Washington in the first days of the Biden administration is a place for double takes: A president associated with the politics of austerity is spending money with focused gusto, a crisis isn’t going to waste, and Senator Bernie Sanders is happy.
People like to tell you they saw things coming. But as I talked to many of the campers in Joe Biden’s big tent, particularly those who, like me, were skeptical of Biden, I found that the overwhelming sentiment was surprise. Few of us expected that this president—given his record, a knife’s-edge Congress, and a crisis that makes it hard to look an inch beyond one’s nose—would begin to be talked about as, potentially, transformational.
Biden, after all, was a conservative Democrat who has exuded personal decency more than he has pushed for structural decency. One conservative publication labeled him “the senator from MBNA” for his friendliness to credit-card companies. He conducted the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings in a way that hurt Hill, for which he later expressed regret. He voted for the Iraq War and eulogized the segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. He began his 2020 campaign telling wealthy donors that, in his vision, “nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”
But then Biden sold the country on a massive rescue package that his erstwhile rival Sanders has called “the single most significant piece of legislation for working-class people that has been passed since the 1960s.” He quickly followed that with an infrastructure proposal that includes everything from roads to a strengthened safety net for caregivers, and focuses on redressing the harms of climate change and the racist urban planning of the past. Biden plans to finance it partially through a tax increase on the corporations he was once better known for protecting. There have been a slew of executive orders, many of real import, as well as gestures like standing up for Amazon workers seeking to unionize.
The conversations I’ve had in recent weeks have painted a portrait of an improbable coming-together of people and forces: a moderate president, with an ascendant progressive movement at his back and at his throat, facing a once-in-a-generation window of opportunity. It’s still early. It remains to be seen if this momentum will continue, if the infrastructure plan musters the votes, if the ungainly Sanders-to-Manchin coalition holds. But for now, a capital that has been defined in recent years by the absence of useful action bubbles with generative possibility. And many of us who thought we knew what a Biden presidency would look like, and didn’t expect much from it, are suddenly asking ourselves: How did we get him so wrong? [Continue reading…]