the body politic

Biden’s Big Left Gamble

The president is overseeing a sea change in the world of economic policy, and so much hangs in the balance.

President Biden in April. Photo: Andrew Harnik/Getty Images
President Biden in April. Photo: Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

In December 2016, progressive economist Heather Boushey, who had recently advised Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, was trying to cheer me up. Sure, America had just elected Donald Trump, whose economic team consisted of six white guys named Steve, Boushey told me then. But the good news was that Clinton’s economic team, which included several women — and only three white guys named Mike (Pyle, Shapiro, and Schmidt) — had been planning infrastructure legislation that was half traditional bridge-and-road stuff and half unprecedented support for America’s wobbly child-, elder-, home-, and community-care systems through a mandated paid-leave policy, caps on child-care costs, and increased wages for caregivers — long-elusive feminist priorities.

Even in the wake of devastating loss, Boushey was confident that enormous shifts were taking place, ones that had been under way for some time. The Democratic Party, even its Establishment leaders like Clinton, had begun to move away from the centrist, Wall Street–driven approach that had characterized it for the past 50 years toward a greater commitment to bigger public investment, the kind that came out of movements for gender and racial equity. “Those Mikes all understand the care economy,” Boushey joked then. “And someday there is going to be another Democratic administration.”

But she wasn’t going to just wait around. Boushey and Pyle (one of those Mikes) began hosting dinners for economists, lawyers, and policy nerds who believed things needed to change. The dinners were held in restaurants in New York and San Francisco; Boushey hosted a couple at her house in D.C. and cooked for the crew. Among those invited were Rohit Chopra, who had helped Elizabeth Warren set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Wally Adeyemo, who had worked at the CFPB; Stef Feldman, a policy aide to Joe Biden; Angela Hanks, then at the Groundwork Collaborative; and Jennifer Harris of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Bharat Ramamurti, an adviser to Warren, and antitrust specialist Lina Khan were also informally involved.

The gatherings intentionally included young people drawn from different corners of the party. Boushey and Pyle wanted those who had been aides and those who had been agitators, and not just the folks who had gone to the elite schools that had produced the men who had historically shaped so much federal economic policy.

During the same years, Boushey was participating in a different set of meetings, quarterly assemblies organized by Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, alongside progressive academics Dorian Warren and Darrick Hamilton, Demos president K. Sabeel Rahman, former Clinton adviser Michael Linden, Facebooker turned antitrust guy Chris Hughes, and Joelle Gamble of the Omidyar Network. The mission of this group was somewhat distinct, less about modification from inside the Establishment and more about “how to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime paradigm shift in economic thinking,” said Wong. Or, as Hamilton, a professor of economics and urban policy at the New School, who would go on to work as an adviser to Bernie Sanders in 2020, put it, “to change the way government uses its power. That involves a willingness to forge new leaders, rather than to change the old.”

Few of the people meeting in these groups were outsiders, exactly; some had already advised presidents. But many had been traumatized by the slow pace of economic recovery after the 2008 financial crisis and the decision to bail out banks while millions of Americans lost homes and jobs. Some were reckoning with their own roles in that recovery and the politics that undergirded it. Jake Sullivan, formerly Clinton’s top policy adviser, wrote a 2018 piece in Democracy Journal arguing that Democrats had “reached another turning point” at which the recession had “laid bare the failure of our government to protect its citizens”; others were coming to the conversations out of movements for economic, racial and gender justice (Occupy, Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, Me Too). The approach they were taking — those looking to push the Establishment from the inside and those wondering how to make a new Establishment — functioned like the professional class’s version of grassroots organizing.

And now, in 2021, a startling number of those people are working in the Biden administration. Boushey serves on the Council of Economic Advisers; the care economy, built around ideas activists like Ai-jen Poo have been talking about for years, and that Boushey described excitedly five years ago, runs through both the American Families Plan and the American Jobs Plan that are being fought over in the Senate. Pyle is chief economist to Vice-President Kamala Harris. Jennifer Harris is director of international economics and labor at the NSC-NEC; Linden and Rahman are at the OMB; Hanks is a counselor to the Labor secretary; Gamble is on the NEC; Adeyemo is deputy secretary of the Treasury; Ramamurti is deputy director of the NEC; Khan is chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Chopra its commissioner and in line to lead the CFPB.

Unlike the young progressive politicians who have infiltrated the Democratic Party via primaries, these economists are working to make change at the behest of the party’s establishment. The president’s hiring at many levels of his administration has been unexpected and diverse, and not just in a Gina Haspel, Girl Torturer way. He has injected new ideological blood, much of it from the lineage of his primary opponent Warren, who has long believed that personnel is policy; Biden brought in these wonks to implement his economic agenda.

Now, the question is whether he can execute theirs. Few expected Biden would be at the helm of the Democratic Party’s biggest left turn since LBJ. (“A lot of us are like, Huh?” said one advocate who works closely with the administration. “I’m closer to it than some people, and I’m still like … Huh.”) But here we are, with a federal-budget proposal representing the highest sustained government spending since World War II being negotiated in the Senate and historic investments in a care economy and climate policy on the table via an imperiled reconciliation bill. It’s stuff that — if any of it works — would be the result of decades of organizing: on the streets, in electoral politics, and in the field of economic policy. If it doesn’t, human beings and the planet will be that much further from getting anything close to what they so desperately need. But success or failure now is also about whether this president will truly take advantage of that once-in-a-lifetime shift in economic thinking to produce lasting change, or just a marginally better version of an old Democratic model.

It is often said that Trump was saying the quiet part loud — about his party’s animating hatreds and eagerness to break democratic systems and about its willingness to run up enormous deficits on behalf of giant tax cuts for corporate America. Among other things, his bravado helped to put the Democrats’ comparative timidity into stark relief. “Now we’re saying the quiet part loud,” said Wong. “For example, that more anti-trust regulation is good for America. Politicians couldn’t imagine even five years ago saying that out loud. The Trump presidency gave people the opportunity to just be frontal about what needs to happen: We need to be paying people more, need to be raising rich people’s taxes, need to be contemplating breaking up Facebook and regulating industries.”

In some ways, the Biden administration is edging toward something Democrats have been scared to do since the rise of Ronald Reagan: showcasing government as a salubrious force in regular people’s lives. Reagan built his regime on racist, sexist tropes about “welfare queens” sucking federal dollars from a white middle class and told Americans that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” For decades, Democrats ceded to those characterizations.

Biden, in contrast, regularly frames the federal government as the force that stemmed mass death and permitted economic survival through the pandemic: shots in arms, checks in bank accounts. He publicly centers equity — that government investment in housing, jobs, climate initiatives, and care work is good because it addresses racial and gender injustice — and gives speeches about employers needing to compete for workers by raising wages. Despite an unwilling Senate, he speaks with conviction about raising taxes on the wealthy, rather than bailing out banks. For the first time since 1993, Biden’s 2022 budget proposal did not include the discriminatory Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal insurance money to pay for abortions.

There is, of course, a chasm between Biden’s words, which are important (“Rhetoric is not something to pooh-pooh,” said Hamilton), and legislative reality. Hyde will almost certainly wind up in the final budget; billions get slashed from infrastructure every time two senators brush against each other in a hallway.

One thing that is real, though, and on its way this month, is the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which won’t be buried in the tax code or in block grants but delivered as monthly $250-to-$300-per-child checks. They will arrive directly from the federal government, and states cannot cut them off, as they have with expanded jobless benefits. Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who first introduced the amendment to improve the CTC in 2003 and watched it stall until now, is fighting to make it permanent. “We haven’t seen anything like it since the New Deal,” she said. Dorian Warren, co-president of the nonprofit Community Change, agreed: “That it’s happening is astounding. And there’s swagger. Like, ‘We’re going to cut child poverty in half.’ It’s very un–Democratic Party!”

Biden’s team insists that he alone is the engine behind his administration’s progressivism, that he has not changed, that he has always been this person. His top economic adviser, Jared Bernstein, pointed to the president’s long commitment to unions, which has been “at the core of the Biden economic model from the beginning of his career,” and suggested that “to some extent, I see both the party and our understanding of how economies work catching up with insights Biden has long held.”

The Biden team’s adherence to the message that he’s steering this ship on his own makes sense. They’re defending against a pernicious cartoon being peddled by Fox News: the president as a doddering puppet controlled by AOC and her squad of woke socialists. That’s an easy-bake racist, sexist narrative, prefabbed and ready to pull out against any Establishment politician who pushes for substantive change.

But it’s hard to cast Joe Biden — who voted for welfare reform, wrote the 1994 crime bill, and mishandled the testimony of Anita Hill — as some renegade fighting his neoliberal party from the inside. For 40 years, Biden was a powerful foot soldier of that party and its politics. As the venerable leftist Frances Fox Piven said to The Nation in May, “If you remember Biden as a senator, this guy was not somebody who was an innovator. He was not somebody on the left … He was kind of a sleazy politician. But he has become a new FDR.”

Boushey offered this appraisal: “He’s had the same ideas about what he’s wanted to do, which is to grow the middle class, from the beginning. He’s been willing to try different tactics and go along with his party to get there. Now, at the pinnacle of his career, it’s like, ‘Okay, now we need to get back to some of the tactics that we used to use that worked, like unions.’ ” Wong put it more simply. “He’s so old,” she said, “that it turns out he’s actually pre-neoliberal.”

Biden came of age politically among vestiges of the New Deal coalition. He — like some of the other septuagenarians who really have been thanklessly agitating for reform over decades, including 78-year-old DeLauro, 79-year-old Sanders, and 74-year-old Barbara Lee — has a lived frame of reference for the fact that Democrats are capable of doing things differently. It’s just that since the 1980s, they’ve chosen not to.

Several of the very qualities that struck many of Biden’s critics as marks against him when he was a candidate have turned out to be key to the surprisingly high estimation of him as a president. Biden’s age — as a progressive asset, rather than a liability — is not the only irony of the symbiosis he has so far enjoyed with the left.

The bet that he, as an older white moderate, a president-shaped president, would have leeway that neither Clinton nor Obama nor Sanders could have has paid off in ways that are depressing and bode ill for a more representative political future; he wastes no capital on being the first Black president, the first woman president, the first Jewish president, or a president understood to be ideologically distinct from the center-meh. And yet, whatever quality drove him to make a third run for the presidency likely also drives him to want to stand out — to leave a mark. “This is his last shot at doing something that generations will remember him for,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal.

The overlapping crises of the past year and a half have offered a path: Recent analysis of Census Bureau data showed that the last round of $1,400 stimulus checks immediately preceded declines in food shortages, financial instability, and depression, felt most deeply by the poorest recipients and households with children.

“There’s a reason people keep going back to FDR,” said Wong, noting how many still tell her that Roosevelt gave their grand-father a job. “You can be the hero of your own story if you build things that are very direct. Presidents want to be heroes. The good ones want to be heroes for the right reason, and that heroism has been made very available to Biden: You could create a new economy that is going to be more green and less racist. Wow, that is appealing.”

Wong remembered listening to him on an episode of Pod Save America before the election, on which he talked about electric cars and solar energy: “You hear the enthusiasm in his voice, ‘The batteries are as big as my arm!’ This was very visceral for him.” As a candidate, Biden cut an ad in which he vroomed around in his 1967 Corvette talking about electric cars and lovingly of his car-dealer father: “God, could my dad drive a car. Oof.” This spring, the president drove a Ford electric truck; it was a path to merging the (still very much unrealized) climate-change priorities of a new generation with a performance of machismo redolent of the last. “I’m a car guy,” he said.

One of Biden’s most salient qualities — perhaps what Piven meant when she referred to his “sleazy politician” vibe and others describe as his undeniable aptitude for retail politics — gives him another advantage. Joe Biden is good at being a politician. When ideological shifts are precipitous, said Claudia Sahm, an economist who served on the Council of Economic Advisors under Obama, “some people get very torn because they’re not fighting just an older generation; they’re fighting their past selves. But if you’re political enough, you just roll with it and pretend no one noticed. I don’t get a lot of sense from Biden that he’s feeling bad.”

And he shouldn’t feel bad! Over the years, he has changed his mind on gay marriage and abortion, acknowledged that the drug laws he wrote wreaked havoc on families. “We actually do want politicians to be responsive, at least to our side,” said Dorian Warren. “Politicians are supposed to constantly put their finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. It’s our job to shift the wind.”

One of the ways the wind has changed in recent years is that it’s not always blowing from the top. Joe Biden is the president because of organizing that originated not with his party but with voters and activists long ignored by Democrats. He seems to have learned from that. “To see that Black women and Indigenous people and poor people and Latinos and Asians delivered states that he never thought he could win,” said Jayapal, “He has turned out to be somebody who learned things that probably would contradict things he did in his past.”

Some of what he’s learned has surely helped guide his hiring. That he has brought in so many young people, and in some cases put them in positions of authority, matters: He is seeding the next 40 years of government. Biden not only nominated 32-year-old Khan, a leading advocate of antitrust enforcement of tech monopolies and a vociferous foe of Amazon, to the FTC; in a genuinely hard-core move, on the day she was confirmed, he made her the chair. Khan and the many regulatory enthusiasts she is bringing with her are what Biden wanted. He wasn’t just checking a box; he was building a bench.

“I think we’re watching a sea change,” said Sahm, but that’s precisely the challenge facing Biden and Democrats: governing through ideological shifts, making and passing policy rooted in ideas that remain suspect to many of the most powerful in D.C., executing that legislation competently and then advertising that they did it.

It’s a lot. And the Democrats who have been at the wheel on Capitol Hill for 40 years have zero practice shepherding the kinds of big solutions that originate in activist circles. In the ’70s, the last time Democrats were vigorously aligned with labor, civil-rights, and women’s movements, when confronted with Reagan’s union-busting, racist, sexist backlash, they folded. When Biden himself, initially a supporter of busing designed to integrate schools, was confronted with objections from white constituents in Delaware, he folded.

He surely does not want to fold now; his recent gaffe — in which he went off script, indicating to reporters that he would not sign the bipartisan infrastructure deal if the American Families Plan wasn’t also passed through reconciliation, a comment he has since walked back — was an indication that he is very into these ideas. He knows they will help people and that, if enacted, would cement a remarkable legacy. But loving the ideas is clearly not the same as successfully steering them through. “You need to be able to craft ground-shifting legislation,” said Jess Morales Rocketto of Care in Action, “but then you need Hill leaders who know how to get behind it. The people who are going to be out there defending these bills just don’t know yet all the ways the right is going to try to fuck us.”

In winning the White House in this moment, Biden signed up for a big job, and it remains unclear whether he’s up to it. Can he capably oversee a transition into a new era of progressive economic policy, one that many in his administration have been working toward for more than a decade? Or maybe the pressure to make Biden the Reagan of the left is misplaced. As Dorian Warren hypothesized to me, if we are indeed “in the midst of the crumbling of the old neoliberal-conservative order, it’s possible that the stage we’re in now is an interregnum of some kind.”

Sahm posits that the only way forward is the natural ascension of the next generation. “This has to go in stages,” she said. “You have to have people like Heather and Jared who can get close enough to the Establishment to be that transition. Then you have people like Lina Khan. Generational transitions take time. Some days I’m like, Burn it all down, but in general, progress is slow and painful.”

The terror is in how little time there actually is. Americans need help, now. DeLauro told me a story about stopping Vice-President Kamala Harris before she got on a plane recently, to nudge her about making the Child Tax Credit permanent. A colleague laughingly advised her to give the vice-president a break, but DeLauro said, “There is no break. We don’t have time. We do not have time.”

We do not have time. One senior member of the administration described what keeps them up at night: “This is an economic policy strategy that hasn’t been undertaken in 40 years, being undertaken in a moment that is unprecedented.” Getting that transition right, they said, “is so important.”

And there is so much — from Senate obstruction to supply-chain blockages to the logistical challenges of implementing new ideas — that could go wrong. Screwups would harm millions of Americans, the planet, and Joe Biden’s legacy. But they could also halt a crucial and overdue turn of the Democratic Party away from its compromised past and toward a more humane future. “This is an extraordinary moment,” the official said. “It couldn’t be higher stakes. But if something goes wrong, we’re going to discredit everything many of us have been working toward.”

Biden’s Big Left Gamble