It’s like we’ve divided the country into pieces. How can we be one America if we continue down this road?
—Joe Biden on reaching across the aisle, January 2019.
It was only three months after the Democratic Party’s 2010 electoral “shellacking” when Vice President Joe Biden found himself in Kentucky keynoting a conference about the US Senate. There were few people better qualified to talk on the subject: Biden had spent virtually his entire adult life in the body and was one of the most outspoken proponents of its culture of chummy dealmaking. Topics ranged from its foundations and evolution to the influence of antebellum political giant Henry Clay, “The Great Compromiser” who had staved off civil war through a series of famed bargains that also had the effect of extending the life of slavery.
Biden was on enemy territory. He was speaking at the behest of the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, which, like the Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on whose third floor he prepared to deliver his remarks, drew its name from the source of its corporate funding: Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s longest-serving senator, who had ascended to the Senate Republican leadership over a twenty-six-year-long career founded on his unparalleled ability to raise money from powerful interests. McConnell, who would be speaking alongside Biden, was also the chief architect of the “shellacking” Biden’s party and administration had just received.
Only two years earlier, with another charismatic figure as their nominee and popular rage against the Bush administration further inflamed by the worst financial crash since the 1930s, the Democrats had swept to a level of domination in Washington not seen for thirty years, fueling talk of the GOP as a “permanent minority” party. Behind closed doors, Republican leaders plotted to reverse each Democratic gain by 2012 through an aggressive united front of opposition to each and every move the new administration made.
Admitting that his single-biggest priority was making Biden’s boss a “one-term president,” McConnell spent the next two years leading a historic campaign of obstruction in the Senate against the Obama agenda. This meant rejecting the hallowed Washington tenets of compromise and bipartisanship, forcing the Democrats to cobble together sixty-vote, party-line majorities for every measure, and using his knowledge of Senate procedure to slow legislation down. In the process, McConnell whittled down the administration’s economic stimulus proposal to, after accounting for inflation, the smallest such measure in thirty years. And he blocked further measures to boost jobs and the economy that Republicans had once advocated, sabotaging economic recovery. The coup de grâce was a December 2010 deal McConnell had personally struck with Biden to howls of outrage from Democrats, trading thirteen more months of unemployment insurance at a time of nearly double-digit joblessness for a host of more permanent giveaways to the wealthy.
Biden’s fifty-minute speech the following February painted things differently, however. As McConnell looked on, Biden warmly paid tribute to the man who had devoted the last two years to smothering his administration’s agenda. He stressed his oft-repeated refrain that you couldn’t question someone’s motives in politics, only their judgment. He pointed to their deal as “the only truly bipartisan event that occurred in the first two years of our administration,” proof that “the process worked.” And he reminded the audience about the essential unity of those who ran the government: whether they were liberal or conservative, Tea Party or Blue Dog, “they all ran for office because they love their country.”
“We basically all agree on the nature of the problems we face,” he concluded.
Biden’s comments were dubious by the standards of anyone who had lived through the preceding two years. For someone who had served in Congress through the tumultuous Clinton and Bush years, they were delusional. While Republicans responded to their electoral collapse two years earlier with a ruthless determination to defeat their opponents, take back power, and halt the leftward swing in political momentum that was expected to follow the election, Democrats seemed wedded to a hokey faith in the political values of a bygone era with a different Republican Party. It wasn’t that they were playing two entirely different ball games; Biden and Democrats like him didn’t even seem to know a game was being played.
Biden’s continued faith in principles that his adversaries had long abandoned and his willingness to give it all away at the negotiating table made him the go-to contact for every one of McConnell’s future fiscal hostage scenarios. The inability of Biden and the administration to effectively push back would mean disaster, first in working Americans’ pocketbooks and then at the ballot box.
The Throwback Candidate
Despite giving himself an early start two-and-a-half years before the first primary, Biden knew winning in 2008 would be tough. He would almost certainly be running against Sen. Hillary Clinton, considered a lock for the nomination on the back of her fundraising prowess and influence within the party from her time as First Lady. And in many ways, he was a man out of time. “I may not be what the party’s looking for,” he said. “I may be too ‘muscular’ on foreign policy. I may not be ‘pure’ enough about abortion rights. I may not have been ‘energetic’ enough about gay marriage.”
That socially conservative streak he alluded to was now an especially big liability. Once upon a time, Biden’s “nuanced” position on abortion rights — drawn at least partly from his Catholic upbringing — had marked him as a frustrating but fascinating renegade among Democrats. Telling a reporter in 1974 that he disliked the Roe v. Wade decision because “I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body,” he eventually settled on what he called “the only consistent position intellectually, which is that if you say government should be out, then government should be out.”
With this as his guiding light, Biden cast a decade’s worth of votes that turned into political boomerangs. Though opposing a 1974 constitutional amendment banning abortions — he didn’t have the right to force his beliefs on others, he explained — he backed measures barring federal money from being used “directly or indirectly to pay for or encourage” abortions, prohibiting poor women from using Medicaid to pay for the procedure, and forbidding federal workers from using their government health benefits to obtain one, something he voted for five times before it finally became law.
Some measures had long-lasting legacies. Biden’s support for the 1976 Hyde Amendment secured a landmark anti-abortion triumph by barring federal funding of abortions, becoming so entrenched in subsequent years that abortion rights campaigners simply gave up on repealing it. His 1981 proposal to bar US aid from going to biomedical research related to abortion remains on the books to this day. Meanwhile, the Reagan-era “Mexico City policy” that Biden supported, also known as the “global gag rule” for its stringent blackballing of NGOs that so much as counseled women on abortions, would be in place for nineteen of the next thirty-four years, rescinded by Democratic presidents and reinstated and toughened by Republican ones in a perpetual loop.
Though striving for a middle-of-the-road position, Biden backed some extreme measures. He helped defeat a 1977 amendment to remove all restrictions on federal funding of abortions and voted instead for what the Philadelphia Inquirer called “the toughest ever anti-abortion measure,” one that extended that ban to even cases of incest and rape. He voted repeatedly to ban funding simply for abortion research and training. In what he called “the single most difficult vote I’ve ever cast as a US senator,” he defied his own guiding philosophy and became one of two Democrats to send out of committee the Hatch amendment, which would have overturned Roe v. Wade by letting either states or Congress decide the question of abortion — whichever was “more restrictive.”
Unlike his appeasement of anti-busing groups, Biden weathered intense pressure from reproductive rights campaigners for taking such positions. Assuring constituents he had voted “more than twenty times” against abortion spending bills, he defied furious local representatives of groups like Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women (NOW), the ACLU, and even his own state’s task force on human reproduction, who demanded that he protect abortion rights. By the late 1980s, Biden had succeeded in angering everyone: both anti-abortion groups that vowed to defeat someone they saw as a turncoat and pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood that complained he “usually votes against us,” with both sides accusing him of playing politics.
These relationships were only further strained by Biden’s role in the battle over Reagan and Bush Sr’s Supreme Court nominees. Deemed an “anti-choice” lawmaker in 1987 by the liberal feminists of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Biden became a lightning rod for abortion-related blame, with abortion opponents complaining he was too harsh to the Republican nominees and supporters more accurately grousing that he wasn’t tough enough. Biden’s failure to successfully challenge the nominees — particularly egregious in the case of Clarence Thomas and all the more so in the case of Anthony Kennedy — meant both justices would form part of the slim right-wing majorities delivering key anti-abortion rulings in the decades ahead. In the case of Kennedy, the opinion he coauthored in a 1992 case then celebrated for upholding Roe actually weakened it, opening the floodgates to an assortment of crafty state laws that didn’t explicitly outlaw abortion but made it all but impossible.
Thus by the 2000s, Biden seemed an awkward fit in a Democratic Party that had become markedly more liberal on social issues, even as it clung to the economically conservative philosophy it embraced under Reagan. Though Biden too had become more liberal on the issue, whatever political benefit he might have gained from this was undone in 2003, when, after voting repeatedly over the preceding eight years for a ban on so-called “partial-birth” abortions, he cast a vote that helped make the measure law under Bush Jr. When the Supreme Court controversially upheld the law in 2007 — a ruling celebrated by abortion foes as the “crack in the dike” that would eventually overturn Roe — Biden was not only the very last Democratic presidential candidate to issue a statement condemning it, doing so only at the prodding of his hometown paper, but he then told Democratic voters he made “no apologies” for his 2003 vote.
As in 1987, bold, ambitious proposals would not be Biden’s selling point for his latest White House run. While North Carolina senator John Edwards centered lifting 37 million Americans out of poverty, Biden centered restoring America’s place in the world and — what else? — its middle class, with a platform that called for bringing troops home, repealing Bush’s tax cuts, and ending oil subsidies. As his rivals floated (with some nudging from unions) single-payer health care or even just a public health insurance program to compete with industry, Biden proposed a grab bag of laudatory but inadequate half-measures, the cornerstone of which was a government reinsurance pool to cover “catastrophic” health care costs over $50,000, which he bafflingly pitched on the stump by stressing the hardship of business owners with sick employees.
Some of Biden’s measures were comically feeble. His affordable education plan covered half the tuition of a public four-year college and did so through every government-allergic neoliberal’s favorite bureaucratic instrument: tax credits. Deploring that “average Americans are really getting hung out to dry,” he proposed as one solution a special savings account for kids that the government would kick-start with a $500 contribution — which the students would have to pay back upon turning thirty. Meanwhile, Biden returned to the tough-on-crime well, proposing a law-enforcement hiring spree meant to build on his 1994 legislation — even though violent crime had nearly halved since 1990.
If his ideas fell short of the challenges at hand, it’s because Biden believed the biggest issue on voters’ minds was “security for their families, physical security,” and the ongoing Iraq War. But Biden’s attempt to cast himself as the safest pair of hands on foreign policy was plagued by the same vulnerability that hampered almost all of his rivals: his vote for said war.
It was this more than anything — more so even than his charisma and electrifying speeches — that provided a wide-open lane for a young, first-term African American senator from Illinois named Barack Obama to ascend past Biden and the rest of the field and quickly establish himself as a front-runner. While Biden had led the march to war, Obama was on the record opposing it in a 2002 speech. By April 2007, in a poll asking the members of the progressive grassroots group MoveOn.org which candidate would best lead the country out of Iraq, Biden ended up second to last, with Obama, advocating a much speedier withdrawal, coming in first.
Not helping were Biden’s frequent “gaffes.” Whether it was saying that “you cannot go into a Dunkin’ Donuts or 7-Eleven unless you have a slight Indian accent,” describing Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean,” or repeatedly invoking Delaware’s history as a “slave state” to make the case for his appeal to Southern voters — Delaware had only fought for the Union “because we couldn’t figure out how to get to the South,” he told one mostly Republican audience — it seemed like Biden couldn’t say anything without drawing a hail of justified criticism. What had passed for straight-shooting and candor in an America and a Democratic Party twenty years younger and far less diverse now came off as offensive, out of touch, and old-fashioned.
With his number-one selling point neutralized, a lack of ambitious proposals dealing with Americans’ pressing material concerns, and no 1987-style youth appeal to paper over his deficiencies, Biden fell far behind Obama, Clinton, and several others in both fundraising and polling, even running second in his own state. Decrying the contest’s money chase as “obscene,” Biden desperately scrounged for lawyer and lobbyist cash to fill up his comparatively empty campaign coffers, having already missed one key debate on LGBTQ issues due to not being able to afford a private plane. He bet it all on a good showing in the first two contests, insisting to the press in the home stretch that his rivals’ support was soft and an upset was on the horizon.
It was not to be. Despite a long list of endorsements, growing crowds, and swelling donations at the eleventh hour, Biden managed only 0.9 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, placing fifth. Announcing the end of his campaign, a dejected Biden stood on stage with his tearful family and told the crowd, “I ain’t going away.” He had no idea how right he was.
Mr Vice President
There’s still no straight story of why exactly Obama chose Biden to be his vice president. It was “about adding foreign-policy credentials to the ticket,” said one Obamian; they needed someone to “go out and hammer that middle-class message”; he and Obama shared a chemistry missing with the other candidates; his age would preclude any future presidential ambitions and make for an easier relationship; Obama, fearing a backlash among white voters in the Rust Belt and Appalachia, wanted racial balance. Perhaps it was some mix of all five. “You are the pick of my heart, but Joe is the pick of my head,” Obama told one runner-up.
For Biden, unwilling to take a job he saw as “stand-by equipment,” the calculus was much simpler. While he didn’t want the “quasi-executive” role of Bush’s vice president, he did want to be Obama’s closest adviser, the proverbial “last person in the room” for any decision the future president made. The two struck a deal, and on August 23, Obama introduced his running mate to the world at a rally in the Illinois capital of Springfield.
Besides his chumminess with Wall Street and other industries, picking Biden should have been the first sign the Democratic nominee’s progressive bona fides weren’t quite as robust as he made them seem. But few knew Biden’s history, and what little they did know — his tough-on-crime history, his foreign policy record — the press viewed as strengths, floating only his “gaffes” and campaign-era criticism of Obama as potential problems.
Obama’s charisma, apparent progressivism, inspiring calls for “change,” and the historic nature of his candidacy brought the long-dormant Democratic base to the polls, facing down one of the more racist Republican campaigns in modern memory, with its insinuations that Obama was a terrorist. Though total turnout remained unchanged from 2004, and Obama lost ground among older and Southern white voters, turnout among young voters, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians surged, handily giving Obama the edge in both the popular vote and Electoral College. This same coalition, coupled with disgruntled voters fed up with eight years of GOP rule, strengthened the Democrats’ control of Congress.
As president, much of Obama’s job involved cleaning up messes that Biden had helped create. Most pressing was the 2008 financial crash. As Sen. Byron Dorgan had predicted a decade before, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which Biden and virtually every other Democrat had voted for in 1999, while not the main cause of another Wall Street crash — that had been the product of predatory lending by the mortgage industry — nevertheless made the resulting crisis much more severe. Between 2007 and 2011, a quarter of American families lost at least 75 percent of their wealth; black families were hit particularly hard.
Besides this, the list of tasks facing the administration was daunting. It had to stabilize the economy, prevent another crash from happening, deal with a festering health care crisis, extricate the United States from a set of disastrous wars, come to the rescue of underwater homeowners and otherwise struggling Americans, and fix an unjust and Kafkaesque immigration system, all while making as much progress on preventing a looming catastrophe in the form of climate change. It was a tall order.
Yet despite an unprecedentedly pitiless campaign of right-wing opposition waged on the streets, over the air waves, and in the halls of power, the administration held the cards it needed. Obama, and by extension the Democrats who rode into Congress on his coattails, had been elected with an overwhelming public mandate. He stood at the head of a massive volunteer army ready to fight for his agenda. He and his party controlled not just the presidency but both houses of Congress; within six months, they would have a filibuster-proof supermajority, albeit a flimsy one, in the Senate. And as details about the greed and criminality of those who had wrecked the world economy trickled out, a bipartisan anger burned across the country.
So what happened?
Though Biden would have no compunction in later claiming Obama’s achievements as his own, he didn’t deserve the blame for every one of the administration’s failures any more than he did its successes. It was Obama’s presidency, and it was he who demobilized his volunteer army, who failed to prosecute Wall Street and capitalize on public anger at its greed, who went back on his pledge to end the wars and took Bush’s “war on terror” to new extremes, who declined to apply pressure to Democrats holding up his agenda, and who shied away from taking more radical steps to deal with an epochal crisis for fear of being labeled a “socialist,” something he had already been called incessantly long before winning an election.
But despite an initially rocky start to their relationship, Biden’s status as “counselor in chief” meant he was deeply involved at the administration’s core. “Every single solitary appointment he has made thus far, I’ve been in the room,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in December 2008. “And the recommendations I have made in most cases coincidentally have been the recommendations that he’s picked. Not because I made them but because we think a lot alike.”
Taking Biden at his word, that means he had independently settled or signed off on the appointment of right-wing chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s first appointment after Biden), Clintonite transition head John Podesta (who proceeded to staff the administration with neoliberals), tax-evading Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (the architect of the bank-friendly bailouts and foreclosure program, which did nothing to help foreclosure victims), and neoliberal economist Larry Summers (“he’s the smartest son of a bitch,” Biden said). This isn’t to mention the staffing of the National Economic Council, the White House’s economic policy-making arm, with what one journalist called “a team of Rubins” — referring to Clinton treasury secretary and Citigroup executive Robert Rubin, the same one who had engineered the repeal of Glass-Steagall and who now had a direct influence on the administration through protégés like Geithner, who in return had engineered the bailout of Rubin’s bank.
As Reed Hundt, a longtime Democratic insider who served on both Clinton and Obama’s transition teams, later wrote, these appointments all but guaranteed the administration’s economic failures. Each of these appointees systematically worked to shave down what progressive ambitions Obama had and limit his range of options — for example, by ruling out allowing bankruptcy judges to shrink homeowners’ mortgages. During one transition meeting, Biden piped up to tell this lopsided team that bailing out one side over another would be a mistake and that economic policy mustn’t pit Wall Street against “Main Street” — as if both of those hadn’t already happened, in Wall Street’s favor.
When the administration did throw a lifeline to “Main Street,” it defined that term rather uniquely. Obama sought to placate his conservative critics by redirecting some of the 2008 bailout money not to underwater homeowners or debt-ridden workers but into loans for small businesses, which had already been lavished with tax breaks. “It’s high time we help Main Street,” Biden said about the measure, arguing that because small businesses were “the engine of employment,” funding them was the Main Street equivalent of the bank bailouts.
At $30 billion, this supposed Main Street bailout was nowhere near the scale of the one that banks had gotten. Worse, a public struggling under the load of several different burdens — and already enraged and confused that they were paying to save the story’s villains, who then used that money to shower their executives with big salaries and bonuses before bouncing back to record profits within a few years — watched as their money once more went to help anyone but them. Adding insult to injury, after two years, only $4 billion of that “Main Street” lifeline had been spent, and 80 percent of that was used by the community banks who received it to pay off whatever bailout money they still owed the government.
Meanwhile, on what would become Obama’s signature accomplishment — health care reform — Biden served as conservatizing force. Obama had already cut a backroom deal trading away the public option for support from the hospital industry, opting instead for a Republican-inspired health care plan he hoped would get bipartisan support. Though Biden loyally whipped Democratic votes for the bill and unsuccessfully wooed Republican “moderates” who signaled they might support such a version, Biden had urged Obama to abandon ship once it stalled in August 2009. Biden feared that, like Clinton’s doomed health care reform effort that he had been similarly unenthusiastic about, its failure would hobble the administration.
Once signed into law —“a big fucking deal,” as Biden memorably told Obama on a hot mic — Biden had another objection: rules issued by the Health and Human Services secretary in 2011 mandating that even church-affiliated institutions like hospitals provide free contraception for women, which angered Catholic groups. The conflict pitted Biden and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops against a group of Obama’s mostly women advisers, Planned Parenthood, and a host of outraged Democrats.
Though Biden lost, the episode revealed one important distinction between his and the president’s otherwise similar worldviews. Besides the fundamental moral question of securing a basic health care need for half the population, Obama and his advisers were taking care of a core constituency that had brought them victory in 2008. But Biden reportedly thought the rest of the administration was too focused on that coalition of women, African Americans, and Latinos; he saw himself as looking after the old New Deal coalition of blue-collar workers, senior citizens, and Catholics — apparently forgetting that African Americans had been an important part of that coalition or that women made up a growing share of the modern blue-collar workforce.
One place Biden did prove simpatico with the rest of the White House was on government spending. As one of his first official tasks as vice president, Obama made Biden caretaker of the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus that had just barely cleared the Senate in February 2009. Having spent the previous three decades as the Senate Democrats’ resident spendthrift, Biden took the role “extremely seriously,” an adviser said, tirelessly working to deter fraud and root out “waste” — a category that turned out to include any useful job-creating project that simply sounded like it might inspire right-wing criticism. The stimulus had come in for a lot of criticism already in part because Biden needlessly assured the press that “some of this money is going to be wasted” and “some people are being scammed already.” To show what would happen to recipients of stimulus funds who failed to file the necessary reports, Biden’s team chose to make an example of a nonprofit that provided food to hungry children, denying it any further funds as punishment.
Biden’s work was such a success that it earned him the nickname “Sheriff” from Obama — and his appointment to its sequel: the Campaign to Cut Waste, launched two years later to “hunt down misspent tax dollars in every agency and department of this government,” in Obama’s words. In its first year alone, while the United States was estimated to be losing $337 billion a year from tax evasion, Obama touted the program’s savings of $17.6 billion.
Before the transition even got going, Obama tasked Biden with “honchoing” a task force focused on arresting working Americans’ declining standard of living. Originally named the White House Task Force on Working Families, with Biden at the helm, the body at some point became the White House Task Force on the Middle Class.
With this narrowed objective, in 2010, Biden’s task force presented a grab bag of options “to make sure the middle class emerges from this recession able to grow stronger and more secure.” Defining middle-class families not by income (Obama had absurdly defined them as earning under $250,000 a year) but more as a state of mind (“defined by their aspirations,” which include taking vacations, owning a home and car, and getting their kids a college education), the task force’s proposals ran the gamut from expanded tax credits to a student loan overhaul that became law a month later.
Another option was passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), also known as “card check,” with the task force report accurately noting that the decline of union power had fueled the stagnation of Americans’ wages. Card check would allow workers to unionize the way they do in much of the world — by getting a majority of workers to sign authorization cards instead of holding a vote. Obama had made this a key election promise as he campaigned in union-strong swing states, and unions had showered him with money and foot soldiers in return. Upon taking office, Obama dispatched Biden to assure nervous labor audiences that the bill, opposed by business groups to the tune of millions of dollars, would pass in the first year. “If a union is what you want, then a union is what you should get,” Biden told labor leaders.
Had card check passed, it could have given flagging union membership a shot in the arm, with reverberating impacts beyond that: besides securing higher wages and better benefits for their members, strong unions had been historically key to progressive triumphs like the Civil Rights Movement. And in theory, Biden was exactly the person to make it happen. Besides his history with unions, Biden’s ability to work with Republicans and skill at leveraging his Senate relationships to get things passed had been a key selling point for Obama.
At first, Biden seemed like he was working this patented magic, successfully cajoling centrist Republican senator Arlen Specter to switch parties by April. But Specter made clear that swapping the letter in front of his state didn’t mean he was dropping his opposition to card check, and he wavered only when the AFL-CIO pledged to back his reelection in 2010. Meanwhile, a handful of Democratic senators in red states began folding under an onslaught of corporate lobbying, which had recruited figures connected to the White House personnel who Biden had signed off on, such as John Podesta’s sister-in-law and brother. Biden had even gone down to Arkansas to campaign for one of the Democrats switching sides on card check: Blanche Lincoln. Biden helped Lincoln double her fundraising for reelection the following year, only for her to rebuff the administration on EFCA.
By July 2009, Democrats had negotiated away the card check provision from the bill, and they then failed to pass even what remained. Obama, meanwhile, had long ceased talking about unions whatsoever in public, let alone card check, though he sent Biden to periodically assuage labor’s concerns. Not understanding its potential importance to his own agenda, the president was loath to spend precious political capital on something he didn’t consider a priority. By the time the bill turned up in Biden’s Task Force on the Middle Class report the next year, it was already dead and buried.
Less than two years in, Obama could claim several major achievements, including a stimulus that saved the economy from further collapse, health care reform that had eluded generations of presidents, and a regulatory overhaul of Wall Street. But the social reforms many liberal voters had expected didn’t materialize, and his choice of economic advisers, his less-than-aggressive pursuit of Wall Street criminality and economic security, plus the built-in delay in the impact of the measures he did achieve made economic recovery anemic to nonexistent for many Americans.
Biden had little sympathy. As he told one gathering in September 2010, he wanted to “remind our base constituency to stop whining.” If they “didn’t get everything they wanted, it’s time to just buck up here,” not “yield the playing field to those folks who are against everything we stand for.”
This was hardly “Yes we can.” In November, Republicans roared back to retake the House, besting their historic 1994 result. Only one month earlier, Biden had delivered to Obama an audit showing that his oversight of the stimulus, while doling out money more slowly and cautiously, had produced almost no waste or fraud, a top priority for the duo that appeared to matter little to actual voters. It was a symbol of the administration’s conservative, misplaced priorities. The Democrats’ brief window of power slammed shut and stayed that way for the rest of Obama’s presidency.
Surrender in Kentucky
Nearly two years in, neither Biden’s bipartisan appeal nor his experience at Senate dealmaking had succeeded in winning over any Republican support for Obama’s deliberately centrist agenda. The belief that it would had always been based on a misunderstanding of history and Biden’s record.
The major legislative accomplishments that Biden had racked up in prior decades had succeeded because they had been in the pursuit of Republican goals. Now, when the GOP didn’t want to play ball — when they even blocked conservative restraints on spending that they had historically favored just to deny their opposition any kind of win — Biden’s inside-game strategy could only work when the Republicans thought they could advance their agenda.
Democratic insiders like Podesta maintained that to “get anything done in a partisan divide, and a divided Senate,” Biden would be a “tremendous asset because he knows the players, the institution, and he has credibility.” In reality, he was the ideal foil for a ruthless negotiator like McConnell, who quickly realized that Biden was the administration’s soft underbelly. In December 2010, a government shutdown loomed, while both the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and unemployment insurance looked set to expire. With McConnell happy to hold hostage the nearly fifteen million jobless Americans about to lose their government lifeline, Biden personally called him to make a deal.
That deal ended up so lopsided that it outraged Democrats across the political spectrum. In exchange for keeping unemployment insurance alive for another thirteen months, extending an education tax credit for two more years, and an eleventh-hour stimulus of payroll tax cuts, Biden gave McConnell not just two more years of high-income tax cuts, but a lower estate tax with a higher exemption, new tax write-offs for businesses, and a maximum 15 percent capital gains tax rate locked in for two years. At one point, Biden’s team had even considered dropping the poorest Americans from the Obama stimulus payments of $400 a year, reversing course at the objections of a Treasury economist who called the idea “immoral.”
House Democrats were furious at both the estate tax provision and the Bush tax cut extension, partly because, according to journalist Bob Woodward, Biden hadn’t mentioned the extension was on the table when he briefed Democratic leaders during the talks. Disappointment extended to even the party’s more conservative members, with Dianne Feinstein telling Biden she was “staggered by the enormity of this package.” Three senators interrupted Biden as he tried to present the Obama-backed deal at a private luncheon — among them Bernie Sanders, who had ascended to the upper chamber in 2007. Asserting that “the American people are prepared for a fight,” Sanders vowed to “do everything I can to defeat this proposal,” launching an eight-hour filibuster in which he railed against the concentration of wealth and economic inequality that had crystallized over the last three decades and ramped up under Bush. But enough Democrats eventually capitulated, with some grumbling, for the deal to pass. Three months later, Biden was flattering McConnell in Kentucky, telling an audience that the political elite fundamentally agreed on the issues and that “the process worked.”
With Democrats losing the House and eventually the Senate, this was only the beginning. From there on, every time the debt limit or prospect of government shutdown forced another political hostage crisis, McConnell would make a beeline for Biden, hoping to avoid negotiations with then–Majority Leader Harry Reid, his Senate counterpart. Biden had the full backing of Obama, who by that point, under pressure from the GOP and hoping to still record some Beltway accomplishments, had pivoted to doing what Republicans and Biden had been proposing for decades: making a bipartisan “grand bargain” to tackle deficits, including cuts to Social Security and Medicare, something Obama had pledged before he was even inaugurated to “spend some political capital on.”
In 2011, with the looming debt ceiling this time the bargaining chip for a GOP militantly opposed to any tax hikes, Biden once more sat at the negotiating table. As his “opening bid,” Biden offered cutting $4 trillion in spending over ten years, with a three-to-one proportion of cuts to new revenue, before later proposing $2 trillion in cuts to general spending, federal retirement funds, Medicare and Medicaid, and, at the GOP’s urging, food stamps. To put this in perspective, the post-9/11 wars that Biden had backed would total $6.4 trillion by 2020. At one point, to the confusion and horror of a fellow Democratic negotiator, Maryland representative Chris Van Hollen, he suddenly called for $200 billion more in cuts that had never even been discussed.
Later still, Biden dangled the possibility of Medicare cuts in return for new taxes, before suggesting Democrats might be comfortable raising the eligibility age for entitlements, imposing means testing, and changing the consumer price index calculation — all of which, in practice, either undermined or acted as a stealth cut to Social Security, perhaps the New Deal’s towering achievement. Echoing Republican talking points, he called the Medicare provider tax a “scam.” When Biden’s team reminded him that doing away with it would force states to cut services to the poor, he replied that “we’re going to do lots of hard things” and so “we might as well do this.” As negotiations went on, Biden offered more and more extreme entitlement cuts before exasperatedly admitting he had caved on everything. “All the major things we’re interested in we’ve given up. So basically you’ve pushed us to the limit,” he told McConnell.
Just as Clinton’s tryst with Lewinsky killed a cross-party deal to “reform” Social Security in the 1990s, working Americans were only saved thanks to the intransigence of a GOP that refused to give any ground. But Biden would get several more chances.
In late 2012, with Obama reelected and the Bush tax cuts expiring, the Democrats held the leverage. Reid was now ready to go over the cliff, let all the tax cuts expire, and bargain with Republicans over allowing them to remain in place just for the middle class and poor. McConnell, knowing the GOP would get the blame, indicated he was ready to accept the deal. But he had one last trump card: the vice president, who he phoned directly on Air Force Two to inform him that Reid was being unreasonable. Yet again, Biden gave McConnell everything he wanted; yet again, Democrats reacted in fury. Biden called members of Congress individually, offering a trademark long-winded monologue imploring them to trust him, a pitch he himself summarized as “This is Joe Biden and I’m your buddy.”
With Obama backing the deal, the federal government lost trillions of dollars in revenue from the reinstituted Bush tax cuts. It would get around $600 billion in all, $200 billion less than the Republican House speaker had initially promised, and ultimately even less once Republicans passed a tax cut under Trump in 2017. Biden hadn’t even extracted the authority to raise the debt ceiling from McConnell, leaving the door open for more Republican blackmail. Meanwhile, the super-rich pocketed the windfall, further widening wealth inequality and, more alarmingly, growing their power to push a political system now totally overrun by money further right. Even centrist Democrats shook their heads at the White House’s inability to win while holding all the cards, openly grumbling about its failure. Reid told the White House not to let Biden negotiate with McConnell anymore.
But Biden would assist the White House in one last betrayal. In December 2014, with Republicans now controlling both houses of Congress and a potential second government shutdown in sight, Obama, Biden, and the GOP banded together to go around the Democratic leadership and whip votes for a $1.1 trillion spending bill packed with Republican goodies: further erosion of campaign finance restrictions, cuts to a nutrition program for low-income mothers and children, more than $400 billion worth of jet fighters the Pentagon didn’t even want, and, perhaps most notorious, a provision written by — who else? — Citigroup lobbyists that weakened Obama’s own 2010 financial reform.
With Biden and Obama lobbying, fifty-seven Democrats in the House and thirty-one in the Senate voted to pass the bill. Elizabeth Warren, by now a senator herself and only one month removed from having been elevated to a leadership position in the party tasking her with outreach to progressive activists, denounced this as a “giveaway to the most powerful banks in the country.”
Setting the World Ablaze
It was on foreign policy, however, that Biden received the freest rein to operate. Obama appeared to genuinely trust Biden on the subject, regularly seeking his advice during the Democratic primaries and offering him the position of secretary of state when he initially declined the vice presidency. Obama instead gave that post to Clinton after Biden himself recommended her, viewing her foreign policy outlook as similar to his own. Obama had put his administration’s foreign policy in the hands of two people whom he had rightly accused in an early primary debate of helping to “engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation.”
Biden, who arguably more than any Democrat had created the crisis in Iraq, was inexplicably tasked by Obama with solving it. At first, that meant intervening on behalf of Western businesses, urging Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki not to charge international oil companies exorbitant prices for the right to tap the country’s oil reserves when contracts came up for auction again.
When the 2010 Iraqi elections left both Maliki, who was alienating Iraqis with his increasingly sectarian and authoritarian rule, and his leading opponent, one with a nonsectarian base, without a parliamentary majority, Biden was at a crossroads. Hoping to get a stable Iraqi government in place before the 2010 midterms as well as to ensure US troops’ continued presence in the country past 2010, Biden was persuaded that Maliki was the one to do the job, despite pleas from regional experts and top US officials alike not to back what increasingly looked like a strongman.
After staying in power with US support, Maliki returned the favor by refusing to authorize the continued US presence in Iraq, forcing Obama in 2011 to finally meet his campaign promise of leaving Iraq, which he and Biden spun for the media as a voluntary withdrawal. Now firmly ensconced in power, Maliki created a Shia-dominated sectarian government that allied with Shia militias and persecuted Iraq’s Sunni minority, creating an opening for ISIS, a terrorist group formed from the remnants of al-Qaeda and former Baathists, with horrific consequences.
In an unexpected twist, Biden ended up being one of the less aggressive members of Obama’s cabinet. He opposed a 40,000-strong troop surge in Afghanistan, the arming of rebels once civil war broke out in Syria, and, perhaps most crucially, the NATO-led war in Libya. Pushed primarily by Clinton, that conflict would end up a foreign policy disaster almost on the scale of Iraq, creating an anarchic power vacuum that allowed extremists to proliferate, open-air slave markets to thrive, and instability to spread well beyond its borders.
But Biden did have one major influence. His alternative to the surge in Afghanistan, what he termed “counterterrorism plus,” ultimately became the Obama administration’s overall approach to the “war on terror.” Rather than sending in American forces and engaging in nation-building — a costly and unpopular strategy, particularly once more and more young Americans were inevitably sent home in flag-draped coffins — the US would instead step up “surgical” tactics, like sending in Special Forces and bombing countries via drones.
Using this strategy, the “war on terror” that Bush had launched to liberal derision had dramatically expanded by the end of Obama’s two terms, with the US military bombing seven different Muslim-majority countries, stretching from the Middle East to North Africa, with no declaration of war. Far from “surgical,” drone strikes would kill hundreds of these countries’ civilians over the course of eight years — farmers, funerals, a wedding party, and even a sixteen-year-old American citizen who happened to be the son of an accused terrorist. Having improved the United States’ standing in the Arab world simply by winning office, Obama saw it plunge back into the doldrums, with “counterterrorism plus” fueling the same anti-American anger that had led to attacks like September 11 in the first place.
Closer to home, the Obama administration grappled with a migrant crisis whose roots lay in US foreign policy. There remained the ongoing question of what to do with the nation’s sizeable population of undocumented immigrants, whose numbers grew with the steady stream of arrivals at the southern border. This escalated during Obama’s second term, when large numbers of people, the majority from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, fled violence and desperation in their home countries, journeyed through Mexico, and reached the US border, many of them applying for asylum. In both cases, the administration took a harsh, unforgiving approach.
The crisis had been partly caused by Biden and would now be fueled by him again. He had been “one of the architects” of the Clinton-era Plan Colombia, which he had viewed at the time as a way to internationalize the “war on drugs.” In practice, the scheme did more to open up the country to foreign investment than to stem the flow of drugs, while the increased investment in security forces that came attached to US funding fueled breathtaking state violence in the country: 1.8 million people displaced in three years and 3,000 innocent people killed.
Obama thought this a sufficiently impressive record to charge Biden with spearheading his response to the migrant crisis: the Alliance for Prosperity, a plan that promised financial incentives to Central American states in return for stepping up deportations and border militarization. Those incentives advanced privatization, free trade zones with special regulatory carve-outs for foreign investors, and the creation of logistics corridors for the movement of goods and new infrastructure, such as a new gas pipeline that opened up markets for US exporters. Ironically, these policies were set to perpetuate the very economic and environmental conditions that led migrants to flee the region, and peasants, indigenous people, and environmental activists to protest and, sometimes, die over.
While the vast majority of the investment would come from home countries, the United States was on the hook for $1 billion per year over five years. Though the amount of aid fell far short of this, the program became known as “Biden’s billion,” with the vice president making a public push for the scheme to hand $100 million more to abusive security forces that Congress members were, at that very time, trying to bar from military aid programs because of their records of human rights violations.
After driving a surge of migrants from their home countries with policies like these, the administration then brutalized them upon their arrival at the US border, largely thanks to powers that Biden and the rest of the Democrats had voted to create in the 1990s. In an atmosphere of anti-immigrant fervor that took hold of the country that decade — and driven in large part by the overcrowded prisons that Biden’s 1980s drug and crime bills had created — Republicans and Democrats, including Biden and many of the party’s other leading lights, joined hands to give the government an array of powers to deal harshly with both documented and undocumented immigrants. Biden’s 1994 crime bill as well as his votes for the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, welfare reform, the Patriot Act, and, most significantly, the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, enshrined into law powers that immigrant rights advocates and civil libertarians denounced: mandatory and indefinite detention of immigrants convicted of even minor drug crimes, fast-track deportations and restrictions on government help for immigrants, and broader definitions of the kinds of crimes even legal residents could be deported for.
It was this deportation machine that fell into Obama’s hands upon becoming president, and he used it — to the disappointment and outrage of his Latino supporters — to deport unprecedented numbers of immigrants, breaking apart families and detaining even children in cages and other deplorable conditions. Biden would be on the front lines, boasting in 2014 of “enhancing the enforcement and removal proceedings” of migrants as large numbers of children and others fleeing violence in Central America looked for sanctuary in the United States.
Careful not to appear “soft” on immigration as the GOP increasingly used the issue to rile up its base and attack Obama, Biden warned those making the trip from Central America to “be aware of what awaits them.” “It will not be open arms,” he said. Indeed, according to a 2014 lawsuit filed by the ACLU, migrant children were deprived of medical treatment, shackled, sexually abused, and forced to drink toilet water by border agents. Within three years, this architecture would fall into the hands of a very different president.
The 2016 Election
What ultimately transpired in November 2016, as Obama prepared to calmly hand the presidency to his designated successor, took almost everyone by surprise: world leaders, pundits, even voters themselves. But it probably shouldn’t have.
Biden and the brand of liberal politics that he and much of the Democratic Party had pursued for decades created the ideal set of circumstances for a right-wing populist to come to power. The neoliberal consensus he had championed, with Bill Clinton perhaps its ideal and Obama its last viable proponent, could only hold so long. This was not a trend unique to the United States; countries with similarly triangulating liberal parties saw voters dramatically reject their respective political establishments around the same time, with Britain’s 2016 Brexit vote just one example.
Biden had been thinking about a third tilt at the presidency since at least as far back as 2011, when a top Obama aide was forced to dress him down for holding strategy meetings about an impending run. Running for president was, after all, what vice presidents did.
But Biden demurred. Obama and virtually the entire party establishment were behind Clinton, the candidate who was “supposed” to have won in 2008. Those primaries were a wide-open race, with a gaggle of Democrats, both known and obscure, going for gold. The 2016 field had only five candidates, and even these would be whittled down to two soon enough. In the end, Bernie Sanders — the supposedly unelectable Vermont socialist who had spun his political transformation of the state’s biggest city into the longest run an independent officeholder had ever had at the national level — dared to carry through a challenge against the political order represented by Biden and Clinton.
There was another factor in Biden’s decision. Personal tragedy had reared its head in Biden’s life once more with the 2015 death of his son Beau, who had survived his mother’s fatal car crash, deployment to Iraq, and a 2010 stroke, rising to become Delaware’s attorney general and eyeing a run for governor before succumbing to brain cancer. Though CNN would leave an empty podium on the stage of the first Democratic debate just in case Biden decided to join the race, the loss was too much. Biden sat out the race. With Clinton guaranteed to win the primary and possibly the general election, any hope of living out his boyhood dream of becoming president vanished.
Or did it? The course of the Democratic primary should have been a tip-off that something was in the air. Clinton — like Biden, a 1990s-era neoliberal Democrat who had embraced every centrist shibboleth and ran yet another cautious, conventional campaign stressing incremental progress — soon found herself battling hard to survive the primaries. Sanders, meanwhile, surged seemingly out of nowhere by doing everything Biden had been telling Democrats for decades not to do: he talked about poverty; rejected big-money fundraising; stressed diplomacy over war; rejected free trade and the free market in favor of bold government intervention; took forthright positions on divisive social issues; and called for a political form of class warfare against the rich for the benefit of the working class. Baffling and frustrating political observers with its success, Sanders’s run, once dispatched, could be written off by a spooked establishment as just another Howard Deanesque fad candidacy that the unruly Democratic base indulged in from time to time.
But then came Donald Trump. A garish, scandal-ridden career criminal and former game show host, Trump even more than Sanders seemed the epitome of every possible rule for what not to do to win an election. Though pandering to the bigotry and intolerance that had long been a thinly veiled undercurrent running through the GOP, Trump also rhetorically rejected what had been Republican politics as usual for decades, criticizing Republican (and Democratic) wars, opposing free trade, attacking the wealthy elite he himself was a part of, pledging to protect entitlements, and calling for state intervention in the economy to help ordinary working Americans.
But that was the GOP, after all. Those people are crazy. Trump may have won the Republican nomination with a shambolic, offensive campaign that seemed perpetually teetering on the brink of collapse, but there was no way he would win the general election. Whether Republican or Democrat, a nominee courted the party base in the primary, then moderated their views in the general; everyone knew that. While Clinton did everything a candidate was supposed to do — she took the right centrist positions, appealed to bipartisanship and pragmatism, racked up important endorsements, promised a muscular foreign policy, and so on — Trump did everything you weren’t, keeping his heterodox, sometimes grossly offensive political positions while continuing to behave erratically. He launched blatantly hypocritical attacks on Clinton’s tough-on-crime past, her husband’s sexual crimes, her elite connections and corruption, and much else. Who on Earth would vote this man in?
It turned out that virtually everyone had overestimated how motivated Democratic voters would be to turn out against Trump. While Obama had defied a struggling economy and his own pursuit of austerity to win reelection in 2012 largely on the back of his popularity among young and minority voters, Obama couldn’t hand this coalition to Clinton. With two historically unpopular candidates, an uneven economic recovery that bypassed large swaths of the country, and Clinton determined to run yet another unambitious centrist Democratic campaign that by the end focused overwhelmingly on Trump’s personality, his lack of fitness for office, and his ultimately nonexistent ties to the Kremlin, voters again stayed home. After climbing steadily for twenty years, black voter turnout sharply dropped from its record high of 66.6 percent in 2012.
“I don’t feel bad,” one African American barber from Milwaukee told a New York Times reporter after the result came in. “Both of them were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway.”