been growing, so has a far-right, which has not gone away with Trump. Four more years of austerity and disappointment from a Democratic president—whom 70 percent of Republicans say got the job illegitimately—will be a recipe for the far-right to grow. The left must work in much broader coalitions now to confront the far-right when they attempt to intimidate communities and build.
Capitalism is the problem
But we must also grow the independent, revolutionary left. We can not let the right be the only alternative to Biden’s status quo.
Inequality continues to widen, and when the Covid-19 crisis dies down, the crisis of climate change will still be with us. Drastic change is needed, and it is obvious that Biden is incapable of bringing it.
- Eric Fretz is a member of Marx21 in New York