The hour is too early and several races are too close to call, but nonetheless a picture is starting to emerge from the election-night haze. Given what we know already, a Joe Biden presidential victory is likely, as is Republican retention of control in the Senate. To reiterate, this isn’t the guaranteed outcome — nothing is certain yet. But it’s still worth pausing for a moment to consider what it might look like, if only so the Left knows as early as possible what to prepare for.
When President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden came into office in 2008, the Democratic Party had control of the executive branch and both chambers of the legislature. Despite having demonstrated a willingness to play ball with elites and power brokers early in his career, Obama had cultivated a reputation on the campaign trail as a crusader for change, which proved popular with voters. The avowedly centrist Biden, who had long voiced his objection to “class warfare and populism,” was brought onto the ticket to soften this image. And so the moderate administration proceeded to squander the opportunities afforded by Democratic control over both the White House and Congress.
Given this history alone, we have every reason to doubt that if Biden wins the presidency and the Democrats nail down both the House and the Senate, the Democratic Party leadership with Biden at the helm will pursue any ambitious reforms — at least not without massive popular pressure compelling them to take ambitious action for electoral reasons, signs the party establishment still might miss or ignore on account of its corporate enmeshment and general inertia.
But if Biden wins and the Republicans remain in control of the Senate, the administration will be even more inert. There will be an institutional obstacle to action (which isn’t to say a total excuse): a Republican-controlled Senate is not going to pass even minor progressive reforms, much less any ambitious ones. It was only six months ago that Medicare for All, a policy boasting supermajority popular support, was seriously debated in the Democratic Party primary. If Biden comes into office alongside a Senate led by Mitch McConnell, don’t expect to see even a diminished public option.
Speaking of McConnell, Biden is not exactly his longtime nemesis. In fact, during the Obama administration, Biden incensed other Democrats by striking a far-too-generous posture in his negotiations with McConnell, trading away unemployment insurance, agreeing to high-income tax cuts, even gratuitously offering up cuts to Medicare and Social Security (which Biden has proposed or supported many times over his career). In other words, Biden has a long history of giving in to McConnell, without much effort on the latter’s behalf.
Biden has made some populist noises over the course of this campaign, but make no mistake: he’s as establishment as they come. His personal political opinions are not difficult to discern. Biden voted for NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the repeal of Glass-Steagall. He championed Clinton’s welfare reform and coauthored the infamous 1994 crime bill. We should understand that in addition to not being able to lead the party in an effort to get progressive reforms through a GOP-dominated Senate, in many cases Biden will not want to.
To that end, we can expect that any Biden administration will use the partisan power balance of Congress as a perpetual excuse to veer to the right of even Biden’s own campaign platform. We’ll know it’s just an alibi for a lack of political will if, for example, we find that progressive executive orders fail to materialize. Of course, with the economy in crisis and the working class being squeezed from all sides, if a Biden administration drags its feet for the first two years then the Democrats are likely to lose even more ground in the Senate, thus further entrenching the dynamic.
Again, we don’t know for certain at this moment whether Biden will win, or what will shake out in the Senate, so for the moment this remains hypothetical. But if reality looks anything like the scenario described above, the Left needs to get it through our heads that no amount of behind-the-scenes ingratiation to the Biden administration will make a difference.
The Left will need to focus instead on building pressure from the outside, that is, from among the millions of people whose problems will not be solved by a paralyzed Biden administration. It’s a task that will require dedicated organization on the ground, especially in workplaces, and it’s something our high-profile elected officials can help with by using their offices as an agitational platform or bully pulpit. Whatever our specific tactics, one thing is obvious: they’ll need to be developed independently of President Joe Biden.