Joe Biden won by promising less. Vocal factions in the Democratic Party and beyond saw Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat as evidence that Americans were hungry for something bold and transformative from the left. But the former vice-president made a more modest bet in 2020: that people mostly wanted Donald Trump’s presidency to be over and a more competent response to the pandemic.
It paid off. And to the surprise of many voters and activists who had lowered their expectations, the president has shown flashes of bold vision in office, signing a big stimulus package praised by Bernie Sanders himself as “the single most significant piece of legislation for working-class people that has been passed since the 1960s.” The decline in poverty rates that his American Rescue Plan has helped accelerate — across racial groups but for Black people especially — may be temporary but indicates the profound impact his agenda can have at its best. Biden and his party are also on the cusp of passing a $3.5 trillion omnibus package that would flush an unusually large amount of resources toward expanding access to health care and education and fighting climate change.
Yet this wave of legislation is still tethered to Biden’s original proposition: Pushing for less than what America’s crises demand is the price that has to be paid for victory and hence any chance at progress at all. So instead of universal health care, tinkering with the Affordable Care Act so more people have coverage. Instead of a Green New Deal, a commitment to reducing carbon emissions by half within a decade, which experts say is insufficient.
This pattern has also played out on the issue Biden has imbued with the most moral urgency: racial inequality. He launched his candidacy with a video lamenting the lethal racism on display in Charlottesville in 2017. He has committed to rooting out racial disparities in the prison system. And he’s made fiery remarks about how racially targeted Republican attacks on voting rights are a “21st-century Jim Crow assault,” and “the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history.” These are fairly basic goals and observations. But in practice, for reasons both within his control and largely outside it, Biden’s ambitions in this area have ground to a standstill.
As with many other problems, he’s really not demanding a lot. Ensuring that Black people have equal, fair access to the vote and do not compose a disproportionate slice of the world’s biggest imprisoned population should be baseline requirements of a just society. That his administration has struggled to meaningfully address these issues suggests a ruling party that’s not up to the task, despite its very deliberate self-branding to the contrary.
A big reason Biden is stalled, of course, is that Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema don’t support a change to filibuster rules, effectively precluding new voting laws that don’t have Republican support. As a result, the entire Democratic federal voting-rights agenda, as expressed in the John Lewis Voting Rights and For the People acts, is on hold barring a change of heart from Republicans, or from Manchin and Sinema regarding the filibuster — both rather unlikely prospects. Biden’s own reticence toward filibuster reform, let alone abolition, and the enduring and risible belief shared by him and others in his party that the GOP can be good-faith partners on legislation to defend the ballot point to an unavoidable conclusion: Some of the biggest barriers to progress on racial justice are of the Democrats’ own making.
Biden bears more individual responsibility on incarceration. He could end mass imprisonment on the federal level today with the stroke of a pen by using clemency. He has signaled to advocates that he wants to use this power generously and soon. “We asked them not to wait to the end of a term to execute pardon and commutation power for photo ops, and they definitely assured us that is not this administration’s plan,” DeAnna Hoskins, the president of the criminal-justice organization JustLeadershipUSA, told the New York Times in May. This would distinguish him from most of his predecessors, who have overseen a downward trend in pardons and commutations since the 1970s; it would also advance his racial-justice agenda. Black people are almost 40 percent of the federal-prison population.
But not only has Biden failed to do this so far; he’s declined to commute the sentences of people who have technically been released. Under President Trump, thousands of prisoners were screened and selected for home confinement to reduce the risk of COVID outbreaks. It was up to whomever was in the White House once the pandemic emergency period was over to decide whether they could stay home or return to lockup. Biden has chosen to send 4,000 back.
It’s worth underscoring that Biden’s racial-justice goals are modest to begin with. The federal-prison population is less than one-tenth of the national incarcerated population, meaning he could free all federal prisoners and still be looking at a staggering number of people in cages. Protecting the vote and reducing the number of incarcerated Black people are in fact concessions to concerned citizens who were told that holding out for more wasn’t politically feasible.
That these goals now seem out of reach creates a credibility problem for Biden. Democrats, especially the moderate wing that triumphed in the Trump era, have found electoral success defining themselves in opposition to the GOP: They’re the party of progress and pragmatism, while the Republicans are racist extremists. In this framework is an implicit rebuke to the so-called social-justice left. More radical proposals — abolishing the police and prisons, debt amnesty — are not just undesirable, in their view, but politically toxic, as unlikely to win them elections as to earn broad support in Congress.
But they’ve yet to prove their own thesis: that demanding less yields more. The people who rose to power on the notion that they could actually get things done have been just as stymied as they said challengers from their left would be. In some cases, they’ve punted responsibility back to the people who elected them. The Biden administration is now proposing that, in lieu of voting-rights protections implemented through Congress, Republican-orchestrated voter suppression and partisan gerrymanders could be “out-organized.”
If things continue apace, Biden will be the second Democratic president in a row to fall short on the civil-rights front — on what Biden has said is a project to “restore the soul of America.” Barack Obama also pitched a more conciliatory racial politics. He too was thwarted by reality and his own blinkered view of conservative obstinacy. The implications are dire. Black citizenship rights, in particular, are being negotiated in no uncertain terms. The party that’s nominally most committed to safeguarding them is tying its own hands. We’re left with a dilemma as old as the very notion of race in America: The holdup is rarely how justice is being called for but that it’s being called for at all.
This article has been updated to clarify Sinema and Manchin’s position on the voting rights bills Democrats have proposed.